Sunday, August 26, 2012

`An Enormous Hodge-Podge'

I’m just catching up with “One Last Modernist,” an appreciation of Guy Davenport published last year by Mark Scroggins in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (Vol. 33). Most of our values and tastes in literature are wildly divergent (he prizes Pound and has published an excellent biography of Louis Zukofsky) but they converge in Davenport. When Scroggins writes of the three essay collections, “Aside from their consistently alert style—Davenport loathes an inert sentence the way my kids loathe unfamiliar vegetables—what most distinguishes these essays is their abundance of rich and strange detail,” he echoes my experience with them across some thirty-five years. Davenport is among those writers we take personally, and commit to memory how we first encountered them. For Scroggins, it was a professor who gave him The Geography of the Imagination (1981), saying, “I think you’ll be interested in some of these essays.” Inside he found “riches and provocations,” and for him the book has become, in a phrase I could sign my name to, “a kind of reading list, an enormous hodge-podge of tantalizing suggestions about people to look into.” 

To Davenport’s enthusiasm I owe my first reading of, among many others, Ruskin, Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf and Charles Doughty, my first exposure to the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and films of Stan Brakhage, and a revived attention paid to Beckett, Welty, Robert Burton, Montaigne and Mandelstam; what Scroggins calls “an entire curriculum in twentieth-century authors, painters, and artists of whom I’d never heard, and who are still for the most part only rarely mentioned in college classrooms.” The point is crucial. We can no longer rely on schools for education. Only the most adventuresome students will overcome the bland entropy of teachers and curriculum. More than ever we need bravely literate teachers, inside and outside the classroom. Davenport, who taught at the University of Kentucky for three decades, was ever the teacher, in his fiction and essays and in the dozens of letters he wrote to me, one among his hundreds of correspondents. On Saturday, the rare well-read blogger Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti wrote about reading Davenport’s third essay collection, The Hunter Gracchus (1996). He quotes a wonderful passage in "On Reading," one Scroggins also quotes and that I quote here: 

“I can therefore report that the nine years of elementary schooling, four of undergraduate, and eight of graduate study were technically games of futility. If, now, I had at my disposal as a teacher only what I learned from the formalities of education, I could not possibly be a university professor. I wouldn't know anything.”

Two Hebrew titles of respect I associate with Davenport – reb and tzadik. Scroggins uses the latter:

“One evening he told me, with some pride, of an Orthodox Jewish correspondent who wanted to drop by, but whose only free day fell on Shabbat. The visitor talked it over with his rabbi, describing Guy's writings, artworks, and general view of the world, and they agreed that the interdict on Sabbath travel could be waived just this once: After all, it was obvious that this Davenport was a true tzadik.”

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