Saturday, March 12, 2005

RIP Guy Davenport

Though he died January 4 I just now heard about it:

It would be an exaggeration to say that Guy Davenport changed my life but there’s no doubt that his work was a key element in my budding life-beyond-college. I can’t remember how I first heard about him--that’s been a good 25 years ago--but Geography of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form (and later to a lesser extent The Hunter Gracchus) were constant companions. Partly this was Davenport’s style which presented a sort of academic elegance without sniffiness though it’s always seemed a bit eccentric. Though it lacks the loose fire of more popculturally oriented writers, his writing isn’t dull even after second or third readings. (Though I read two or three volumes of Davenport’s stories they were almost uniformly too precious and thin to be of more than trivial interest.) But perhaps more important in the long run was that at that time Davenport’s work connected with other writers that worked--at least on my terms--in the same area: Borges, Greil Marcus, Roger Shattuck, Manny Farber, Dwight Macdonald, H.L. Mencken and a few others. Because all of these saw culture as a vast, interconnected web and were more or less incapable of writing about a novel without drawing in music and movies and politics and art from wherever might be useful. I hesitate to call this “interdisciplinary” because that term has the scent of dogma about it and because most of the interdiscplinary academics I know are anything but. This is still a fairly uncommon approach, or at least one that gets lip service but little else. Out of this ad-hoc group Davenport is clearly the most narrow-minded: It’s hard to imagine him reading Lovecraft or Chandler, for instance, or taking Hawks and Fuller remotely seriously. Then again, could any of the others have written as astutely about Pound? That may be one of the Davenport’s most lasting influences. I first encountered Pound in a class about modern American poets (hi, Hank Lazer) and immediately took to William Carlos Williams and Pound. (I disliked Eliot then and now, took years to appreciate Stevens and admire Frost but have never cared much one way or the other (or even a third).) Williams wasn’t a surprise but Pound? An arrogant, domineering man with vile political views who wrote possibly the most demanding poetry in English? Why should anybody care? Partly it was the poetry which is often undeniably beautiful but there’s also that same way of thinking in webs, that a 14th century Provencal poet absolutely matters today. Of course Pound probably would have dismissed yours and my opinions completely if we didn’t know about such a poet but just because he went to an extreme doesn’t invalidate the path.