Robert Kelly and David Levi Strauss on Guy Davenport (1927—2005)
The essayist and fiction writer Guy Davenport died just after the first of the year, at age 77. On an afternoon in May, Robert Kelly came over from Bard to “my side of the river,” to High Falls, and we sat down to discuss Davenport’s life and works.
—David Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss (Rail): Guy Davenport’s book of essays The Geography of the Imagination appeared in 1981, at the height of the Poetics Program at New College in San Francisco, where I was then studying with Robert Duncan, Diane di Prima, David Meltzer, Duncan McNaughton, Michael Palmer, and other poets. The book came as a revelation to me. Here was someone who wrote on many of the poets that I cared about—Pound, H.D., Olson, Zukofsky, Duncan—and also about Pinocchio, and Grant Wood, and Van Gogh’s Japan, and the ox rib at Sarlat, and Brancusi, and Buckminster Fuller, and . . . everything else. When you read an essay by Davenport, you learn things—extraordinary things. I quickly came to trust him as a source. A lot of what the Poetics Program was really about was finding these sources in poetics that you could draw on for the rest of your life. And Davenport was “meticulously responsible as to information,” as he said about Thoreau. In Every Force Evolves a Form, he wrote: “When painting freed itself from (or was abandoned by) patrons, paintings began to cease illustrating texts. All of Renaissance painting, for instance, refers to texts; scarcely any 20th painting does.” When I read this, I knew that it was true, but I had never heard anyone say it before (I hadn’t yet read Leo Steinberg). That often happened to me with Davenport. I’m struck now, when I go back and read the essays, by how much I got from Davenport: the insistence on the imagination, the potential of telling detail, a certain and very particular relation to the reader, the spice of occasional bombast, an American practicality and directness. In the essay that I wrote on Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (“Approaching 80 Flowers,” published in Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics, edited by Michael Palmer, in 1983), I was certainly influenced by Davenport’s essay on Zukofsky in The Geography of the Imagination. And a couple of years later we had him in mind also when Sterrett Smith and I collaborated on Ruins, written in Greece and illustrated with her artifactual drawings, which were inspired by Davenport’s drawings.
Robert Kelly: The letters I had from him over the years, from maybe 1962 or ’63 to the 70s, were full of drawings and paintings. His letters were extraordinarily formal. He would criticize me for writing with fountain pens, rather than with the “proper” dip-pens. His color drawings of Egyptian cattle and Greek images made me understand, and delight in him for all of his “Southernness,” all of his “Americanness”—strange and hard to deal with in the beginning. You have to understand that I first knew him through his poems, and through his advocacy of Stan Brakhage’s films. I met Davenport through Brakhage. Brakhage came to a reading of mine in 1963, and we got to know each other very well—very quickly, and very intensely. It was a two or three year “romance” that ended abruptly and strangely.
Rail: How did Davenport know Brakhage?
Kelly: Well, they had been in connection through Robert Duncan. Remember that Brakhage lived with Duncan for a long time—in the basement of his house—I can’t say “with him.” But, whatever the lines that lead them together, Davenport saw in Brakhage something that he saw nowhere else in the movies. I don’t think he was interested in movies very much. What he was interested in was that Brakhage was an utter ephebe. He never lost that. He is the initiate about to be, he is the young man, even the old young man, in search of the initiatic experience, which he was, as a filmmaker, prepared to make for himself, since nobody was giving it to him. He had mastered aesthetic skills (through Gertrude Stein and Duncan preeminently) but when it came to film he had no master but himself. He wrote about great filmmakers, but when you look at Brakhage’s words on them, you see he’s being emblematic and pious, dutiful, respectful, but he’s not pointing out his father and his mother. And I think his father and his mother came, as Davenport points out about Renaissance paintings, from the text. Those films of his are profoundly, in a way, textual, and I think that’s what got Davenport.
Rail: When you co-edited the anthology A Controversy of Poets in 1965, you included Davenport in the list of poets “currently producing distinct and original work,” and as one of them.
Kelly: One of those I wasn’t able to get through the gate. I knew him also as a classicist, and that’s what took me in, that Davenport had translated Archilochus so beautifully. And in his recognition of Greek fragment as contemporary Whole, just as in his drawings—it seemed to me that Davenport was always after what I want to call the compositio. We talk about synthesis, and if you map the Greek synthesis literally into Latin, “syn,” is “com,” with, and “thesis” is positio, placing; so “syn-thesis” literally is compositio. We take synthesis, because of our Hegelian childhoods, as somehow doing something to opposites or contradictions, whereas the Romans see compositio as bringing things together to make a stability, not by denying the differences, or somehow changing them . . .
Rail: Putting them in relation.
Kelly: By putting them in relation. The Romans’ greatest technological achievement, as you know, is concrete; they were able to build with concrete, and concrete is a spectacular example of compositio, it seems to me. We still use the word “composition” to mean man-made materials, when we don’t want to call them “artificial.” I think that’s what Davenport was extraordinary for in his essays, which are, I think, strictly accurate, insofar as I’m able to judge. What’s interesting about them is not the accuracy, but the compositio, of bringing things from all over into one thing. And by doing that he emphasizes what is the most urgent thing about his essays and his fiction; namely, a sexiness, and I understood this specifically as the sexiness of information. I think Davenport, more than anybody I know, even more than Olson, understood information as inherently sexual. The information that he gives us—or doesn’t really give us, he gathers it together and makes it spill out a narrative, with blond Danish boys and lakesides and cool weather. This man who came from hot South Carolina privileged the cold Baltic, the way some of us might fantasize about the South Seas.
Rail: That rings true to me, this sexiness of information, and he writes about it, too, I think in relation to Poe at one point. I haven’t read all the stories, but the ones I have read are often almost like William Burroughs’s Wild Boys, but in Davenport it’s always teachers and students. He said that his essays were really written for students. In the introductory note to The Hunter Gracchus, he writes, “The way I write about texts and works of art has been shaped by forty years of explaining them to students in a classroom. I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” It’s the affinity between teacher and student that comes across in the essays.
Kelly: And all the more so in the fiction, I think, where you really have the paiderastes, the older man adoring the younger one, and the younger one learning from it. He paints this utterly Greekish picture, this utterly fantasized sort of picture, in which the only time we touch ground, or touch earth, is through bodily functions, bodily intimacies. It’s all about the young man and the old man, the young man giving pleasure to the old man—just the grace and comeliness of his body, of his movements. There’s very little penetration. It’s not about penetration, it’s about admiration, and admiration is, again, admirare, to look at. He’s such a classicist in that way. He wants to behold these children, and perhaps he wants to embrace them too, but the embrace is always quite discreet.
Rail: And also “textual.” I mean I know that he never learned to drive, that he walked to work all the time. I get the sense that his experience was primarily of the library.
Kelly: He moved from one part of Lexington, Kentucky to another, and that experience was a huge adventure for him. Some of his young men got him to go to Greece by essentially saying, “You know, we’ve heard all this Socratic, Hellenic stuff, now come bathe with us naked”—and he did, and they celebrated that, but I think he was glad to get home. He was a man of American tastes, in his personal life: simple food and simple clothing. On the way over here to see you, you know we passed a Davenport nursery. That was a good omen. He once told me about how he had a nanny who took him out into the woods whenever he was colicky and fed him blue clay. This nanny knew where the blue clay was. And this business of earth-eating, geophagy, is a big part of Southern medicine, and it was something that Davenport felt was very defining for him because the “geography of the imagination” is also the “geophagy of the imagination,” in the way he has eaten the earth. His first experience of recovery from illness came from eating the blue earth.
Rail: When I began reading him, I had this sense that he had some power as a bridge between poetry and the officialdom of the academy. Did he play that role or was that just wishful thinking on my part?
Kelly: It’s hard to know. The University of Kentucky where he taught was not a school that has ever been involved with the avant-garde or anything like it in any respect other than through him. He certainly didn’t create the kind of situation that Charles Olson did at Buffalo with Creeley, or that Robert [Duncan] did at New College in San Francisco. There was no sense of a tradition growing there, as far as I can tell. He was very much a man by himself. I don’t think he was like Olson, valuing the willful political sagacity, I don’t think he thought in those terms.
Rail: But because of him, some people found themselves reading about Louis Zukofsky or Ron Johnson who might have been surprised to find themselves doing that.
Kelly: You can tell me something about this: I’ve never understood, in a way, why people read Davenport. The taste for his essays and his stories seems highly refined to me. You have to know so much and care so much about certain kinds of what most people would think of as pettifogging details of cultural and linguistic history for those stories to come alive at all for you. I think they’re wonderful, and I love them! But, at the same time, I can’t understand why anybody else likes them. I feel as though he’s writing them just for me—you probably think he’s writing them just for you, too.
Rail: I did, I did. But, I think many people feel that same thing.
Kelly: What makes him able to do this?
Rail: I think it certainly has to do with what you were describing: composition, placement, putting things in relation. There’s a real pleasure in apprehending that. And somewhere you also allude to his fondness for superlatives, and making declarative statements about things. There is a pleasure in that, that I associate with Pound: just go all—out and say something. Maybe you can support it, maybe you can’t, but go all the way with your assertion. Don’t be tentative. Give them something to dispute.
Kelly: “The village explainer,” just pushing it, hoping to get some reaction.
Rail: Well, yes, and, especially when you’re young, there’s a definite attraction to that. Davenport was only 25 when he went to visit Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, after being in the army. But a good deal of the pleasure in the essays really derives from the form of address. I like being that person that he’s talking to, and I think that carries across many readers. Readers want to be embraced.
Kelly: How do you think he does that? What do you think is the technique of his embrace?
Rail: I guess you could say this was an American “democratic” embrace: not at all condescending, not enforcing divisions, or reminding one of the divisions between him and me, even though they’re obviously there. He knows more than I do, but in the writing it doesn’t come across that way. Hugh Kenner said that Davenport was “the best explicator of the arts alive, because he assumes that the artists—painters, poets, describers of natural wonders—have the sort of mind he has: quick, unpredictable, alert for gaps to traverse toward the unexpected terminus.” And there’s a visceral excitement in that compositional element, in that “placing of things in relation,” that is infectious: it makes you want to do it as well. In that way, it opens up a world. The generosity of his writing is the same kind of generosity that he apparently had in teaching, where, you know, he was willing to give it away.
Kelly: And, you know, like that good paiderastes of the ancient Greek time, that giving away was very focused, but it’s not focused in the writing, and that’s the funny part about it. That is in the fictional pieces, even when he’s talking about that very relationship between the mentor and the young student—the young student is always giving just as much as the mentor is—and not just in some trivial sexual way at all, but rather an aesthetic response is there as part of the gift. And I think one of things that made him work as a human, let him work as a human, was his ability to value and be fed by aesthetic response, so that when his students respond to him, that in itself is a fulfilling thing. They don’t have to go to bed with him, they don’t have to write a masterpiece, they don’t have do anything special, they have to be present with him.
Rail: Those are the terms of the exchange.
Kelly: Exactly. So that the exchange can be a “let there be commerce between us” kind of exchange, where there’s no coin, just the flow. You know his work much better than I do—certainly I haven’t read all of his books, by any means. Sometimes they irritate me, sometimes I get annoyed as I read because I see him taking the world and making it too small, the composition gets too crowded into the corner. But most of the time I feel a joyousness in him, which seems to me, and I don’t want to push this just to be topical and relevant and “modern” about it, but it strikes me as very mycelial, or rhizome-like. Very anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, even though he seems to most people to be a hierarch, in that he’s teaching all this stuff, he has grand opinions, he’s constantly invoking the Great Ones, the Greeks, and how can you be so “Greek,” and yet he is trying, I think, to bring the Greeks back to the body, back to us, their face our face. So in that resistance to the hierarchical, in the text, everything was the same—the sand, the skin, the book, it’s all the same. One book of mine was called Flesh Dream Book, trying to pay homage to the three sources of my imagination, in that order: flesh, dream, and book. I think Guy might have ordered them: flesh, book, dream. But there was in him the utter non-hierarchical assortment or composition of knowledge, fact, judgment, aesthetic, data, skin, desire—all operating in the same plain. He writes about the seashore and the lake. Not the wild sea, but the calm Baltic, and his imagination peopled that shallow sea, cold of Nordic languages.
Rail: But that seashore is a violent place, too. It’s not all calm.
Kelly: It’s where the Vikings come, up that very coast. The creatures who come across the shallow sea. They never go very far; they never leave sight of land. They worked their way down through Denmark, Holland, England—never going away from the sight of land, those blond, literal people.
Rail: I’d like to hear more about your irritation. Is it in the essays?
Kelly: No, it’s more in his fiction that I feel it. As if he’s taking all that into a story, rather than letting it remain in the broth of the composition. It’s like over-interpreting a Renaissance painting so that it becomes all about its “subject,” and that’s all we can think about, and we lose sight of the masterful array of inconsequential details, which become magisterial because of the composition. It’s like turning Renaissance paintings into Rembrandt. Like trying to turn everything towards some single, moral pressure.
Yes, he is often looking for that key, and I guess that’s what I meant about the assertiveness—you leave it behind and go on to other things, but there is a certain amount of pleasure in stopping there briefly at those certainties. Someone who’d known Grant Wood told Davenport that Wood wasn’t thinking about any of the things Davenport brings up in relation to the paintings, and Davenport replied that he didn’t have to, because the paintings were thinking about them, which is the right answer. But the other criticism that could be made is that, in carving it down to one key to that work, he has to deny and turn away from the multiplicity of things that are going on there, and there’s a violence in that.
Kelly: Interesting the way you use the word “violence.” Twice you’ve mentioned it. Once as literal violence and once with a violence that we do to complexity when we argue a key.
Rail: Yes, it’s a violence of language: the violence of interpretation.
Kelly: I remember once telling Guy a dream I had, a dream about photography, and he used it later as a title for his own story “The Invention of Photography in Toledo.” I dreamt photography was invented in the late Renaissance in Spain, in Toledo. At the moment in the Good Friday service when the straw burns, and the world’s glory passes, suddenly that burst of fire was enough to cause a photographic image of the event to form on the silver altarpiece. And the image was then developed by the nitrous exhalations from the crypt below. To me, it meant photography was a natural fact, not a technology created at a certain moment, like a typewriter, but a discovery, a perception of something that was already there in the world, that nature has always been making photographs and we had to learn to see them. That got carried by him into quite a different direction, into a kind of historical whimsy. I found myself irritated—a narrative instead of trying to understand what the dream was gesturing towards in its own terms—that photography is far more natural than painting or drawing. That those things are highly abstract and that obviously the cave people with their tracing and all the rest of it were responding to the photographs—the situation light had left on the wall. I was a little vexed that it wasn’t my dream anymore. Which of us dare own a dream? But that’s the peril, the peril of the compositional method is whimsy. Sometimes you just get a table full of cute things.
Rail: Davenport wrote a book on still life (Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature). In it, he wrote that the history of still life is “an ongoing meditation on where matter ends and spirit begins, and on the nature of their interdependence.”
Kelly: Masters like Botticelli and Giotto understand the body as part of still life. “La Calunnia” is a great example of that, where the human images are arrayed, frozen. In focusing on that, the whole world stands still into that gesture. As opposed to the kind of Géricault-like, it’s all happening right now, you can see the muscles quivering as you walk. Fantastic power comes from the alchemical act of slaying the living into an image—which then comes to life in a different way. Not everyone can make a Joseph Cornell just by taking a shoebox and putting things in it. Sometimes I think of Cornell and Davenport as kin. But tell me about your disagreements with his pictorial sense.
Rail: I tend to agree with his choices of poets most of the time, but not always his choices in visual art. Sometimes I get the sense that he’s not really looking or not just looking. That’s certainly a problem with anyone trying to write about pictures. He goes in and out, but most of the time I get the feeling that there’s a text in the way of his looking—a text forming as he’s looking, or a text that he’s read or is writing that gets in the way.
Kelly: How can you cure this? It’s my disease too, of looking at a picture and thinking, having the mind full of, what can I say about this? What text can I make from this apprehension? Is there a way of looking wordlessly at a picture? I wish I knew it.
Rail: It comes from taking more time, looking at something closely over time until those rare moments arise when you are just looking.
Kelly: So you have to deny the story?
Rail: It falls away. I don’t think it works to deny it, but if you’re just looking, over time, something else opens up. I think Davenport could do it, but he doesn’t always. He’s good on photography. I wish I could have sat in on Davenport looking at Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photographs and just talking about them. Meatyard recognized that Davenport was really seeing his images, and so never tired of showing them to him and having him respond directly to them.
Kelly: I’m guessing that if you and I and he had sat down to talk about poetry for a long time we might have come up with some comparable issues of poets whose importance was considerable to him, but not perhaps to us. You called it democratic and I called it non-hierarchical. But, for example, a poet I found utterly useless from my point of view and whom he valued very, very highly, was Buckminster Fuller. Davenport thought the world of that untitled epic of Fuller’s, and that seemed to me just blah blah blah. It may have been interesting as a bunch of ideas, but poetry is more than just a bunch of ideas to me. And it wasn’t more than that. I have the deep down belief that what Davenport liked was poetry that “said stuff,” and a lot of people feel that way. I don’t think he took very much thrill from the sheer tremor of little differences, which I think forms a lot of the power of poetry and I know is a lot of the power of painting. Otherwise it’s just a naked lady, you know, or a flower.
Rail: Davenport did give me new things, but he also recovered lost things. He wrote a little review of a book on John Burroughs, “The Sage of Slabsides,” and it gave me a way into Burroughs. He said don’t expect Burroughs to be Whitman or Thoreau, because he’s not them, he’s something else. He’s a better ornithologist than Thoreau was. His descriptions of certain things are better.
Kelly: Davenport was a wonderful connoisseur and perceiver of excellences.
Rail: Yes, he could tell you where to go if you wanted to get a little bit of the best of a certain thing. And he was very generous in his recommendations, which has a poignancy to it, given the fact that he was, after all, writing in the ruins .
Kelly: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” in the primal Waste Land, again the primal modernist claim .
Rail: In the obituaries and eulogies, writers were split over whether Davenport was a disciple of modernism, or postmodern.
Kelly: I think he’s actually Post-Pre-modern. I feel he would have been most at home in the 1895—1910 era, just as modernism was getting started, and that his natural conversation would have been with T.E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis, when they were still optimistic enough to reach out and grab all that. Because he was so optimistic, wasn’t he?
Rail: He believed in the power of the imagination, and in literature. But he believed they were occluded. Did you see his list of “worthy and influential works that are almost never read even by those interested in literature and ideas?” It includes Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, Horace Traubel’s Conversations with Walt Whitman in Camden, Thoreau’s Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and the Bible. When I went back and read essays from The Geography of the Imagination, I remembered how much I came to trust Davenport. When he wrote (in the middle of a piece on John Ruskin) that Ezekiel’s description of Tyre is “the most glorious description of a city in all of literature,” I dropped everything and ran to Ezekiel to find this.
Kelly: And were thrilled to learn it, and yet you feel you’ve always known it. As you were saying before, it’s not condescending at all. But I could imagine that in correspondence, he was always hectoring and a bit bellicose, not so different from the instructor that he perceived himself to be to all mankind. And I was shocked, you know, when this poet and classicist, who had done nothing but Archilochus, and some rather soft and gentle, thoughtful poems, suddenly, while my back was turned, it seemed to me, became a famous writer, among the young. Why were all these people talking about Davenport? Then to realize he had gotten all that together—and the world was ready for it! But he never got to Brooklyn .
Rail: He went to Greece, but never to Brooklyn .
Kelly: He would have been happy at Grand Army Plaza, I think. He would have enjoyed the radial asymmetries of the place.
David Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.