Composition as I understand it must be both a concrete and abstract continuum. It is not enough in a work of art to narrate; the narration must be made of words that constitute an inner and invisible harmony. The blossoms on the cherry, lyric white and as beautiful a sign as nature gives, must also be seen as a thousand new cherry trees in potential, as a variant statement of the logos tree . . . (from the essay Ernst Machs Max Ernst)
Davenport is a guru of sorts, the best kind, the kind unhindered by ego; he is a teacher by disposition and profession, but it’s all about the journey not the guide. He’s a literary guide through the storied realms of creativity and experience in which we make meaning, find joy, grieve, cope, hope, and I cannot say it better than this, from the back cover: “There is no way to prepare yourself for reading Guy Davenport. You stand in awe before his knowledge of the archaic and his knowledge of the modern. Even more, you stand in awe of the connections he can make between the archaic and the modern; he makes the remote familiar and the familiar fundamental.” (L.A. Times Book Review)
Davenport is all about connections, by which he maps metaphorical landscapes that become a geography of imagination. Sounds deeply intellectual and is, but he’s readable and personable and entertaining, with an endearing and sometimes wicked sense of humor. I can't believe I'm just now reading him, and I'm looking forward to more.
Were he not a lauded academic and writer I get the feeling he’d do what he does for pleasure alone, compelled by his many fascinations and enthusiasms. Here they add up to 40 essays, the focus being mostly literary, featuring the stars of his canon, who include Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Jonathan Williams, Ronald Johnson, James Joyce, and Eudora Welty, a couple of them being brand new to me.
But that’s not all, folks. There’s art and music and history, and personal stories that by turns brought David Sedaris and Gerald Durrell to mind, in rocking chairs on a front porch. Threads criss-cross as if at random while weaving a thematic whole, the yarns being so numerous that not all interested me, but mostly I was rapt. My favorite is probably the essay called Finding
, about his boyhood in South Carolina, circa 1940.
Every Sunday afternoon of my childhood, once the tediousness of Sunday school and the appalling boredom of church were over with, corrosions of the spirit easily salved by the roast beef, macaroni pie, and peach cobbler that followed them, my father loaded us all into the Essex, later the Packard, and headed out to look for Indian arrows. That was the phrase, "to look for Indian arrows." . . . We were a foraging family, completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find. I collected stamps, buttons, the cards that came with chewing gum, and other detritus, but these were private affairs with nothing of the authority of looking for Indian arrowheads . . . Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking . . . I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons.
As noted in a previous status update, you can tell a lot about how well a person understands and loves you by the books they give you. A dear friend gave me a first edition copy of this that I will cherish and no doubt re-read, but first I'm going to sample Davenport's short stories.