Sentences — April 3, 2009, 3:32 pm

Weekend Read: “He wanted the overtones as well”

davenportcover This week, I’ve posted around the uncontroversial contention that literary criticism is nothing if it isn’t reading closely, quoting abundantly, and parsing carefully. In the course of commenting on such concerns, one reader wrote to say he thought I was suggesting that Guy Davenport wasn’t a good literary critic. Although I still find myself unconvinced that I made any such suggestion, if even one reader could suppose such a thing, I feel I’m duty bound to make the following statement: Find me a better literary critic than Davenport in the past 50 years and I’ll buy you a pony.

The confusion, I suppose, comes from Davenport’s multiple capacities. He was a painter, an illustrator, a draftsman, a carpenter; a poet, a translator, a fiction writer, an essayist; and, too, he was a literary critic. But the fortune-cookie wisdom of “jack of all trades, master of none,” surely does not apply in Davenport’s case. He was simply deeply able at most of the activities to which his attention turned. He was capacious, capable de tout.

One piece of criticism (of many) of Davenport’s to which I return every year is “Another Odyssey,” a 1967 review of Richard Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey that first appeared in Arion and was later collected in Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination: 40 Essays on Literature and Art. As much as the essay is a showcase for Davenport’s gifts as a reader and a writer, it’s also an object lesson in active reading and clear writing thereabout.

In Davenport, you get an eye and ear tuned this sharp and fine:

davenporttext

So as your weekend read, I propose Davenport’s “Another Odyssey,” available online here, or available, in paper form, with 39 other, very varied pieces of criticism and personal essay, here.

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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