- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Guy Davenport on Art, Style, Fiction, Poetry, and More

 

Happy birthday, Guy Davenport! Here are some quotes from the writer:

 

“Reality was the keener for being fugitive, concealed, and doubtful…”

 

“Avoid the suave flow of prose that’s the trademark of the glib writer. An easy and smooth style is all very well, but it takes no chances and has no seductive wrinkles, no pauses for thought.”

 

“Poetry is the voice of a poet at its birth, and the voice of a people in its ultimate fulfillment as a successful and useful work of art.”

 

“It is worthwhile adding that the power of the poem to teach not only sensibilities and the subtle movements of the spirit but knowledge, real lasting felt knowledge, is going mostly unnoticed among our scholars. The body of knowledge locked into and releasable from poetry can replace practically any university in the Republic. First things first, then: the primal importance of a poem is what it can add to the individual mind.”

 

“All my discrete paragraphing is to force the reader to read. Most narrative prose can be read by running one’s eye down the page. If I’ve worked one hour on a sentence, I want the reader to pay attention to it. I hope there’s a web of symbols and themes running through all the stories.”

 

“The emptier a room the smaller it seems. This is true of minds as well.”

 

“Lives do not have plots, only biographies do.”

 

“When Heraclitus said that everything passes steadily along, he was not inciting us to make the best of the moment, an idea unseemly to his placid mind, but to pay attention to the pace of things. Each has its own rhythm: the nap of a dog, the procession of the equinoxes, the dances of Lydia, the majestically slow beat of the drums at Dodona, the swift runners at Olympia.”

 

“The poet is at the edge of our consciousness of the world, finding beyond the suspected nothingness which we imagine limits our perception another acre or so of being worth our venturing upon.”

 

“Art is always the replacement of indifference by attention.”

 

“Reality is the most effective mask of reality. Our fondest wish, attained, ceases to be our fondest wish. Success is the greatest of disappointments. The spirit is most alive when it is lost. Anxiety was Kafka’s composure, as despair was Kierkegaard’s happiness. Kafka said impatience is our greatest fault. The man at the gate of the Law waited there all of his life.”

 

“It is worthwhile adding that the power of the poem to teach not only sensibilities and the subtle movements of the spirit but knowledge, real lasting felt knowledge, is going mostly unnoticed among our scholars. The body of knowledge locked into and releasable from poetry can replace practically any university in the Republic. First things first, then: the primal importance of a poem is what it can add to the individual mind.

Poetry is the voice of a poet at its birth, and the voice of a people in its ultimate fulfillment as a successful and useful work of art.”

 

“The unexamined life is eminently worth living, were anyone so fortunate. It would be the life of an animal, brave and alert, with instincts instead of opinions and decisions, loyalty to mate and cubs, to the pack. It might, for all we know, be a life of richest interest and happiness. Dogs dream. The quickened spirit of the eagle circling in high cold air is beyond our imagination. The placidity of cattle shames the Stoic, and what critic has the acumen of a cat? We have used the majesty of the lion as a symbol of royalty, the wide-eyed stare of owls for wisdom, the mild beauty of the dove for the spirit of God.”

 

“Unless the work of art has wholly exhausted its maker’s attention, it fails. This is why works of great significance are demanding and why they are infinitely rewarding.”

 

“The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery.”

 

“Fiction’s essential activity is to imagine how others feel, what a Saturday afternoon in an Italian town in the second century looked like. My ambition is solely to get some effect, as of light on stone in a forest on a September day…”

 

“The architectonics of a narrative are emphasized and given a role to play in dramatic effect when novelists become Cubists; that is, when they see the possibilities of making a hieroglyph, a coherent symbol, an ideogram of the total work. A symbol comes into being when an artist sees that it is the only way to get all the meaning in. Genius always proceeds by faith…”

 

“A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.”

 

“The prime use of words is for imagery: my writing is drawing.”

 

“I trust the image; my business is to get it onto the page.”

 

“A page, which I think of as a picture, is essentially a texture of images. […]The text of a story is therefore a continuous graph, kin to the imagist poem, to a collage (Ernst, Willi Baumeister, El Lissitzky), a page of Pound, a Brakhage film.”

 

“My writing unit is such that I start literally with scraps of paper and pages from notebooks. Every sentence is written by itself; there are very few consecutive sentences in my work.[…] Single sentences, which are revised eight or nine times. And I find a place for them, so that the actual writing of any of the stories of Tatlin! was a matter of turning back and forth in a notebook and finding what I wanted.”

 

“Most language refers not to the world but to itself, is a music of sense rather than sense itself. That language is metaphorical is, in time, its frailty and deterioration. An allusion is a reservation of meaning.”

 

“A work of art easily offers us three angles of interest: how it came to be, what it is, and how the world has honored or neglected it.”

 

“A meaningless world is intolerable, corrosive, depressing. Our understanding of the world is largely secret, limited to our kin and friends, and evaporates in the winds of time. The artist’s understanding of the world is public, available to all, and can become a long-lasting resource. The most wonderful thing children discover is that something is interesting to somebody else. They then appropriate this interest for their own. Two people attentive to a detail of the world make a society, and the object they find significant has crossed over from meaninglessness to symbol. Art is always the replacing of indifference by attention.

Mysense of writing begins in an obligation to see and to make what I see visible to others. The obligation is not to others (where it may be an intrusion, a disruption, an imposition) but to the thing seen. Unless the work of art has wholly exhausted its maker’s attention, it fails. This is why works of great significance are demanding and why they are infinitely rewarding.”

 

“I am a minor—an amateur—writer working at the edge of the community of writers. I could not write at all until I had found a way to exhaust, in my small way and to the best of my ability, the subject I’d chosen. There are materials to be assembled: things to be found, things to look at with all commandable curiosity. The story ‘Robot’ required seven years of reading, a visit to the site of the story in France, a knowledge of prehistory, modern history, a sifting of my own experience. Whatever the value of the story as writing, I have the assurance that I put into it everything of which I’m capable and gave it every advantage available to me. I do not know what the story means. I only know that I found a way to fit everything in.”

 

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John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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