Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guy Davenport’s Letters

Joist and Brace


One is drench’d
with the shill
personificatory restlessness of
a volatile woofer
who practices nightly
a bridge between
Order and Disorder,
or is caught
up and beshat
by a clampdown,
sign of state
insecurity. One is
a shakedown cruise
artist, a bunco
bum, “truckling, servile,
with no fall-
back mode besides
cheek. One is
an empiricist’s fudge.
One is monopthonging
a way up
that dippy brat
in the thong.
One is djinn
material out to
lunch. One is
a shank-wielder
in a dumpster,
maestro of mayhem.
One is at
the till imbibing
scorn soup. One
dock’d between civil
admonitory wit and
its residuum clarity.

One readerly companion notify’d me recently that a third selection of Guy Davenport’s letters (after the 2004 Thomas Meyer-edited A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, publish’d by Green Shade, containing an exchange between Davenport and Jonathan Williams, and the 2007 W. C. Bamberger-edited Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, out of W.W. Norton) had appear’d in the Winter 2006 issue of Arion. So I dug it out, found it a sprightly selection of letters address’d to Nicholas Kilmer present’d in lieu of an “appreciation.” The first letter, its gist, and identificatory detail:
      So the translator of those rime of Petrarca is the grandson of Joyce Kilmer! And you’re bringing out a Ronsard. Genius, they say, skips a generation, though it’s unfair to say that, as I know nothing about your father. James Joyce’s grandson Stephen is an actor in a TV soap opera, but Pound’s granddaughter Patrizia has turned poet.
      I’m relieved that you approve of the Op Ed essay. I wrote it because I’d found that sentence of Margaret McMillan’s, which—surely—Joyce Kilmer was unconsciously remembering when he wrote the famous lines. My theory of poetry starts from the audience, as intended or the one that responds: I began figuring this out when I noticed that Whitman did two elegies for Lincoln, a rhymed one for school children and the great “When Lilacs Last” ode. Conversely, I think we may recognize the power of a poem by its popularity. I also like the Statue of Liberty as a piece of sculpture.
      Has JK’s literary criticism been collected? That period of American poetry is now antique enough to have acquired tone. It is, God knows as compared to the slither and dribble we’re getting nowadays, well written and has a coherent intellectual history. Granpa was quite right to see that Vachel Lindsay was a sincere artist. Verbal Art Nouveau, I would say.
That in 1978. The spark being Davenport’s New York Times piece call’d “Yes, ‘Trees’ Is Popular with the Rotarians, Yes, It’s Vulnerable. But, Then . . .,” later collect’d in The Geography of the Imagination under the title, “Trees.” As Nicholas Kilmer notes in Arion: “The essay, in the course of a mediation on the staying power of a mild poem, disclosed the probable source for the thesis (not yet discredited as of this writing) advanced in Joyce Kilmer’s final couplet: a sentence in Margaret McMillan’s book Labour and Childhood (1907), ‘Apparatus can be made by fools, but only God can make a tree.’” The essay begins in Davenport’s inimitably anecdotal way (in a later letter-fragment, Davenport talks about “kerygma, which is how you tell things when you’re feeling good” and uses the example of Jesus walking on water, “a whopper told by somebody trying to say how wonderful Jesus was”):
In June, 1918, the Cincinnati poet Eloise Robinson was in the wasteland of Picardy handing out chocolate and reciting poetry to the American Expeditionary Forces. Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems. In the middle of one poem the poet’s memory flagged. She apologized profusely, for the poem, as she explained, was immensely popular back home. Whereupon a sergeant held up his hand, as if in school, and volunteered to recite it. And did.
That’s Davenport’s kerygma, working like a mojo. I am astonish’d by the throwaway (throwing off) of ideas, whole unfrugal theories anybody without the genius’d plod off grinning with like a dog with a hamhock, in Davenport’s merest slips of letters, not even considering the thrill of rapid-fire “factuals.” (He says, a little complainingly: “How can I shake and dispel the awful reputation of being an “erudite” writer? I’m about as erudite as a traffic cop. I like to know things; what’s so two-headed peculiar about that?”) That off-the-cuff remark about how poetry “starts from the audience”—isn’t that exact kin to the yammering of the Language boys about how they’s a “provisional” social enterprise responding to, practicing, affiliating, making whoopee (and gossip) within a particular “alternative system”—social text shenanigans that is no different (beyond say-so) to any other historical “movement” (or not)? The difference: Davenport’s slight tongue-in-cheekiness (suggesting it’s not so simple, and no place, certainly, to bunker down in or construct an immoveable mountain “fastness”)—the world is too big for it.

So off I went to pursue Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Zelda-biographer Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty. (Zelda, whom I model’d my daredevil youth of dashing myself naked and drunk off cliffs into black liquid pools of water—the Ithaca reservoir—on.) (Milford, who admits that the biographer “requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse.” “Virginia Woolf called it ‘donkeywork.’”) (Millay, of whom “Thomas Hardy once said there were really only two great things in the United States, the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.” “She marched for Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and was arrested for protesting their death sentence, a protest she took all the way to the governor of Massachusetts.” “In the heart of the Depression her collection of sonnets Fatal Interview sold 35,000 copies within the first few weeks of its publication.”)

Guy Davenport, 1965
(Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard)