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The Geography of the Imagination

The Geography of the Imagination [PDF]

I've lost count of the times I read his essay on Whitman.

Within a few miles of each other in the 1880s, Whitman was putting the last touches to his great book, Eadweard Muybridge was photographing movements milliseconds apart of animals, naked athletes, and women, and Thomas Eakins was painting surgeons, boxers, musicians, wrestlers, and Philadelphians. In a sense Muybridge and Eakins were catching up with Whitman’s pioneering. Their common subject, motion, the robust real, skilled and purposeful action, was distinctly American, an invention. Eakins and Muybridge worked together; Eakins came over to Camden and painted and photographed Whitman. Their arts ran parallel, shared a spirit and a theme. Muybridge’s photographs, the monumental Zoopraxia, kept Degas and Messonier up all night looking at it. There has been no finer movement in American art, nor a more fertile one (from Muybridge, through Edison, the whole art of film), and yet their impact was generally felt to be offensive. Eakins and Muybridge were forgotten for years; Whitman persisted.

A pleasure of reading Davenport is his compression of any given matrix of affinities—the whole lit-crit trainspotting of influences on and influences of—into striking little scenes like that of Degas staying up all night with the Zoopraxia. (When you see Degas’ dancers or his racehorses, see also his colleague in nineteenth century motion study, Muybridge, the London-born San Francisco bookseller who took up photography after a serious brain injury—he was thrown from a stagecoach whose operator had taken to using teams of half-wild mustangs in a bid to increase speed.) It seems that a way with the suggestive fragment, the connective anecdote—“let the song lie in the thing!”—marks these Disciples of Pound. Davenport and Hugh Kenner (to whom The Geography of the Imagination is dedicated) would say that that is how Pound taught them to write—“ideogrammatically”; but Pound’s poetics are also useful for partisans. His poetry spun off its own polemical-explicatory prose. To defend their then-and still-maligned master Davenport and Kenner had to vividly and concretely communicate his entire intellectual lineage, his often obscure sources and inspirations, his unsuspected sponsorship of Things We Know; to explicate Pound they required a prose that with its combinatory compression, genius for collage, and imagistic piquancy prepared readers for the summa of civilization we are assured is to be found in The Cantos. To be sure, the critical prose instigated by Pound has its drawbacks—essentially peremptory, its salutary solicitousness of the unknown masterpiece, the obscured context, the neglected relation can become at times a hectoring of us ignorant barbarians—but on the whole I love it.

The placing of events in time is a romantic act; the tremendum is in the distance. There are no dates in the myths; from when did Heracles stride the earth? In a century obsessed with time, with archeological dating, with the psychological recovery of time (Proust, Freud), Pound has written as if time were unreal, has in fact, treated it as if it were space. William Blake preceded him here, on the irreality of clock time, sensing the dislocations caused by time (a God remote in time easily became remote in space, an absentee landlord), and proceeding, in his enthusiastic way, to dine with Isaiah—one way of a suggesting that Isaiah’s mind is not a phenomenon fixed between 742 and 687 B.C. Pound’s mind has to be seen for the extraordinary shape it has given to itself. To say that The Cantos is a “voyage in time” is to be blind to the poem altogether. We miss immediately the achievement upon which the success of the poem depends, its rendering time transparent and negligible, its dismissing the supposed corridors and perspectives down which the historian invites us to look. Pound cancelled in his own mind the disassociations that had been isolating fact from fact for centuries. To have closed the gap between mythology and botany is but one movement of the process; one way to read The Cantos is to go through noting the restorations of relationships now thought to be discrete—the ideogrammatic method was invented for just this purpose. In Pound’s spatial sense of time the past is here, now; its invisibility is our blindness, not its absence. The nineteenth century had put everything against the scale of time and discovered that all behavior within time’s monolinear progress was evolutionary. The past was a graveyard, a museum. It was Pound’s determination to obliterate such a configuration of time and history, to treat what had become a world of ghosts as a world eternally present.

Kenner’s The Pound Era is the best defense/explication any modern writer has had, a spicy masterpiece that can claim an admirer in Vladimir Nabokov—who despised Pound. Davenport hailed it as “not so much a book as a library, or better, a new kind of book in which biography, history and analysis of literature are so harmoniously articulated that every page has a narrative sense”—and the same can be said of The Geography of the Imagination.To use his own phrase, Davenport is an ideal "historian of visionaries."

But Davenport’s an astounding fictionist, as well. My only prior exposure was “Some Verses of Virgil,” the novella that closes his collection Eclogues. “Some Verses of Virgil” is a beautiful, unclassifiable freak that displays a virtuosic style, evokes multiple genres, and flamboyantly straddles poetry and prose (if Pale Fire is a “centaur-work,” “half poem, half prose,” according to Mary McCarthy, then Davenport’s novella is a “satyr-work”: less obviously dichotomous, a humanoid biped with goat shanks; it also happens to feature plenty of sylvan trysting). I’ve never read anything like it. So it was strange to read Davenport calmly, humbly, almost professorially explicating the ideogrammatic densities and “architectonic” collages of Pound and Olson, Marianne Moore and Paul Metcalf, without dropping even a hint that he is a part of their lineage, playing in the same league. It wasn’t until I reached the very last essay that I stopped wondering why he seemed to be holding back. He admits, “I was forty-three when I wrote my first story since undergraduate says.” Most of these essays were not written by an artist appreciating his fellow practitioners. Not that it matters. The Geography of the Imagination is a real reader’s testament. It’s packed with those vivid, meaning-making connections apparent to and privately gathered by common readers, but often excluded from the dossiers handed down to us in school and in most journalistic book review columns. It’s up on my shelf—wedged between Evan S. Connell and James Salter, two other American Prose Wizards once published by the lamented North Point Press—but I think it’ll be back down soon. Davenport’s essay on Eudora Welty, I mean his fantasia on a theme of Eudora Welty, deserves a second look—or a third, or a fourth.

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