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 Two Notes on the Kenner/Davenport Correspondence 

Edward M. Burns, ed. Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport & Hugh Kenner. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2018. RRP $95.00 USD.


by A. David Moody


This conversation in letters between two brilliant minds began in 1958, was kept up for nearly twenty years at the rate of one or more a week each way, then over the next two decades gradually tapered off to annual greetings. Their interests and topics ranged over the fields ancient and modern of literature and art and culture, and extended, in Kenner’s case especially, into mathematics and technology, while Davenport drew illustrations for their books, translated from the Greek poets, and developed in his bricolages or stories an original form of fact-based fiction. Ezra Pound is a constant point of reference in the correspondence, and a particular interest for readers concerned with the Kenner/Pound conjunction is the back-story to The Pound Era.

On 4 June 1968 Kenner wrote to Davenport, “Just 20 years ago today, as attested by inscription in a copy of Personae, I was first in St. Liz at the master’s feet. With no idea that my future was being shaped” (K/D 1086).  Davenport too had sat at Pound’s feet in St. Elizabeths, and learned from him “about Louis Agassiz, Leo Frobenius, Alexander del Mar, Basil Bunting, Arthur Rimbaud, Guido Cavalcanti, Confucius, Mencius, Raphael Pumpelly, and on and on.”  Davenport saw that he was “making up for the periodic and convulsive self-erasure of the American mind” (Davenport, 97).What Kenner took away from his first visit was rather the impression of Pound’s speech, “slow, deliberate, and built”, and that revealed to him how, in the Cantos, “Modulated by the cadences of Ezra Pound, meaning disclosed itself formally, sequentially, musically” (PEP 3-4). What he also learnt was that Pound’s “was a poetic of fact”, and that “his criteria were precisely those of the old-fashioned ‘scholarship’ to which he and I, forty years apart, had been exposed. Canada’s forty-year time-lag abetting me, I took without effort to his strong historical orientation”(PEP 7).  He had been introduced to the New Criticism by Marshall McLuhan, but that did not take: being formed by and for Eliot’s poetic, it did not know how to talk about Pound’s poetry.  Kenner wrote The Poetry of Ezra Pound in order to state “the case for Ezra Pound”, and with the deliberate intention of dethroning Eliot and changing the New Critics’ Age of Eliot into The Pound Era (see PEP 6-8).  But that precocious book was “misshapen”, as he later recognised, by his assuming “that Imagism was the central event” (K/D 1039). It did not have the intended effect.

A decade later, in 1961, Kenner was telling Davenport that he had in mind “a Magnum Opus entitled The Pound Era.”  It would be “a history of the intellectual events of our time as polarized by Uncle Ezra” (K/D 38). One can track the book’s progress through his letters to Davenport over the following ten years, where he is thinking it out, and at times writing drafts towards it.  In May 1963 he knew that “It will have to be a sort of baroque object like Ulysses or i canti. Much variation of manner & treatment.”  One structural model would be a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and imposed on that, “second structural model, the Cantos somewhat idealized. Cantos with more architecture (courtesy FLW) less sheaf-of-documents.” There was one more thought in this letter, one that touches the main motive of Kenner’s project, “The whole 20th century recovery of the past, or invention (selection) of a new past has to go into it.” (K/D 339)  It would be about the twentieth century renaissance, not simply about Pound, and its dust-jacket would declare The Pound Era to be “The Age of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis”.

He already knew that the book would close with a sentence picked up from Davenport, “‘Thought is a labyrinth’.” But the thing would be “to build up to it with sufficient complication in the last 2 paragraphs, and then clang, let it reverberate in the terminal stillness . . . .Whole point of a book is what happens in the five minutes after one has finished reading it” (K/D 283).

He was composing his opening sentence in 1964. Dorothy Pound had told him earlier that year in Rapallo how she and Ezra had encountered Henry James taking his morning constitutional, and how she had been struck by his “robins-breast coloured weskit” (K/D 669 n.126).  Kenner wrote this up as, “Toward the evening of the gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoat of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his young niece to the tone of things.” He quoted the sentence to Davenport with a guide to its felicities:

     To be rolled about on the tongue. Commenced July 4, finished early August, thus probably breaking Joyce’s snail-pace record of fifteen words in a day. . . . You will not miss the deliberate system of allusions in 41 words, the studied presence of a foreign phrase, its effect in prolonging the rhythm with a touch of Jamesian delay, the fact that the subject of the sentence is “light”. (K/D 607-8)

Davenport, usually prompt with praise of Kenner’s prose, took the sentence apart: “Gone world? What’s that mean? . . . . Found is so far from its subject light that the matter between sags like a hammock. . . . . All nieces are young. . . . One thing that’s running static into ‘gone world’ is that that phrase now means (and for how long?) a world hep and with it, ‘gone scene’, ‘flipped crowd’.” (K/D 616)  The sentence stood nevertheless, though with “a gone world”, and “his Boston niece” as concessions to Davenport’s critique.

In his working towards The Pound Era in these letters Kenner’s interest is not so much in making out the sense and accomplishment of Pound’s poetry as in what lies behind it, in the facts that it refers to rather than presents, and in the ways in which the past was recovered. And in writing up his findings he is thinking about his own weaving of them together rather than about Pound’s composition of them in his cantos. In effect he is working up Pound’s materials into constructions of his own. He can be brilliant, he can be illuminating, at times dazzling; and his writing is indeed close to historical scholarship, even to the philology which Pound had found so inadequate as a method for discriminating the poetic quality of poems. 

In the summer of 1968 Kenner was in Europe, visiting and photographing Sigismundo’s Tempio and other places which figure in the Cantos.  Back home in California he reflected that it would be “A theme in itself, that much Canto annotation is a case of going and looking at  something, such as the Tempio which is not described in the poem”; in fact, Eva Hesse’s projected Iconography, documenting the sites mentioned in the Cantos, “may be the most valuable Ezratical aid of all”. He proposed that he and Davenport “join forces abroad for a brief spell and visit for instance the Near Perigord places, the Provincia Deserta, Montségur, etc.” (K/D 1098-99). Shortly before they were to depart Davenport “fell into a black depression” at the prospect and cried off. (K/D 1247)  Kenner sent him “wish you were here” postcards, one of them from Rapallo: “I leave here tomorrow for Montségur. Then north via Poitiers, where one can stand casting no shadow, to Paris, where the beerbottle on the statue’s pediment is said to be visible from Fritz’s former apt. window.” (K/D 1249) 

In The Pound Era there are eight of Kenner’s photographs of the Tempio, its bas-reliefs are lovingly evoked and it is made much of in the text as an exemplary work of art.  Finally, in a striking generalisation, it is perceived, along with Sigismundo’s captured postbag, as an emblem and structural model for the Cantos, “the one a clutch of documents proper to one time, the other a deliberate concentration of pieties and traditions, the parts finely crafted (and the structure unfinished)” (PE 417,419).  That is to make the Cantos out to be something like the British Museum used to be, a library of books and manuscripts surrounded by a collection of antiquities; and it is to make light of Pound’s creation. Kenner does not consider how the Tempio figures and functions in the Malatesta cantos—all of his fine appreciation is of what is not there except by implication.  It is the Tempio that he attends to and values, not the cantos themselves. Of course, the better one knows the Tempio and its carvings the richer will be one’s appreciation of the irony at the heart of these cantos; but one will miss the irony if one goes out of the canto’s way to get a full view of what it deliberately barely sketches.

In 1967 Kenner was “grubbing after facts” about the actual texts of Sappho from which Pound might have derived “Papyrus” and the “Atthis” lines in canto V.  Davenport had put him on to “P. Berol. 9722. Berliner Klassikertexte, 1907, vol. 2, p. 14 seq.” (K/D 703). Kenner had “found two standard transcriptions differing from each other and from [Davenport’s]”, and had “put the Interlibrarians on to the trail of Berl. Klass itself”, and therein had found what he took to be exactly “what Ez had in front of his eyes” (K/D 927-8).  However, “still more advanced research, abetted by perusal of the Egoist (now available in reprint from Kraus) indicates that the Ezratical source for Gongula and for the Canto V Atthis was two articles by Edmonds in the Classical Review, 1909.” It was “a comfort to have the source settled”, and in November he had “a chapter on Ez, Sappho, Fragments, and Paterian aesthetic well along” (K/D 959).  That chapter would be “the Muse in Tatters” in The Pound Era, one in which Pound’s deriving from Sappho’s fragments certain rhythms and dictions and intensities figures as an exemplary instance of the recovery of the classic past in “the second Renaissance”.  But Pound’s canto, the whole complex composition with all its other interacting elements, is cursorily summed up in a couple of sentences.

Thinking about that second Renaissance in May 1963, Kenner had remarked to Davenport, “To render Greece newly visible would be an honourable lifetime’s function”, and “Ezra’s function”, he added, was “comparable to that of the dispersal of mss. post-1435, i.e. he rendered gobs of material accessible.” (K/D 331)  Pound of course did rather more than that with his Greek materials, as with his Roman materials, but Kenner seems simply unresponsive to the mythopoetic dimension of, for example, the first two cantos.  What interested him in their relation to the Homeric Hymns and to Ovid was the “chain of transmission”: in the case of canto I, “Divus, Odyssey XI (Ur-Gk, Gk, Ren. Lat., Anglo-Sax, English of 1912)”; and in the case of canto II, a story from the Hymn to Dionysus rehandled by Ovid, “the sequence is Gk/Classical Lat (i.e. not Renaissance but Ovidian)/Modern World . . . context of Picasso, Lir, the emphasis still on chain of transmission but spreading off sideways into analogues in other times and kulchurs” (K/D 1034).  Kenner is fascinated by such transmissions, by the persistence of the primary energy through its sequence of transformations which he likened to “recycling transformations of solar energy” (PE 146). It is the process which he studies, rather than the Homeric Hymn, or Ovid’s tale, or indeed Pound’s canto.

What I keep coming up against is that, although they figure so largely in it, The Pound Era is not about Pound and his Cantos, and was not meant to be. Kenner had struggled against its “insisting on being a book about Pound, with digressions” (K/D 1065); and his readers might well struggle to adjust to the fact that Kenner is not looking at but through The Cantos in order to track and to correlate the recoveries and renewals going on around them and in their making.  

When writing to Davenport he could throw off striking but rash generalisations. In October 1964 he wrote, “for Ez, with one foot on Greek world, the New is the Renovated Old . . . a radical split in his thought sends him back through history looking for a golden age from which we have declined” (K/D 628). It is a facile commonplace, but there are no unalloyed golden ages in The Cantos, only instances of efforts, more and less successful, “To achieve the possible”.  The previous December Kenner had written, “After Mauberley social context vanishes from his poetry, visible only in affectionate retrospect; he becomes the academician in the void” (K/D 477). What can Kenner possibly have meant by “social context” if there is none to be found in The Cantos?  As for “the academician in the void”, isn’t that what Kenner’s way with The Cantos tends to make of  Pound?

There are vital dimensions which he elides. One is the socio-political. In May 1970, with The Pound Era about to go to press, he foresaw “that the keepers of the national conscience will not permit fascism etc. to go unscrutinized, whereas it simply does not merit more space than I have given it” (K/D 1306). That amounted to a couple of exculpatory paragraphs to be tracked in the Index under “Hitler” and “Mussolini”—there is no entry for “Fascism”, and none for “anti-Semitism”. The positive side of Pound’s socio-political views is similarly elided. There is a technical exposition of Douglas on banking and Social Credit, but nothing substantive about the Siena cantos and the whole sequence XLII-LI, nor about the John Adams cantos—“ten cantos of finely culled citations that are bracing but aesthetically dispersive” (Pound Era 457-8). And there is nothing to show that what Pound intended above all in his Cantos was to implant in the mind images to incite in responsible citizens the will to create and to sustain a just and flourishing social order. Kenner just doesn’t go there.

Perhaps Davenport was right when he told Kenner, “Without doubt, your most Poundian act is to have discovered Beckett and invented a new kind of book to see him in; my homage is Archilochos” (K/D 635).


Another thing the letters bring out is Kenner’s bitter antipathy to British writers and critics in general, and to D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular. (Apart from Wyndham Lewis, no British writer figures in The Pound Era as contributing to the modern renaissance.) The antipathy begins early and finds its full and public expression in A Sinking Island. The Modern English Writers (1988).  In a letter of June 1962 there is a long paragraph against Lawrence—“Thoroughly nasty case. I don’t think I could be coherent on the subject”. What Kenner held against him was principally that he thought Bloomsbury were “the real thing”, and while he hated them he “would have been puffickly happy in Bloomsburee if only he had been born in an Eton suit and with the proper accent; perfect spiritual kinship”. Davenport was “right in lumping him in with ‘the whole selfish inbred lot’.” Then this bundle of prejudices: “I notice he’s the muse of upstarts, the tin god of English working class sensitives who have moved into Redbrickdom, plus Amerk equivalent of ditto. Hysterical jackbooted flagellant by temperament, and I suspect natively a homosexual trying to persuade himself all his life that he was otherwise. It would be interesting to tease out why he is the leftwingers’ novelist . . . ” (K/D 136). In 1964 he reported that he had made “a frenzied plea” to Houghton Mifflin not to insist on the inclusion in a 20th century anthology of “the deadest part of 20th century”, i.e. “V. Woolf, Auden, & Cie”, and demanded rhetorically, “When will these flunkies grasp the centrality of the Pound Era?” (K/D 633). When The Pound Era appeared in 1972 he couldn’t believe the British reviews, which mistook it for a book about Pound, and listed some of the offences: “The Times alleges that it misses ‘the tragedy of Pound’s later years: the cage, the guilt, the silence’”;  Philip Toynbee “in The Observer speaks of ‘outrageous mannerisms and self-exhibiting affectations in shameless profusion’”; “Kermode in The Guardian finds the opening ‘deeply tedious’ . . . His other adjectives include ‘tiresomely mannered,’ ‘pretentious,’ ‘insecure dogmatism’, ‘laboured’ (and of the ‘Eveline’ explication!) …” (K/D 1413). Davenport was quick to sympathize: “I am ashamed of the British critics. . . . Chattering magpies, all of them. And as jealousy runs, you are a double red flag to their sense of rivalry: both Colonial and American” (K/D 1414). Kenner would take his revenge in A Sinking Island, its title an allusion to Pope’s Scriblerus treatise “Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry”. In 1983 Kenner wrote, “I am gritting my teeth to undertake a 4th and final volume: to complete Pound EraHomemade World, & Colder Eye with a look at the happenings in the 3rd (= British) province. Somebody on sewage would afford a good epigraph” (K/D 1757).  In 1985 he wrote, “A Sinking Island (England) is past the half-way mark. What a glump of clods. They do not deserve a literature. . . . English reviews will likely be laudatory. They love being kicked” (K/D 1772).


Davenport, Guy & Kenner, Hugh. Questioning Minds. The Letters of Guy Davenport & Hugh Kenner, ed. Edward M. Burns. 2 vols. boxed. 2016 pp. Counterpoint. October 2018 [K/D]

Davenport, Guy. “Civilization and Its Opposite in the 1940s”, The Hunter Gracchus And Other Papers on Literature and Art. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint. 1996.  

Kenner, Hugh. “Retrospect: 1985", The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. [PEP]

_________   The Pound Era. London: Faber & Faber. 1972. [PE]