Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Knowing Things

About three years before his death in 2005, Guy Davenport wrote an introduction to a collection of photographs, A Palpable Elysium, by his old friend the poet and publisher Jonathan Williams. Since the nineteen-fifties, Williams had traveled the United States and occasionally elsewhere, taking pictures of artists renowned and obscure, from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to Edgar Tolson, a woodcarver from Campton, Ky. One of the charms and shocks of the book is seeing such figures in color. W.C. Williams died in 1963, Pound in 1972, but both, as surely as Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, have remained fixed for me in a permanent black-and-white gallery. You can see a sampling of Williams’ photographs here, including some from A Palpable Elysium.

Others captured by Williams include Thomas Merton, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, R. Buckminster Fuller, Edward Dahlberg, Stevie Smith and two writers I knew and for whom I felt great affection – Davenport (looking professorial) and Paul Metcalf (looking characteristically impish). Both are dead, as are most of Williams’ other subjects. Williams died in his native North Carolina on March 18.

Davenport was the best-educated, best-read, most knowledgeable person I’ve ever known. Within minutes of meeting him at his house in Lexington, Ky., he mentioned having recently learned that Franz Kafka’s eyes were blue. This was news to me and clearly very exciting news to him, and that’s how he shared it: Not like a pedantic know-it-all showing off his command of erudition (or trivia), but like a man who enjoyed knowing things and flattered you by assuming you enjoyed knowing things, too. His only rival in intellectual capaciousness in my experience was another of his old friends, Hugh Kenner, but I only spoke once with Kenner on the telephone. Given his formidable learning, Davenport makes a remarkable admission in his introduction to A Palpable Elysium:

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

Of course, I would say the same of Davenport. He always impressed me, through his books and my personal dealings with him, as a gentle man and a gentleman, someone who lived for pleasure but not of the ravenously hedonistic sort. Rather, for him as for the Greeks he so respected, to live well, to live attentively, to live a fully engaged mental and emotional life, was to live ethically (Oxford English Dictionary: from the Greek for “moral character, nature, disposition, habit, custom”). Here are his next sentences:

“Well, a kind of teacher: the best kind. A good teacher knows things in a way that makes you want to know them too.”

That distills Guy Davenport’s charisma (OED: from the Greek for “favour given, gift of grace”), his special grace: He knew much and that knowledge pleased him. Some hugely learned people appear burdened by their learning. Not Guy. He always gave an impression of lightness and agility. When you came to know him, you wished to know what he knew, and one of the things he knew was the pleasure of a well-stocked mind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"A Palpable Elysium" and Davenport's "Geography of the Imagination" are two of my permanent bedside books. The Elizabeth Bishop collection joined them several weeks ago. Another resident of that shelf is Andre Comte-Sponville's "A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues". He is the author of the recently published "Little Book of Atheist Spirituality", which I recommend to your readers despite the criminal translation of the original title, "L'espirit de l'atheisme".