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Contemporary poet takes us back to the Greeks

Thasos and Ohio: Poems & Translations, 1950-1980, by Guy Davenport. San Francisco: North Point Press. 145 pp. $14.95. Selected from 30 years of versemaking, the poems included in ``Thasos and Ohio'' help us assess an author of essays, short stories, poems, and translations, who has been called ``one of our most gifted and versatile men of letters.''

``Gifted'': who knows what that means? As Samuel Johnson said, any drudge can learn to write. If Guy Davenport or anybody elseis gifted, his style will show it.

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As for ``versatile,'' that Davenport certainly is, even just considering his poems. As gathered here, they range in style from an Elizabethan sumptuousness, in the earlier poems, to a plainer style that he appears to have learned while translating ancient Greek lyrics.

Davenport's poetry has always been consciously literary. An early sequence opens with a paraphrase of the opening of ``The Canterbury Tales,'' goes on to quote a French maxim and Blake, and stops the reader with clear images like: ``Silver minnows/ Hang still in the lucent cool, over their shadows/ And flat perches and bream with scarlet dots.''

That sequence goes on, in its own words, ``to annotate the circumjacent,/ To extract gists from experience.''

Sensuous and witty, Davenport's early verse ranged widely, but to a purpose. He seems to have always desired to write lines in which ``green learning meets athanata (deathless things).''

It appears that Davenport's love of deathless things took him back to the first Greek poets. His translations of Archilochos (born on Thasos, hence the title of this collection), Sappho, and Alkman are fresh, shapely, poised. One breathes them as one reads them.

This, for example, was written two and a half millenia ago: ``My hearth is cold but the day will come/ Whena rich pot of red bean soup/ Is on the table, the kind Alkman loves,/ Good country cooking, nothing fine./ The first day of autumn, be my guest.''

Good country cooking, indeed! This is a rain-check poem, and the picture of friends over a pot of soup in the cycle of seasons is charming and true.

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Davenport's poetry, both his original stuff and the translations (this book shows him equal to poets in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Hebrew), deserves to be called classical. No matter how exuberant he gets, Davenport never leaves behind the common reader -- ``we for whom grief/ is the spring of our best efforts,'' as he says in one of his Rilke translations.

Some of his most recent poems were written to and for poets. In the following one, the old exuberance comes back to dance a classical chorus for Jonathan Williams, publisher and friend of poets.

``For Cousin Jonathan'' joins classical concision and classical enthusiasm. It ends like this:

he is a walker of hills let his encomium say

a maker of sunprints books and signs

he is a traveler and a guest in many houses

his lines are cunning knots they sting and sing

they echo in the inner ear

they teach the eye to see as in a vision

let him then be praised among the makers

who find and shape

and shaping find and catch us all surprised

Well, it takes one to know one. Classical poets praisegods and men, and sometimes poets; they can do so because they are in touch with enduring substance -- they share the mind of greatness.

Notice, finally, the respectful nod to the end of Samuel Johnson's great ``Vanity of Human Wishes,'' which ends (he's speaking of love, patience, and faith): ``With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,/ And makes the happiness she does not find.'' As a modern, Davenport uses the past with freedom and tact.

This learned poet has learned down the years how to praise what he knows without directing undue attention to himself. For one so gifted, that's praise enough.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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