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Reflections on Guy Davenport’s Poetics

Marjorie Perloff


Again and again, in the essays collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), Guy Davenport refers to a “renaissance” taking place “around 1910″. The clearest statement comes in the essay called “Narrative Tone and Form”, reprinted from the Guy Davenport-Ronald Johnson issue (1976) of Vort, that remarkable journal founded and edited by Barry Alpert. Davenport writes:

Our age is unlike any other in that its greatest works of art were constructed in one spirit and received in another.

There was a Renaissance around 1910 in which the nature of all the arts changed. By 1916 this springtime was blighted by the World War, the tragic effects of which cannot be overestimated. Nor can any understanding be achieved of twentieth-century art if the work under consideration is not kept against the background of the war which extinguished European culture. . . . Accuracy in such matters being impossible, we can say nevertheless that the brilliant experimental period in twentieth-century art was stopped short in 1916. Charles Ives had written his best music by then; Picasso had become Picasso; Pound, Pound; Joyce, Joyce. Except for individual talents, already in development before 1916, moving on to full maturity, the century was over in its sixteenth year. Because of this collapse (which may yet prove to be a long interruption), the architectonic masters of our time have suffered critical neglect or abuse, and if admired are admired for anything but the structural innovations of their work.

This is vintage Davenport: the mix of remarkable precision — names and dates—with large-scale generalization, of historic pinpointing with evaluative conclusion. A similar point is made in “The Pound Vortex” (1972), where Davenport declares: “What we call the twentieth century ended in 1915. Those artists who survived the collapse of civilization at that point completed the work they had planned before then, when the looked forward to a century of completely different character” (GI 166). And again the roll call of names includes Pound and Joyce, this time along with those killed in or because of the war: the Polish-French sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska, the Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia, the French poet Apollinaire and novelist Alain-Fournier.

What does it mean to say “the century was over in its sixteenth year,” that after 1915, there was no more significant artistic innovation? True, Davenport clarifies things for us somewhat in the lead essay of The Georgraphy of the Imagination, “The Symbol of the Archaic,” which declares that the “renaissance of 1910” was “a renaissance of the archaic,” (GI 20). Here and elsewhere, Davenport writes trenchantly of the discovery of the Lascaux and Dordogne caves, of the turn to Heracleitus and Sappho, both of whom he had translated, and of the red-stone Kouros that became Picasso’s touchstone even as the Hellenistic Laocoon had, in an earlier Renaissance, been Michelangelo’s. “What is most modern in our time,” writes Davenport, “frequently turns out to be the most archaic. The sculpture of Brancusi belongs to the art of the Cyclades in the ninth century B.C.,” and “there is nothing quite so modern as a page of any of the pre-Socratic physicists, where science and poetry are still the same thing and where the modern mind feels a kinship it no longer has with Aquinas or even Newton” (GI 21). “The heart of the modern taste for the archaic,” Davenport quips, “is precisely the opposite of the Romantic feeling for ruins” (GI 22). For whereas the Romantics longed for the survival of a still visible past, the Modernists were stimulated by a past that no one hitherto had known existed—like the cave drawings at Lascaux and Altamira—and that might thenceforth inhabit the same plane as Picasso’s cubist forms. As for poets, the great inventor of the archaic was, in Davenport’s view, Ezra Pound, whose “daedalian art” produces a “golden honeycomb,” in which the Homeric gods, the Eleusian mysteries, the earliest Chinese sages and poets, and Pound’s own friends and enemies inhabit one and the same cosmos.

But even when we have read Davenport’s fascinating discussion of the invention of the archaic as the central ethos of Modernism, it may not be quite clear to readers how the Great War destroyed that invention in one fell swoop. Here we must, I think, look to the Russian avant-garde, which Davenport was one of the first Anglo-American critics to recognize and understand. His remarkable recreation in one of his first stories, “Tatlin!” of the life of the brllliant sculptor, along with his fellow artists like Larionov, against the backdrop of the Russian revolution, sets the stage for Davenport’s understanding of this avant-garde, as do such comments as the following about Khlebnikov and Tatlin in “The Symbol of the Archaic”:

While Joyce was discovering how to make a Heraclitean circle of modern and the archaic, joining the end to the beginning, Velimir Khlebnikov in Russia was making a similar fusion of old nd new, opening words etymologically, reviving Old Russian, and treating themes from folklore, all in the name of he most revolutionary modernity. His friend Vladimir Tatlin, who liked to call himself the Khlebnikov of constructivist art, spent years trying to build and fly Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter. (GI 23-24)

Between 1910 and into the first two years of the war, the Russian avant-gardists, most of them young men of working-class origin from the provinces who were trained as scientists and mathematicians and came to Moscow and Petersburg to reinvent art, were convinced that their treatment of the Fourth Dimension, of non-Euclidean geometry, and especially of the imagery of flight, would absolutely transform the world. In this context, the Great War, whose horrors were by no means anticipated in Russia any more than in the Italy of Sant’Elia or the England where Pound was working on the Fenollosa manuscripts, was not just an interruption or distraction: it called into question the very foundations of avant-garde thinking. What, for example, could Delaunay’s Homage to Blériot signify when the airplane was suddenly being used to drop bombs—a question eerily anticipated by Kafka in his early sketch, The Aeroplanes of Brescia, which was to become the kernel of Davenport’s own story by that name.

“The greatest works of art,” remarks Davenport, “were constructed in one spirit and received in another”? Having found their own styles, Modernist writers like Joyce and Pound carry on the lessons absorbed in their early work—the use of assemblage rather than linear narrative, the ideogrammic method, spatial form, the Flaubertian mot juste. Pound—Persephone’s Ezra as Davenport calls him in the title of one of his best essays—reinvents the archaic at every turn, the very first Canto, “a translation of the most archaic part of the Odyssey: the descent of Odysses into Hades,” as rendered by “the first Renaissance translation of Homer,” and written in the “archaic English” of the Old English four-stress line found in The Wanderer and The Seafarer (GI 22-23). But by the twenties, innovation itself, the victim of the war, was over: Davenport praises the Surrealist verbal-visual artist Max Ernst, who, “like Joyce, discovered that quotation can be eloquent beyond its original statement, and can release meanings concealed in the original. Ernst discloses a nightmare presence in vernacular advertisements and illustrations” (GI 379), and he understands that “Surrealism need not be Freudian; the raw, unexplained dream still has its power” (GI 378). But, although he doesn’t say so, Davenport clearly takes Ernst to be more disseminator of than inventor. The War ended the Utopian phase of Modernism—the phase when anything seemed possible like Sant’Elia’s Città futurista or the Khlebnikov-Malevich Victory over the Sun. The War represents Adam’s eating of the apple proffered by Eve: it marks the end of a hoped for twentieth-century innocence, a lost Utopian power. After 1918, art could do no more than to mourn for that loss and carry on the revolution of 1910 as best as possible.

Not everyone will agree with this narrative: there will always be readers who prefer Eliot’s Waste Land to Prufrock and think Four Quartets is superior to both. Or again, those who take Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) to represent a deepening of the fictional art that began with A Voyage Out (1915). And so on. Yet the theory of Modernism as invention, break-through, rupture—a rupture that still governs our art productions—makes for exciting—even brilliant—reading, Davenport’s fictions from “Tatlin” (1970) to “The Cardiff Team” (1996), blending readily with his “non-fictional” essays to produce a larger set of assemblages that define the ethos of Modernism, as seen, ironically, from the vantage point of a Postmodernist writer, whose artwork in particular is closer to postmodern pastiche than to the Cubist or abstract compositions that evidently were their models.

Indeed, Davenport’s aesthetic, with its particular blend of Modernist value and a disillusioned, shall we say, twenty-first century historiography and geographical perspective. is never merely a reversion to Pound’s “Make it New!” Consider Davenport’s most time-consuming literary activity—his book reviewing. Most notable critics of Modernism and Postmodernism—Fredric Jameson, Harold Bloom, Julia Kristeva, Gayatri Spivak—rarely write book reviews, no doubt because these critics take the review to be a deviation from the central concerns that animate their own large-scale projects. There are exceptions, especially such British critics as Frank Kermode and Denis Donoghue—critics who do like to weigh in on the issues of the day and take reviewing very seriously. But Davenport’s case is different from either of the above because, as he tells Barry Alpert in the Vort interview, “I have never written a critical article that wasn’t asked for. It’s all by assignment; I think this is perfectly legitimate.”

A surprising statement, this, for a writer whose real passion is so clearly for his own fiction and art work, who is known as an important translator of Greek texts, and who has been a busy university teacher his entire adult life. Where, in a given day or week, is there time for reviewing—reviewing, moreover, whatever happens to be assigned or at least assignable? To make things even stranger, Davenport, himself very much a liberal, wrote more reviews for the conservative National Review than for any other single periodical, with the New York Times Book Review a close second. “I didn’t like their politics,” Davenport says of the National Review for which he reviewed almost weekly for the eleven years between 1962 and ‘73, “But Bill Buckley is a gentleman and my immediate editor, Frank Meyer, was a splendid intellectual, a gentleman, and eventually a stimulating friend” (Vort 14).

“How,” asks Alpert, “were the books you reviewed for The National Review assigned?” Davenport explains:

The editor would call up and read the titles of all the books that had come into him. I would choose from those a group of books which would be sent me and from those I normally would choose three or two or one. We like to work in groups of three. Book reviewing is a wonderful encounter. It involves the accidental. . . . It also involves far more work than the reader outside can see. . . . That is, I don’t believe that you can review a book in isolation. It belongs in a context and it has a history behind it. (Vort 13-14)

As his own fictions gained a wider audience in the 1980s and 90s, Davenport wrote fewer reviews, no doubt because each one was, as he says, so much work. Still, it is interesting that Davenport, by all accounts increasingly a recluse in Lexington, Kentucky, a man who refused to attend conferences or to accept most invitations for guest professorships, declared in the Vort interview that he liked reviewing because “it was fun to be read. People do read book reviews. . . . I also discovered that book reviewing was a nice secret way to write polite essays” (Vort 14).

The “polite essay”–Pound had published a collection by that title in 1937—was the term first used by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the Spectator papers to characterize their new informal essays, aimed at the civilized, urbane bourgeois audience of the early eighteenth century. Davenport’s own “polite essays”—occasional pieces, originally designed as reviews of particular books, whether fiction or biography of scholarship–wear their learning lightly, even as they are not afraid to zero in on some knotty point of information, whether etymological, archeological or a matter of scientific fact. But what is most remarkable about these book reviews turned polite essays, is their range. From scholarly books about Louis Agassiz (Davenport’s dissertation subject) or Marcel Griaule, to new translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer, or Sappho, to a recent edition of Osip Mandelstam’s prose, or a book of the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, there is little of intellectual value published between the 1960s and 2000 that seems to escape Davenport’s notice.

Indeed, it is safe to say that the writing of commissioned book reviews was the basis of Davenport’s poetics and the impetus for his own literary/visual assemblages. In a curious way, it enlarged the very revolution of 1910 that Davenport took to be long over and irrecoverable—at least on its own terms. For in the end, Davenport was captivated by any number of writers, artists, and composers who were by no means among the revolutionaries of the avant guerre. I am thinking especially of Wittgenstein, whom Davenport wrote about briefly but brilliantly in The Geography of the Imagination. Wittgenstein figures in a number of essays as a kind of reinventor of Heraclitus, but Davenport’s most sustained consideration of Wittgenstein comes in a review of the philosopher’s note-card entries collected posthumously in 1967 under the title Zettel. The five-page “polite essay” called “Wittgenstein,” written for the National Review and reprinted in Geography, tries to convey the man’s particular presence:

Philosophy classrooms in our century have frequently been as dramatic as stages: Santayana, Samuel Alexander, Bergson—men of passionate articulateness, whose lectures fell on their students like wind and rain. But Wittgenstein, huddled in silence on his chair, stammered quietly from time to time. He was committed to absolute honesty. Nothing—nothing at all—was to be allowed to escape analysis. He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach. The world was to him an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque meaning of can, of can we, of can we think? What is the meaning of we? What does it mean to ask what is the meaning of swe? If we answer these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday? If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer? (GI 332)

If this tongue-in-cheek account seems casual and chatty, Davenport is in fact making the most careful of distinctions between the grammatical constructions Wittgenstein studied so assiduously. “Wittgenstein,” we read in the essay’s last paragraph, “did not argue; he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems” (GI 335). This might be an auto-portrait of Davenport himself. Let me conclude with the following passage—a terse and ingenious rendition of Wittgenstein’s critique of Heracleitus, in one of the longer and less well-known notebook entries:

“What about the sentence—Wie ist es mit dem Satz—‘’One cannot step into the same river twice?” That Heraclitean perception has always been admired for its hidden second meaning. One cannot step . . .; it is not only the flux of the river that makes the statement true. But is it true? No, Wittgenstein would smile (or glare), but is wise and interesting. It can be examined. It is harmonious and poetic.” (GI 334)

Again, auto-portrait. Literary criticism, literary history: these, Guy Daveport implies, cannot be “true.” But they can be ‘wise and interesting,” “harmonious and poetic.” In this sense, the “revolution of 1910” can still be with us.



Guy Davenport, «Narrative Time and Form,» The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981) p. 314, my emphasis. This collection subsequently cited in the text as GI.

Guy Davenport, «An Interview with Barry Alpert,» Vort 3, no. 3 (1976): 3-17, see p. 4. Subsequently cited as Vort.

See Joan Crane’s invaluable Guy Davenport: A Descriptive Bibliography (Haverford: Green Shade, 1996). Crane lists 62 National Review entries, 39 for the New York Times Book Review, 20 for the Hudson Review. These make up the bulk of The Georgraphy of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form (1987), but it should be noted that Davenport’s venues range from the New York Times and The Washington Post Book World to boundary 2, New Literary History and such arts magazines as Aperture (photography) and The Ballet Review. He reviewed for House and Garden as well as for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and contributed prefaces and introductions to books he admired like Jonathan Williams’s Selected Poems or The Critical Writings of James Joyce.

Guy Davenport’s first published book, based on his Harvard PhD dissertation, was The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).

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