‘A house is a ship turned upside down’: some notes on Guy Davenport’s ‘Tatlin!’

GD_JW_via_Jacket

(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams via Jacket)

Due partly to my prolonged (and continuing) immersion in the Davenport-Kenner letters, partly to the frequent references—and some generously supplied scans of Davenport essays and reviews—in emails exchanged with the writer Greg Gerke, I’ve just begun rereading Guy Davenport’s stories. While I’m forever peering into various volumes of his essays and art criticism, my reading of most of his fiction dates back between fifteen and thirty years. I’d like to think that I know a bit more now than I did then—not just about Davenport or modern literature but things more generally. I certainly know enough to tread warily, one assemblage at a time. So, a few notes suggested by that reading and a strong awareness of the recurring question prompted by all Davenport’s writings: how does he know that? Perhaps two questions, the other being: how does he do that?

‘Tatlin!’—Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian painter, architect and designer—is the title story of Davenport’s first collection (dedicated to the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard) and its opening story, though actually the last of the six in order of composition, which was ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, ‘Robot’, ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’, ‘1830’, ‘Herakleitos’, ‘Tatlin!’.[1]

GD_Tatlin

In the summer of 1969, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘I’m at work on a piece of prose not like anything I’ve done before, or anybody else to my knowledge—a breakthrough, I think (I hope), and an invention. It’s the kind of thing I’ve wanted to do for the longest, but have never been able to organize my imagination enough to get ahead with it. It is essentially the biography of Tatlin’.[2]

‘You would seem to have invented a new genre’, Kenner wrote to him in March 1970, ‘the assemblage, as by a postulated consciousness, of the clues to some unnoticed event’, adding, to distinguish Davenport’s perspective from a work by Hilaire Belloc to which he referred, ‘you don’t use the point-of-view of an imaginary spectator, but a “consciousness” as in the Cantos.’[3]

GD-JL-Letters

To James Laughlin, more than twenty years later, Davenport traced the emergence of his fictional strategy: ‘The breakthrough came when I realized that I mustn’t write about anything from my own experience, or anybody I’ve known, but to work with pure imagination, and to work with that hiatus between the mind and the world in which the pragmatic always fails and the imagination has to take over.’[4]

‘Tatlin!’, like a number of other Davenport fictions, includes the author’s drawings, designed as integral parts of the text—‘Tatlin! began as a painting’.[5] Peter Quartermain comments that ‘all his stories are written as though they were drawn and hence call attention to themselves as made works’[6] and Davenport remarked to Laughlin: ‘My fiction is a kind of drawing.’[7] These drawings are beautifully achieved, elegant, detailed, with exquisite cross-hatching: one of Vladimir Tatlin in snazzy striped trousers, holding a straw hat in his right hand (and looking, to my eye, not unlike the young Pablo Picasso), two of Lenin and then a third following five representations of Tatlin’s artworks, some of those reproduced in Camilla Gray’s book on Russian art which Davenport acknowledged on Tatlin!’s title page.[8] But the final three drawings are all of Joseph Stalin and the modernist artists, poets and painters, scientists and Constructivists who had seemed for a while to be in tune with the revolution are by this time dead, dishonoured or in exile.

letatlin-1932.jpg!Large

‘Tatlin!’ begins with a section entitled ‘Moscow 1932’, the artist’s Constructivist works and his flying machine—a glider ‘for everyday use’—hung from the ceiling, like ‘the fossil skeleton of a pterodactyl.’ ‘Tatlin’ is the first and fourth word of the story; by the eight line, Lenin has been mentioned three times. Then we read: ‘This is no place to continue talking about M. N. Ryutin’s remarks concerning Comrade Stalin, mimeographed and running to many pages, said by people who knew to foreshadow a change.’[9] Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin had consolidated his position as supreme leader before the end of that decade. Ryutin’s writings argued against some central Communist policies and for the removal of Stalin. It didn’t end well—though Ryutin wasn’t executed until 1937, as part of the ‘Great Purge’.

The story moves through St. Petersburg’s Bloody Sunday in 1905, when the march led by Father Gapon resulted in at least 200 deaths; Tatlin as busker, as sailor, in Paris meeting Picasso, Chagall and others; Tsiolkovsky, Russian space science pioneer; Tatlin in the classroom; and the dissipation, perversion and betrayal of the revolution.

The second page of text introduces a good many more names and several themes which bulk large in Davenport’s work: not only flight but the crucial link between modernism and the archaic—‘What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic’ (Geography of the Imagination, 21)—the reaching back over great stretches of time common to Pound, Joyce, Gaudier-Brzeska, Picasso, Modigliani, Khlebnikov and others. ‘Tatlin had gone back to Daedalos’ (Tatlin! 3). This will be another recurring theme or motif in Davenport’s essays and stories: the labyrinth, the marriage of art and science and, of course, flight again, while—‘At Teraspol there were cobwebs in the barley, wasps at the panes, and cats in the knitting baskets’ (Tatlin! 10)—wasps, cats and barley will also crop up many times in the Davenport oeuvre. And Tatlin in the classroom? ‘Every force evolves a form, he taught’ (Tatlin! 16)—the title of a volume of Davenport essays and a dictum he took from Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers.

GD_Every_Force

Among names here which will also recur are those of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ruskin, Rousseau, Osip Mandelstam, Fourier, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Nijinsky. A list like that might in turn prompt a reader to wonder just how many names the story actually includes, either as character or reference. In fact, in a story of fifty pages of good-sized type and generous margins, twelve of which are given over to the drawings already mentioned, there are close on one hundred and forty named painters, sculptors, poets, pianists, engineers, political and historical figures, architects, film-makers, chemists, explorers, aeronauts, dancers, composers and journalists. Some are unfamiliar – but can, of course, be looked up, far more easily than when Davenport first published these stories. A few details I paused over: Marya Ivanovna, apparently a Pravda journalist. Was this also an historical character? Then I realised that it was a patronymic form and there’s really no obvious way of finding out—though somewhere, inevitably, there will be a scholar of 1930s Russian media who will know the answer—in fact, it crops up in a number of literary texts: there are characters so named in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and Resurrection, Grossman’s Life and Fate and Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent. Ivan Alekseyevich threw me for a moment but is, I think, the writer known as Ivan Bunin.

I hesitated too over a reference to the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II in 1881 – did Davenport make mistakes? Answer: very rarely, certainly as far as I’m aware. And was it a mistake – or a private joke or a cunning postmodern playfulness wholly unfamiliar to me? A mistake, apparently – it was, in any case, emended: when I looked at a later printing, the last of the Romanov rulers had indeed become Csar Aleksandr II.[10]

One phrase that came to mind, given Davenport’s lifelong study of Ezra Pound, was ‘Life and Contacts’, the subtitle attached to Pound’s long poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, first published in 1919 – thought, when it appeared, with Homage to Sextus Propertius, in Diptych Rome-London (1958), in a limited edition of 200 copies, the terms were reversed (‘Contacts and Life’). Pound wrote to his publisher: ‘Note inversion in subtitle of Mauberley, NOT Life and Contacts but the actual order of the subject matter.’[11] ‘Tatlin!’ moves freely back and forth in time but it is the ‘contacts’ that inform the intellectual and artistic development and these in turn sketch the outline of the life. And the dozens of names, many but not all of them ones that a reader would recognise, so skilfully and confidently deployed, generate and populate and substantiate that life and the world that contained it.

Davenport was an extremely private man and this extended to his fiction. He wrote to James Laughlin in 1992, ‘I don’t think I have an ego. That is, I have nothing to say for myself, or as from myself. It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[12] So friends and relations might be used in his stories but would be moved through vast distances in time and space. ‘Members of my family wearing long Russian beards, walk around in “Tatlin!” and moments of my childhood figure there on Russian porches and against a background of sunflowers and the Black Sea.’[13]

ML-VT

(Mikhail Larionov, portrait of Vladimir Tatlin)

That refers to the time spent by Tatlin with the young Mikhail Larionov in Teraspol. ‘Vladimir and Mikhail edged through the thicket of sunflowers on rainy days to find things, old bits, bottomless wooden pails, snakes, baling wire lizards’ (Tatlin! 10).

It’s a forerunner of what will be fully fleshed out in the short novel which ends this book, The Dawn in Erewhon and in many of Davenport’s fictions thereafter: the utopian vision, drawing on Charles Fourier, of a paradisal world in which people, especially children, explore and learn the physical world’s sensuous beauty and sensual pleasures, focusing not least upon their own—and others’—bodies.

This persistent theme in Davenport’s fictions has provoked hostility, suspicion, even dismissal, some commentators becoming fixated upon it to the virtual exclusion of everything else, responses tending to confirm Davenport’s diagnosis of continuing Comstockery and Puritan frigidity. Erik Reese, though, writes that Davenport ‘believed that attraction is fundamentally amoral. We love what, and who, we love. Period.’ And he points to the review by Wyatt Mason, which suggested that Davenport’s fictions are really asking ‘one persistent question: “What if we were free?”’[14]

The story ends with Tatlin and Viktor Shklovsky talking together, Tatlin explaining that all politicians are mad. ‘A genius has no interest in controlling people with anything so crude as power. The artist has true power. The intellectual may hunger for power as his ideas prove to be weak, but he is for the most part content to live in his mind’ (Tatlin! 48). Stalin is dead – but Tatlin will outlive him by less than three months. ‘They sat in a kind of grief, a kind of joy, stunned.’ Tatlin asks: ‘Will they publish your books, build my tower, open the jails?’ Shklovsky replies: ‘It is only Stalin who is dead.’ To which Tatlin responds: ‘Aren’t we all?’

Viktor leaves. Tatlin sits among his hens and his books, of which he reads the same pages over and over. He and the others are ghosts of themselves, living in their minds, in memory and imagination. The story ends, as it began, with the flying machine. ‘He could ponder the glider strut by strut, and with a soft chirr and dance of hands, imagine it agile as a bat over rivers, lakes, fields’ (Tatlin! 51).

 

 

References

[1] Guy Davenport to Nicholas Kilmer, letter of 3 April 1979: ‘Fragments from a Correspondence’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, 13, 3 (Winter, 2006), 89-130 (97).

[2] Davenport to Kenner [10 June 1969], in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1228.

[3] Questioning Minds II, 1298; see also Guy Davenport, ‘Ernst Machs, Max Ernst’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 380.

[4] Letter of 24 October 1992, in W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 92.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Postscript’ to Twelve Stories (Washington D. C.: Counterpoint, 1997), 235.

[6] Peter Quartermain, ‘Writing as Assemblage: Guy Davenport’, in Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis to Zukofsky to Susan Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 176.

[7] Bamberger, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 138.

[8] Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922 (1962) was revised and enlarged after Gray’s early death by Marian Burleigh-Motley. See her The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 203, for Board No. 1: Old Bosmannaya (1916-1917) and Relief (1917).

[9] Guy Davenport, Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 1.

[10] Davenport, Twelve Stories, 13. Is a ‘mistake’ possible in fiction? Davport addresses the question himself in ‘Ernst Machs, Max Ernst’: The Geography of the Imagination, 376.

[11] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 1308 n.549.2.

[12] Bamberger, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 97.

[13] See Guy Davenport, ‘From Indifference to Attention’, New York Times Book Review (4 April, 1982), 30.

[14] ‘Afterword: Remembering Guy Davenport’, in The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Erik Reese (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 414, 415. See Wyatt Mason, ‘There Must I Begin to Be: Guy Davenport’s heretical fictions’, Harper’s Magazine (April 2004): ‘If the language of fiction is to be of any lasting use, as Davenport cajoles us again and again to see, it must struggle to define–and, in so doing, attain–moments of liberty. In his own fiction, Davenport has succeeded in that regard, finding new ways to dramatize one, suggestive question: What if we were free?’

 

 

Bearded men in overcoats: Edward Gorey

Gorey-Avedon

(Photograph by Richard Avedon, via The New Yorker
© The Richard Avedon Foundation)

‘Gorey’, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport in 1962. ‘I have tracked down THE CURIOUS SOFA, THE FATAL LOZENGE, THE WILLOWDALE EXPRESS [i.e., The Willowdale Handcar], and THE HAPLESS CHILD. No others seem to be available. One is especially curious about THE DOUBTFUL GUEST and ($1,000,000 prize title) THE LISTING ATTIC. Are any sources of supply known to you?’

The following Spring, breathing down the neck of Pound-Joyce-Ruskin references that will emerge in different form a dozen years later in ‘The House That Jack Built’, is this Davenport remark: ‘All the bearded men in overcoats in Gorey are Gorey.’[1]

Doubtful-Guest

‘At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,
Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.’[2]

Some of the attractions for Davenport are fairly obvious: a wide and varied taste in books (Gorey owned upwards of 25000), cats—and the hospitality offered to other living creatures—virtuosic graphic work, an extraordinary range of interests and knowledge, a productive eccentricity and a distinctly individual stance towards the world.

Edward St John Gorey was born 22 February 1925 (and died in 2000). He published more than a hundred of his own works, beginning with The Unstrung Harp in 1953, and illustrated the works of scores of other writers, poets and critics, from Dickens, Edward Lear, H. G. Wells and Samuel Beckett to Saki, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf and the wonderful Treehorn books by Florence Parry Heide.

Treehorn

‘The next morning Treehorn was so small he had to jump out of bed. On the floor under the bed was a game he’d pushed under there and forgotten about. He walked under the bed to look at it.’[3]

Moving around our house, I find Gorey items in a surprising number of places: small hardbacks and larger paperbacks, postcards, a jigsaw, even a toy theatre, Edward Gorey’s Dracula, a Christmas present to the Librarian some years back.

Gorey-Dracula

There are some irresistible moments in the interview of Gorey by Clifford Ross:

CR: What about your working day?
EG: I usually wake up and think, “Oh, I really must do something today.” But then quite often many things come up before I can start doing them.
CR: Do you work each day?
EG: I try and do something each day. Work might not be exactly the word for it.

Elsewhere, ‘But I do collect postcards of dead babies.’ And, in response to the question about what sort of art he collects—Balthus, Burchfield, Albert York, Vuillard, Bonnard—‘And I have one Munch lithograph, I think.’ Ross asks which one and Gorey tells him: ‘Omega and the Bear. I couldn’t resist it. It’s this back of a naked lady and she’s got her arms around a big bear. I think it has some significance. I’m not sure what.’

Karen Wilkin, in her absorbing essay, lists some of the inhabitants—‘Mustachioed men in ankle-length overcoats; elegant matrons with high-piled hair; athletic hearties in thick turtlenecks; imposing patriarchs in sumptuous dressing-gowns; kohl-eyed wantons with alarming décolletages and nodding plumes’—of what she terms ‘an utterly unreal but wholly believable universe instantly recognizable, at least to initiates, as the world of Edward Gorey.’ It is, it is. She details the influence of theatre and, particularly, dance on Gorey’s art. He rarely missed a performance of the New York Ballet for thirty years and his ‘knowledge and understanding’ of the choreography of George Balanchine was ‘profound’.[4]

McDermott-Elephant-House

(© Kevin McDermott, photograph facing chapter heading ‘The Living Room’)

Kevin McDermot, in his book about Gorey’s Cape Cod house, illustrated with his own superb photographs, quotes a Vanity Fair interview with Gorey from October 1997:

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
“Cats.”
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
“A stone.”
What is your favourite journey?
“Looking out the window.”[5]

Accept no substitutes.

Gorey’s home is now a museum, dedicated to his life and work, open from April to December each year. The Edward Gorey House: http://www.edwardgoreyhouse.org/

 
References

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 167, 286.

[2] Edward Gorey, The Doubtful Guest (1957), in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[3] Florence Parry Heide, The Shrinking of Treehorn, in The Treehorn Trilogy, drawings by Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 2006), unpaginated.

[4] Clifford Ross, ‘Interview with Edward Gorey’, in Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin, The World of Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 1996), 19; Karen Wilkins, ‘Mr. Earbrass Jots Down a Few Visual Notes: The World of Edward Gorey’, 45, 86.

[5] Kevin McDermot, Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003), unpaginated.

 

Following up

Where-Shall-we-run-to . Boneland

I’ve recently bought—but am not yet reading—the new book by Alan Garner, called Where Shall We Run To? – A Memoir. I’m not reading it yet because my epic revisiting of the Patrick White canon is only now nearing its close; then, too, some major deadlines are approaching for the first issue of the new Ford Madox Ford Journal; and in any case, I was just in time to glimpse the Librarian carrying the book away to some other part of the house. First dibs, as they say.

The publication of this new Garner recalled for me the previous one, Boneland, a novel which appeared in 2012. It’s short, powerful and cryptic, as much of Garner’s work tends to be, not through obfuscation but compression. Some of his readers are extraordinarily knowledgeable not only about Garner’s entire oeuvre but also the mythologies and belief systems that underlie so much of his writing; and I remember that the medieval text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was mentioned and cited several times in online comments about the book. So I followed up.

 sir-gawain-green-knight-decapitated-head-f94v

(Via The British Library)

I’d certainly read Gawain at some stage over the years. I’d never taken the kind of course of study that included it, though the University of Bristol had the supreme good fortune to have on its staff John Burrow, a brilliant critic and editor of medieval literature (and one of the most delightful people I’ve ever come across). He published a classic study of the poem in 1965, and an edition of it for Penguin in 1982. Following up, though, the edition I read was the one at hand in the office, a modern English version with a critical introduction by John Gardner from the University of Chicago Press, reissued in 2011. Ninety pages of introduction and commentary allow for a fair bit of jousting with other critics and commentators, while demonstrating an impressive familiarity with the relevant secondary literature as well as the poem itself. The alliterative verse rollicks along at a pleasing lick:

Now comes the season of summer; soft are the winds;
The spirit of Zephyrus whispers to seeds and green shoots.
Joyful enough is that herb rising up out of earth,
When the dampening dew has dropped from all her leaves,
To bask in the blissful gaze of the bright sun.

John-Gardner-Paris-Review

(John Gardner, via The Paris Review)

John Champlin Gardner Jr. died nearly forty years ago in a motorcycle accident at the early age of 49. He’d published more than a dozen works of fiction, half a dozen critical works, children’s books, and translations of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur and Other Middle English Poems as well as the complete works of the Gawain poet. He’s probably still best-known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view.

That phrase, ‘following up’, I always associate with an essay by Guy Davenport on the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (in The Geography of the Imagination):

He was an unfailing follower-up, which is why I think of him as the best educated man I have ever known. As a professor I must work with people for whom indifference is both a creed and a defense of their fantastic narrowness of mind, but Gene knew nothing of this. When he met Louis and Celia Zukofsky at my house, he went away and read Zukofsky. Not that he was an enthusiast. He simply had a curiosity that went all the way, and a deep sense of courtesy whereby if a man were a writer he would read what he had written, if a man were a painter he would look at his paintings.

Davenport was himself a follower-up of impressive proportions. He remembered a walking trip in Italy and France with Christopher Middleton, the two of them armed only with a collected John Donne and Pound’s Cantos, ‘a rich, barely comprehensible poem’, Davenport commented. He continues: ‘My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education’, he adds, ‘is such unconscious seduction.’

That’s quite a response; quite a follow-up.

 

 

 

Merry Jesting

Rousseau_Carriole-Juniet

(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]

OConnor-InaDillardRussellLibrary

(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.

Rousseau_Merry_Jesters

(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.

And:

Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)

 

 

References

[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.

 

Larking about

Henry, George, 1858-1943; The Lark
(George Henry, The Lark: Newport Museum and Art Gallery)

After last week, when the rain drenched and draggled so doggedly that I was reminded of Louis MacNeice’s comment on ‘those April showers which in Ireland persist for twelve months’,[1] we are back to more settled unsettled weather, veering from sunshine to rain in the merest jiffy. We’re even promised a heat wave soon.

In a cool room, anyway, inching my eyes down the page, I encounter this:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
De joi sas alas contral ray,
Que s · oblida e · s layssa cazer
Per la doussor qu · al cor li vai
,
O my!’

Hmm. Yet it seems faintly familiar. The next lines are: ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’.[2] I recalled Guy Davenport outlining his initial version of Ezra Pound, ‘first of all a man who had written a rich, barely comprehensible poem, a man whose portrait bust had been chiselled by Gaudier. My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education is such unconscious seduction.’[3]

henri gaudier-brzeska hieratic head of ezra pound 1914
(Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914: Tate)

I myself have signally failed to learn Provençal and must blunder along as best I can. Perhaps not Arnaut Daniel, and not Bertran de Born. I rummage in teetering piles. In Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, I find, ah yes, Bernard de Ventadour’s poem, translated there as prose: ‘When I see the lark beating with joy its wings against the ray of the sun until, oblivious, it swoons and drops for the sweetness which enters its heart’.[4] Ah, ‘Bird and she bird / Love and fall’ – so larks, like swifts, mate on the wing? Elsewhere, the poet W. D. Snodgrass offers rhymes:

‘Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
Then let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay’.[5]

And, of course, the path snakes back to Pound: ‘When I see the lark a-moving / For joy his wings against the sunlight, / Who forgets himself and lets himself fall / For the sweetness which goes into his heart’.[6] That must be where I first saw it, thirty years back, probably more. So early in Pound’s career; but, very late in that career, in one of the last scraps of Cantos, the fragment ending ‘To be men not destroyers’, we find this:

“es laissa cader”
so high toward the sun and then falling,
“de joi sas alas”
to set here the roads of France.

In fact, the third line of Bernard’s verse has appeared in the first of the Pisan Cantos; the line about the roads of France, two cantos later.[7] And, apart from the sources of a Bible and an anthology of poetry, the Pisan Cantos are, of course, primarily memories—fragmentary, often imperfect, no doubt, adhering in odd patterns and permutations—mixed with observation of the day-to-day life of the camp. In retrospect, among Pound’s glimpses of paradise were life in pre-war London and his great ventures into Provence, in 1912, 1919 and 1924, but particularly the first. ‘Or, again, a man may walk the hill roads and river roads from Limoges and Charente to Dordogne and Narbonne and learn a little, or more than a little, of what the country meant to the wandering singers, he may learn, or think he learns, why so many canzos open with speech of the weather; or why such a man made war on such and such castles.’[8]

Layng, Mabel Frances, 1881-1937; The Gypsy
(Mabyl Frances Lang, The Gypsy: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Or a man might write ‘The Gypsy’ or ‘Provincia Deserta’—or ‘Near Perigord’:

Take the whole man and ravel out the story.
He loved this lady in castle Montaignac?
The castle flanked him—he had need of it.
You read to-day, how long the overlords of Perigord,
The Talleyrands, have held the place, it was no transient fiction.
And Maent failed him? Or saw through the scheme?[9]

The lark is, I gather, ‘one of the most popular birds in post-classical Europeans poetry.’ I am directed to Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton. Tennyson, Dante, Goethe, Shelley and Blake, among others.[10] It was George Meredith’s poem that gave Vaughan Williams the title of his ‘tone poem’, The Lark Ascending. It sometimes seems that this piece has been damned by its widespread popularity, though I don’t tire of it any more than I tire of, say, the several points on Somerset and Dorset roads where you breast a rise between trees and the world suddenly opens up, with great sweeps of country on either side and the clear sky fled endlessly away—or, in bookish vein, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or yes (I’ve just confirmed) Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. A sweetness entering the heart – more or less.

References

[1] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 216.

[2] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 56.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound, 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174.

[4] Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry, edited and translated by Alan R. Press (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 1971), 77.

[5] W. D. Snodgrass, ‘The Skylark’, in Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75.

[6] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 41.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802, 431, 455. In fact, Bernard’s poem crops up in Canto VI (22) as well.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Troubadours – Their Sorts and Conditions’ (1913), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 95.

[9] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 304.

[10] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 104, 105.

 

All roses and shadow: Guy Davenport’s Sappho

Sappho

Reading Guy Davenport’s poems and translations, I paused on one of Sappho’s addresses to the goddess Aphrodite, liking the directness of its call, a sinewy compound of appeal and command:

Come out of Crete
And find me here,
Come to your grove,
Mellow apple trees
And holy altar
Where the sweet smoke
Of libanum is in
Your praise.

Where Leaf melody
In the apples
Is a crystal crash,
And the water is cold.

All roses and shadow,
This place, and sleep
Like dusk sifts down
From trembling leaves.

I paused even longer, I think, on this:

When death has laid you down among his own
And none remember you in all the years to be,
Know, grey among ghosts in that twilight world,
That, offered the roses of Pieria, you refused,
And wander forever in the dark lord Aida’s house
Reticent still, with the blind dead, unknown.[1]

GD-JW-1964

(Guy Davenport, ‘in a somewhat silent, Shakerish mood and garb’, by Jonathan Williams, 1964. Taken from Portrait Photographs , Coracle Press, London, 1979)

Yes. I was reminded of the physical responses to authentic poetry that A. E. Housman famously described in a 1933 lecture. He cites a figure named Eliphaz (in the Book of Job), to whom he ascribes the sentence, ‘A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.’ He mentions bristling skin, a shiver down the spine; and mentions one of Keats’s letters, in which the poet writes of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear’. Housman is making the point, at some length, that to him poetry seems ‘more physical than intellectual.’[2] Many readers would describe their reactions, rather, as ‘both’, though probably granting that each might apply at different times and in different states of mind or knowing.

Davenport’s translation wears the simple title ‘Vale’, ‘farewell’. The poem is also included in his Seven Greeks, where he gives a little more space to Sappho than to any other of his chosen writers. His note to this poem explains that ‘Aida’ here is Hades and adds: ‘Written, seemingly, to a standoffish girl. Thomas Hardy translates this in a poem called Achtung.’[3]

Achtung? Hardy’s version of Sappho quotes The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Shakespeare as epigraphs and runs:

Dead shalt thou lie; and nought
Be told of thee and thought,
For thou hast plucked not of the Muses’ tree:
And even in Hades’ halls
Amidst thy fellow-thralls
No friendly shade thy shade shall company![4]

thomas-hardy-portrait

(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

There is no poem called ‘Achtung’ in the index to Hardy’s Collected Poems. The title here is ‘Sapphic Fragment’, which seems reasonable. Two anthologies, The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule, and Charles Tomlinson’s Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, point me to more versions of the poem, but they too sternly name Hardy’s translation ‘Sapphic Fragment’. Ah, but there’s one more anthology to check: Confucius to Cummings, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann. Here’s Sappho and here’s that poem, called here, yes, ‘Achtung’.[5] The Pound connection is often useful when reading Davenport.

The Loeb edition offers: ‘But when you die you will lie there, and afterwards there will never be any recollection of you or any longing for you since you have no share in the roses of Pieria; unseen in the house of Hades also, flown from our midst, you will go to and fro among the shadowy corpses.’ The notes cite Stobaeus and Plutarch to the effect that the poem was addressed to ‘an uneducated woman’, ‘a wealthy woman’ or ‘an uncultured, ignorant woman’.[6]

Still, ‘Written, seemingly, to a standoffish girl’, feels about right to me. ‘Her Aphrodite laughs’, Davenport writes of Sappho, adding, with characteristic sharpness, ‘Sexual frenzy was as respectable a passion to Sappho as rapacious selfishness to an American. Few societies have been as afraid of the body as ours, and in the West none has, within history, been as solicitous as the Greek of its beauty.’[7] And elsewhere, ‘Seems to me that Sappho was the poet of desire.’[8]

Desire, yes.

Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours like a beast.[9]

‘Vale’—or ‘Achtung’—sets the speaker, the poet who has accepted those Pierian roses, who has drunk deep of the Pierian spring, the fountain of the Muses in Thessaly, against that other, who has not embraced, either directly or through the person of the poet, intimate knowledge of the arts and sciences, who will pass into the shadows of Hades, unmourned and unremembered.

‘Pierian roses’ recalls that man Pound again: in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, ‘The pianola “replaces” / Sappho’s barbitos’, while in Dr Johnson’s old haunts, Fleet Street has gone to the dogs; or, at least, to stallholders with socks to sell:

Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses.[10]

HD

(H. D.)

Sappho’s art, Davenport, comments, ‘belongs to cultural springtimes and renaissance’—hints here of the Persephone theme which increasingly appears to occupy an entire continent in the world of modern literature—and she spoke ‘with Euclidean terseness and authority of the encounters of the loving heart, the infatuated eye’s engagement with flowing hair, suave bodies, moonlight on flowers.’ Her imagery ‘is as stark and patterned as the vase painting of her time’ – ‘Never has poetry been this clear and bright.’ And he quotes, by way of comparison, one of H. D.’s— Hilda Doolittle’s—‘conscious imitations’:

delicate the weave,
fair the thread:

clear the colours,
apple-leaf green,
ox-heart blood-red:

rare the texture,
woven from wild ram,
sea-bred horned sheep:

the stallion and his mare,
unbridled, with arrow pattern,
are worked on
the blue cloth.[11]

This is from a late H. D. poem ‘Fair the Thread’ (topped and tailed), though H. D. did produce translations, or imitations, of several of Sappho’s poems – or, rather, fragments. Sappho’s corpus consists almost entirely of fragments, which are often fleshed out by translators with guesswork and conjecture. They are also used—by poets—as taking-off points for longer, connected poems. One example is Swinburne, whose version of the fragment that Davenport called ‘Vale’ is embedded in the 300-plus lines of ‘Anactoria’, beginning there ‘Thee too the years shall cover’.[12] H. D. herself is another example, though a complicated one: the editor of her Collected Poems cites three early poems which are ‘masked as expansions of fragments of Sappho’, while one of her later critics, referring to those poems explicitly based on Sappho’s ‘fragments’, suggests that H. D.’s ‘textual play’ with Sappho ‘goes far beyond these’.[13]

Sappho’s concision and precision seem peculiarly fitted to excite the minds of the early modernist poets, particularly the Imagists; but then the fragmented state of her work, its blanks and inscrutabilities, bafflements and painstaking decipherments are also very appropriate to the story of modern literature.

Flowers-Leaves-REM

(Jacket of Davenport’s long poem, Flowers and Leaves, published by Jonathan Williams in 1966: Ralph Eugene Meatyard, ‘Untitled’, 1959. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.)

One more Davenport-Sappho detail. Writing about his friend, the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Davenport remembered that, ‘Greek nor Latin had he, though he once figured out with a modern Greek dictionary that a lyric of Sappho (which he had set out to read as his first excursion into the classics) had something to do with a truck crossing a bridge.’[14]

The art of the possible. Why not?

 
References

[1] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 32, 33.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 254-255: the whole lecture, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, is reprinted here (231-256). The letter he refers to is to Charles Brown, 1 November 1820: Letters of John Keats, edited by Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 397.

[3] Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 234 n.6. For his introduction, see 4-14 on Sappho, and for translations of her work, 69-116.

[4] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976), 181.

[5] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 18.

[6] Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus, edited and translated by David A. Campbell (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), 99.

[7] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 9.

[8] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 163.

[9] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 87.

[10] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 550, 556.

[11] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 5.

[12] Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited by Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 52.

[13] H. D., Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984), xiv; Eileen Gregory, H. D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 148.

[14] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 370.

Jubilant jaunty Jonathan

JW-via-New-Directions

(Jonathan Williams, via New Directions Publishing Corporation)

In 1973, William Blissett, on a visit to the poet and painter David Jones, went with him through a list of queries about In Parenthesis, one of them ‘yon’s wick as Swale-side rat’. Yorkshire dialect, Jones told him, quick, alert, artful. He was surprised that the Oxford English Dictionary gave only ‘wicked’: that was ‘not what he meant at all.’ Blissett added: ‘He remembers a Yorkshireman in his unit who used to pass things to him, saying “’ere ye are, wick’un.”’[1]

That rang a bell with this Southerner and the ringing sound was traced to the fine collection of Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, with a short preface by Hugh Kenner.[2] One of the photographs is of David Hockney and beside it Williams wrote: ‘I worry sometimes that La Grande Chic will gobble up David and turn him into High Society’s current stand-in for Cecil Beaton or Noel Coward. But, maybe that argument is neither nowt nor summat, as they say in the West Riding where he comes from. Our David is wick as a lop and still knows what’s what.’

JW-DH

(David Hockney by Jonathan Williams)

‘Wick as a lop’, yes, that was the phrase. Getting on for forty years later and Hockney still knows what’s what, is still working endlessly, exploring, experimenting, trying stuff out and giving pleasure. Not bad going.

Jonathan Williams (born 8 March 1929), was poet, publisher, photographer, essayist. He studied at Black Mountain College and, with David Ruff, founded The Jargon Society in 1951. It published an extraordinary range of writers, mainly poets, including Robert Duncan, Mina Loy, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, though its all-time bestseller seems to have been White Trash Cooking. Following Williams’ death in March 2008, his long-time partner, the poet Thomas Meyer, took the decision to present The Jargon Society’s inventory and publication rights to the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center: see http://jargonbooks.com/

Niedecker-TG

Charles Olson’s early Maximus volumes appeared from Jargon. So too did Lorine Niedecker’s beautiful T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966), printed by the Falcon Press in Philadelphia, in September 1969. Niedecker lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin.

Black Hawk held: In reason
land cannot be sold,
only things to be carried away,
and I am old.

Young Lincoln’s general moved,
pawpaw in bloom,
and to this day, Black Hawk,
reason has small room.[3]

In the early 1960s, as Niedecker wrote to Louis Zukofsky, ‘Letter from Jonathan says he reads my poems to English audiences but tho the response was good, “very tentative. The English tend to want a lot of ‘profound talk’ in everything, and they are so non-sensual that they find it difficult to enjoy anything else. . .”’.[4] Williams was also given to ‘reading and slide-showing tours around the Republic in his Volkswagen, The Blue Rider’. He is, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘the iconographer of poets in our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium.’[5]

Williams’ own poems were written in the Pennine Dales and the Appalachian Mountains. Hugh Kenner’s observation that ‘Jonathan Williams is our Catullus and our Johnny Appleseed’ hints at the hybrid nature of the poetry.[6] It’s hugely various, veering from high modernism to folk art, exploratory, a little crazy, jaunty, ingenious, funny, often splendidly indecent. From two-line epigrams through acrostics, clerihews and what Williams calls ‘Meta-fours’, four words to a line, these and others often skirting the edge of nonsense, if not toppling over; there’s the fifty-page Mahler; and then many ‘found’ poems. They may be literally so, reshaped from newspaper reports or postcards or public notices; but the term could be applied more widely, to Williams looking and listening with close attention to ordinary lives in the Appalachians or in Cumbria. Guy Davenport quotes such a poem, suggesting that it demonstrates its author having learned from William Carlos Williams’ insistence that ‘the poet’s business is to let the world speak for itself’:

UNCLE IV SURVEYS HIS DOMAIN FROM HIS ROCKER OF A SUNDAY AFTERNOON AS AUNT DORY STARTS TO CHOP THE KINDLIN

Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side the house

the woman
choppin wood’s
mite nigh the awkerdist thing
I seen.[7]

As with many of Marianne Moore’s poems or, for that matter, Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the title is an integral part of the text of the poem. It contains twenty words; the poem itself, twenty-one.

Williams quotes with approval Bentley’s Milton clerihew:

The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.

He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Pensoroso.

And devises many of his own:

Why did Professor J. R. R. Tolkien
never really come clean

about the scientologists in cupboards
in the House of L. Ron Hubbard?

or (one of my favourites):

Gertrude Stein
arose at nine

and arose and arose
and arose.[8]

GD-JW-Poet

His acrostic on Guy Davenport’s name ends with the line, ‘To keep afloat the Ark of Culture in these dark and tacky times!’ His prefatory ‘A Greeting to the Reader’ mentioned that Davenport ‘has been reading the poems since the 1960s.’[9] The two writers had enjoyed a long and fertile friendship, apparently damaged by the publication of A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, including material that Davenport had specifically asked Williams to omit.[10]

Jubilant Thicket appeared in 2005, the year of Davenport’s death. One of the last poems in it is for Lorine Niedecker:

she seined words
as others stars
or carp

laconic as
a pebble
in the Rock River

along the bank
where the peony flowers
fall

her tall friend
the pine tree
is still there

to see[11]

 

Tremendous collection of photographs of Williams’ life here:
http://jacketmagazine.com/38/jw-life-pictures.shtml

Jeffery Beam’s obituary here:
http://www.ashevillepoetryreview.com/2010/issue-18/the-truffle-hound-of-american-poetry

 

References

[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 123; see David Jones, In Parenthesis, (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 114.

[2] Jonathan Williams, Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979): the Hockney portrait is Plate 22.

[3] Taken from Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 99.

[4] Letter of 3 February 1963, Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 328.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 368; ‘Jonathan Williams’, first published as introduction to Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, then as a pamphlet from Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookshop; reprinted in The Geography of the Imagination, 180-189.

[6] Dust jacket blurb quoted by Willard Godwin, Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography (Albany, New York: Whitston, 2001), 402.

[7] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 136.

[8] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 101, 102, 108.

[9] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 114, ix.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 139n.

[11] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 273.