Learning from Lexington:
By Marjorie Perloff
Published in Poetry, July/August 2008
I never met Guy Davenport, but from the mid-seventies, when I first read his dazzling short-story collection Tatlin! (the title story partly inspired my book The Futurist Moment), I’ve been savoring his critical-creative, densely self-illustrated writings. It was a red-letter day, therefore, when, in the spring of 1994, I received a fan letter from Guy, regarding a little autobiographical essay I had written for a Comparative Literature compendium. It was my Viennese background that evidently spoke to the author of those brilliant aphoristic essays on Wittgenstein and Ernst Mach, or the documentary short story about Kafka called “The Airplanes of Brescia.” But Guy’s Europe was also the mythical Europe of Ezra Pound (on whom he had written a brilliant doctoral dissertation Cities on Hills [Harvard 1961] as well as a score of now-classic essays), which encompasses his friend Hugh Kenner’s “Pound Era” but also Modernisms as diverse as the Russian avant-garde and the fictions of the American South (he was born in Anderson, South Carolina). But Guy was never predictable: his favorite novel (“THE book as he called it) was Robinson Crusoe.
As critic, Davenport was part Jamesian pragmatist, part “mystical” language philosopher. Here he is (24 May 1997) on The Cantos:
The Cantos are perfectly simple. Civilization (living in cities) is something that has to be passed on, critically, from generation to generation. The past is its repository. It can be lost in ten minutes, though it is the accumulation of centuries. That’s the plot, and the message.
Ezra was a diffusionist. Cultures have spores. E.g. Hindu “Arabic” Numerals, introduced into Renaissance culture (thank God!), and with them came fractions (algebra).
It’s all common sense, no? And yet what is more mysterious than language? In the first page of the letter cited below—the second of the forty or so I received from Guy over the last decade of his life– he opens, as is his habit, with a drawing—often his own but here a curious 15th century woodcut of Noah’s Ark, juxtaposing men and ducks. I had told Guy I was planning to write about Wittgenstein’s poetics and this is his response.
Casual as it seems, the recognition that Wittgenstein’s view of language had everything to do with not being a native speaker in English is worth a dozen scholarly disquisitions on the Philosophical Investigations. It was because English verb forms were so alien to Wittgenstein that he came to see the immense difficulty of phrases like “put up,” and adumbrated his theory of “use” so as to deal with their myriad possibilities—possibilities no film (e.g. Derek Jarman’s 1993 Wittgenstein) could capture, but which link the Austrian philosopher to another Stein—Gertrude. Later in the letter, Guy comes back to Wittgensteinian definition, comically challenging the Master on the existence of “reddish-green” and relaying the story of Ludwig, AE Housman, and the toilet. No trivia game, this, for it leads to the great aperçu that Santayana was Epicurus to LW’s Herakleitos. And because Guy and I always exchanged jokes about the failures of contemporary education, he concludes with those hilarious references to the “Polynesian” alphabet and World War Eleven.
In his later years, Guy rarely left his home in Lexington (he had taught at the University of Kentucky for forty years). He disliked conferences, symposia, poetry readings, cocktail parties—and especially the travel it took to get to these venues. Never mind: his special mix of discrimination and humor makes his artful collage-letters quite unique. Poker-faced, Guy would write me about “the French critic who explained that ‘Little Gidding’ was an English schoolboy Eliot was in love with,” or again, the Pound scholar “who identifies ‘Fordie’ as Henry, and Duccio as the late Italian dictator.” Writing, for Davenport, was its own best pleasure. And, in any case, he quipped, writing poetry is much easier than reading it.