Monday, January 7, 2008

Davenport/Laughlin Letters

Guy Davenport was a huge, essential part of my education. I was 18 when I got his GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION out of the library, and had never heard of Olson or Zukofsky––or Ives or Tchelitchew (his own half-French half-German transliteration from Russian) or Ronald Johnson or Jonathan Williams or any of these crazy names he kept popping up with. I liked Joyce and Stevens and Mandelstam, but, slow learner that I am, I thought Pound and WCW were boring! Suddenly the world was much more exciting and overwhelmingly big. I gave his stories another try (having backed off from them the first time), and fell in love. The man could make botany sexy, and ancient Rome almost attractive! Since then (seven years almost), he gives me insomnia every time I read him, dependable as coffee. It's a strange psychosomatic reaction: a combination perhaps of the remembered excitement "upon first looking into", the contagious enthusiasm he brings to his subjects, and the competitive envy it all stirs up in me for his zippy energy and erudition.

James Laughlin, as the publisher of New Directions, played an equally huge part in my skoolin once I finally did get around to hearing Pound and Williams and all that. So I couldn't resist buying a copy of GUY DAVENPORT AND JAMES LAUGHLIN: SELECTED LETTERS, edited by W.C. Bamberger and published by Norton (despite the odd feeling it gives me to read the private correspondence of the dead). It's a delight, a record of kindness exchanged over decades of deepening friendship, and also a random anthology of randomly marvellous anecdotes. Literary gossip is seldom this much fun.

"1 Sept Birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who used to keep framed on his wall a letter from Rand-McNally: 'We are returning your manuscript as we do not feel that the public will be interested in a white man raised by apes.'" (GD)

"You're so right about Nabokov. he had beautiful manners but his blood was icy. One day that summer when he was staying with me in the mountains of Utah he came in for dinner and told me that he had heard what sounded like groaning in Grizzly Gulch. What was it. He hadn'e gone to investigate because he was chasing a lepidopteroid he had never seen before. Next day some hikers found the body of an old prospector who had fallen in the steep gulch and cracked open his head and bled to death." (JL)

"I'm almost through vol 4 of Parkman's history if Canada and New England––5 to go. The church had its own ideas about geography, so the first bishop of Montreal (or was it Quebec?) was designated Bishop of Arabia Petrea, of which Canada must be the other side. Not quite as whonky as Columbus' suspecting that Peking was somewhere around Atlanta. Speaking of Coumbus, I've explained the colon that begins PATERSON all sorts of ways (Europe: America) until it dawned on my feeble mind that Christobal Colon is that gentleman's real name. Keeping to the formula pater: son." (GD)

They chat back and forth about mutual favorites such as Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas Merton, and Anne Carson. Laughlin records the deaths of his son and wife and the destruction by fire of his library, while Davenport's life comes across as consisting mainly of evenings reading by the hearth, with cat and throwrug, and chats with comical Kentucky neighbors. ("Van Gogh came up in a conversation the other day, and my interlocutor said, 'He's the one that bit off his ear, wasn't he?'")We learn that "Medieval ink was oak gall and soot," that Mae West ("whose only straight line was the handle of her parasol") was Mondriaan's favorite actress and Barbara Hutton was Wittgenstein's, and that "In Theokritos' fifth idyll a goat is eating something. You look the word up, and Liddell-Scott says 'a plant eaten by a goat in Theoc. Idyll V'." There are new authors to look out for, like Robert Bringhurst, Elinor Shaffer and Avram Davidson. Besides this there is a lot of (entertaining, well-written) pedestrian exchange in the later letters about publishing matters and health problems, a good deal of repetition (it's good to remember that even the whizbang eggheads have only a few obsessive ideas and are prone like the rest of us to inadvertantly repeat ourselves), and enough old-timey offhand sexism to be irritating.

This book is edited down from a much larger corpus of letters, and there are a lot of gaps. I wish I could read the complete letters, or failing that, a more generous selection of random thoughts and trivia and anecdotes from Davenport, even at the expense of the exchanges on publication matters. I also wish that more of Davenport's illustrations had been included (as it is, there is only one: The Queen of the Netherlands reading Pound's translation of Confucius, "the gift of Heer Jaap Laughlin, whose split trousers she once repaired with the royal sewing kit on a ski slope of the Alps," ––see JL's EZ AS WUZ--attended by a greyhound out of James Thurber.) GD was a top-notch doodler, and there are a lot of tantalizing references to his drawings.

The friends exchange gripes about Norton anthologies (GD: "Back when I used to keep office hours, i used to amuse myself correcting the idiotic footnotes to poems in them."––JL: "My chief objection to the Norton anthologies is that they've never put one of my verses in them."), and it's amusing that this Norton publication tooo contains a preponderance of inconsistent and mostly unnecessary footnotes: Bamberger explains jokes and puns to us and offers some rather odd capsule biographies: Wittgenstein is "one of the twentieth century's most logically astringent philosophers" and Klee "a Swiss artist whose primarily abstract works were said to convey the feeling of dream images." Of course I appreciate these notes when they tell me things I don't know, so I'll try not to grumble. But I must add that there are a lot of entirely gratuitous [sic]s throughout the text, even for perfectly correct spellings, as in "Aleksandr [sic] Solzhenitsyn." (Props to Mark Scroggins for eschewing the [sic] in his new Zukofsky biography!) The index however is excellent, and I can only hope that more things of this kind will be edited and published. Kenner/Davenport letters? Zukofsky/Davenport letters? I'm ready with prying eyes.

1 comment:

GD Reader No. 19 said...

See also the other volume of Davenport correspondence so far, A GARDEN IN A POCKET, letters to and from Jonathan Williams, covering a much earlier period in Davenport's life.