Sunday, January 04, 2015

`The Surest Teachers of Such Reflection'

“What I’ve learned from him about people and books, poetry and art is so immense that I place him among my best teachers.” 

Guy Davenport is writing of his friend Jonathan Williams in the introduction to the latter’s A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude (David R. Godine, 2002), and he might be writing of himself. Davenport adds: “Well, a kind of teacher: the best kind. A good teacher knows things in a way that makes you want to know them too.” 

Davenport’s essays, poems and stories, are filled with the things he knew and wished to share with readers. Seldom do we sense Davenport is merely showing off his learning. Rather, his writing expresses a generosity of spirit and imagination (a central word in his lexicon). Davenport is a quiet enthusiast of the world who perceives unity in the human enterprise where the lazy see only chaos. Twenty-two of his books are on my shelf. 

Collected in Williams’ book are dozens of photographs he took of artists well known and obscure, including a no-nonsense portrait of Davenport seated at his typewriter in his home on Sayre Avenue in Lexington, Ky. No bohemian, Davenport. He wears a dress shirt and jacket, and might be a claims adjuster or a Methodist minister. Williams writes: 

“What can I tell you about Cousin Guy? Well, for one thing, as a Man of American Letters in these squalid times, he is our best. The Geography of the Imagination [North Point Press, 1981] is a book of essays like few others. You’ll learn things about Hobbits, Whitman, Ezra Pound, Grant Wood, Tchelitchew, Ronald Johnson, and a host of others that you never ever even thought about. It sizzles. It’s damp between the toes.” 

Williams, like any seasoned reader of Davenport, identifies him as writer-as-teacher. In 1983, Davenport wrote the introduction to a reissue of Montaigne’s Travel Journal, later collected in Every Force Evolves a Form (1987). In that essay he writes:

“We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.”

Davenport was born on Nov. 23, 1927, in Anderson, S.C., and died on this date, Jan. 4, in 2005, in Lexington, Ky. The only true way to honor him is to read him.

No comments: