Guy Davenport

English professor 'learned in more languages than it's easy to count'

Farewell to my one and only kissin' cousin: Guy Mattison Davenport Jnr.

Guy Mattison Davenport, writer, painter and teacher: born Anderson, South Carolina 23 November 1927; staff, Department of English, University of Kentucky 1963-91; died Lexington, Kentucky 4 January 2005.

Farewell to my one and only kissin' cousin: Guy Mattison Davenport Jnr.

Kissin' cousins are a rare invention of the American South. They are allowed to "hug your neck" at family gatherings, and possibly kiss your ear. Not very erotic stuff, but it seems important in order to proclaim the rest of the familial cousins as dung beetles, beyond all hope. The "Sensitives" write 10,000 first novels a year about this kind of stuff in both South Carolina and Mississippi. The South fidgets and throbs.

It's fascinating that Guy Davenport, as refined as they come, came from an artless town in Upper South Carolina named Anderson. His father worked for Railway Express. Maybe this is why he never learned to be a host or a guest, why he kept his own company and sat in the parlour after a slap-up breakfast of a peanut-butter sandwich on light bread and a cup of instant coffee? Did he have little social ease until he arrived at Oxford University (where he went as a Rhodes Scholar to Merton) and met remarkable friends like Christopher Middleton, who would not know much of the class-ridden lore of Anderson, South Carolina?

He may have worried about being seen as "putting on airs" his whole life. Did he have a sign in his front yard that said "CULTURE HERMIT: No Unannounced Visitors Permitted"? I ask these vexing questions as a "Tarheel" from the Great State of North Carolina, just up the road from Anderson.

Anyway, I met Davenport at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania (where he taught from 1961 to 1963), after a reading of mine. By 1969 - now at the University of Kentucky, from which he would retire, as Distinguished Alumni Professor of English, in 1991 - he was my principal colleague. He already knew more about my poetry than I ever did. I would drive to Lexington, Kentucky, to one of his monastic abodes (no television, no coffee beans) and hear him tell a few friends and students that I was "a master of the vernacular windfall". And that my poetry was always "peripatetic, paratactic, and cathectic . . ." Being a seasoned hiker, I knew what the first term meant. The other two always bemused me. One whispered, "Gee whiz."

We wrote hundreds of letters over the years and, clearly, loved each other's prose style. Last year Green Shade in Haverford published A Garden Carried in a Pocket, a selection of letters between the two of us from 1964-68. Let me quote the last one from GD:

Die fasti St Bridget, Veuve [8 October] 1968

Et alors, mon bon bougre,

I God, a very Gomorry on wheels! You lead the most exciting life I know of, and complain more about it than any two well-off bastards in the running. I am glad to hear you sound like your old self, though I never hearn of no Jonathan with two Davids.

Top of this letter is an allusion to that wonderful novel, The SotWeed Factor, in which Ebenezer Cooke, "poet and virgin", is about to be raped by a buncher sailors (they have him tied across a table in the fo'c'sle; he is saved by a raiding party of pirates, one of whom strides into the scene and says, "I God, this here ship's a very floatin' Gomorry!").

Have come down with the flu since inditing the above. [. . .] The mail yestiddy brought a letter from Sam Beckett! asked to see Sappho and Arky. I sag with fatigue. Blessings.

Guy Davenport had first translated Archilochus in 1964 ( Carmina Archilochi: the fragments of Archilochos); Sappho's Poems and Fragments followed in 1965, Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman: three lyric poets of the late Greek Bronze Age in 1980 and Anakreon: the extant fragments in 1991. ( "Thasos and Ohio": poems and translations, 1950-1980 appeared in 1985.) His several short-story collections included Tatlin! (1974), Da Vinci's Bicycle (1979), Apples and Pears and Other Stories (1984) and A Table of Green Fields (1993). He was also the author of Cities on Hills: a study of I-XXX of Ezra Pound's Cantos (1983, based on his 1961 Harvard thesis - his Oxford BLitt thesis had been on Joyce), The Geography of the Imagination: forty essays (1981), The Hunter Gracchus: and other papers on literature and art (1996) and Objects on a Table: harmonious disarray in art and literature (1998), not to mention the many books he illustrated. His The Death of Picasso: new & selected writing was published in 2003.

Hugh Kenner, introducing Joan Crane's 247-page Guy Davenport: a descriptive bibliography 1947-1995 (1996), wrote:

His prose is intricate collage, everywhere energised by that preternatural attention, that reach for analogies as exactly observed as what they're called on to analogise. He's learned in more languages than it's easy to count. His care for the next word mimics Seurat's for the next brushstroke, and his gift for not vexing us with needless obscurity is what governs such care with phrasing.

Guy Davenport once moaned to Kenner that "living in Kentucky is like living in the Balkans". The world is full of eggheads, philistines, and dummies, whether you live in Lexington, Kentucky, Mokra Gora, Kosovo, or the suburbs of Tophet.

Someone told me a very funny anecdote, which I've turned into one of my "meta-four":

i love the story

of when the young

belle of the blue

grass who had just

barely survived his course

on ancient civilizations came

up to professor davenport

during a cocktail party

at one of the

horse farms outside lexington

and said professor davenport

you're the most over-educated

man ive ever met

Nietzsche, on target as usual, once said, "There is a 'laughter' in the mind." Guy Davenport would laugh at that little tale. The first person he'll tell it to is Ezra Pound, who'll tell it to Basil Bunting, who'll tell it to Hugh Kenner. One thing you need in Elysium is jokes.

Jonathan Williams

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