issue 30 > slavitt tribute > epstein
David Slavittby Daniel Mark Epstein
He is one of a few writers--I can count them on one hand...well, one and a half hands--who were nearly legendary to me before I met them, men and women whose work I greatly admired whom I would eventually be proud to call my friends. The first was John Crowe Ransom, the poet, the second and third John Barth and Harry Crews, both novelists, the fourth or fifth, if I recall correctly, was David Slavitt. These writers have nothing in common but proven genius, a certain eminence, and the fact that I knew or know them as civilians as well as soldiers in the campaign for beautiful letters.
Over the past thirty years I have had the pleasure of either reviewing or commenting upon David's work in several genres, and I think it would not be a waste of space for me to quote myself where I can find the texts rather than paraphrasing what I have said before in inferior prose.
The first I believe was a brilliant bit of transparently autobiographical fiction about a writer's colony featuring a caricature of the late Denise Levertov, whom I also knew quite well in the 1970s and 80s. David and I had a few running gags about Denise who was a subject fit for both praise and satire. In any case I was in an enviable position to appreciate the humor and truth of the book. I wrote of it, and the author: "The Muses have lavished such gifts upon David Slavitt, as poet, novelist, literary historian, and translator, from book to book he keeps us guessing which is his strongest suit. This hilarious novella goes on the short shelf between Petronius Arbiter and Mark Twain. Slavitt is one of the wickedest, most incisive satirists America has produced since Nathaniel West, and The Cliff throws his talents into dazzling relief."
That short shelf is actually quite a long one historically from Petronius to Mark Twain to Nathaniel West, now that I think about it, and one of Slavitt's greatest resources is his education. He is an extraordinarily learned writer, intimate with the best literature of the Western tradition from the poets of the Greek Anthology to the contemporary poets whose translations he has edited for the Pennsylvania series of Greek tragedies and comedies. None of it is lost on him. The great works have worked upon him, and this is one of his means of achieving greatness.
He has also covered movies and pop culture since the 1950s. The first time I saw his name was on the back of a record album: He wrote the liner notes for the first recording of the incomparable poet/comedian Brother Dave Gardner in the early 1960s. Gardner hugely influenced a generation of writers and comics, and it was Slavitt who introduced Brother Dave to the public.
I was not much more than a Latin grammar student when Slavitt published his ground-breaking translations, the Eclogues of Virgil, and after that book I read every book of poems Slavitt published, with growing admiration.
Of Slavitt's Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, I wrote: "Only an author with great gifts of understanding--both of the art of poetry and of the people who produce it--could have written such essays. David Slavitt has known some of the finest poets and teachers of the twentieth century and writes about them with delightful humor and enthusiasm. His tone is a unique blend of fireside storytelling, literary analysis, and heartfelt personal reflection. The result is a book of irresistible charm."
About ten years ago David made the Maileresque gesture of running for the state senate in Massachusetts as a moderate Republican opposing a pro-life Democrat. I might have advised him to spend the time translating the Iliad instead but he didn't ask me and certainly wouldn't have paid any attention to me if I'd spoken up. So he went and did it, and kept a journal of the curious business which became a very useful document to folks in and out of the world of politics. Of that book I wrote: "Here is an inside view of running for office that is purely ingenuous, with no agenda other than reporting the details of the process as accurately and entertainingly as possible. What Slavitt has accomplished here is not only valuable, but unique; this book is wise, and brave, and hilarious."
The disorganization of my papers at the moment makes it impossible for me to find any more of my notes and comments upon David Slavitt's work. There is more I am certain, for he has written so much I admire. The poetry is the most important to me, the most moving, and I cannot do it justice here. His poems have made me laugh and cry, not at the same time usually, although I have laughed until I cried at some of the funny ones, most recently his imitations of the Greek Anthology poets. The poems in Equinox and Crossroads are perfect and tragic and incredibly moving; his recent Selected Poems was the best book of poems published during that decade and serious readers of poetry were aware of it if the public was not.
On my fiftieth birthday he came to see me in Baltimore. He asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I was not shy about it: I wanted a copy of The Carnivore, his second book of poems (and his first "free-standing") an extremely rare volume. And when he arrived at my door he had a copy of it for me, inscribed. I think it had been his mother or grandmother's copy, it was that hard to find.
Finally, as a literary friend, David is one in a million: From the time I met him in the 1980s he has been unconditionally supportive of all of my efforts, as a poet, as a translator, as a writer of literary prose. When it seemed I had no other readers of my poetry he was cheering me on, inviting me to read my poems in Philadelphia and elsewhere. It was David who encouraged my efforts to translate Plautus and Euripides, and saw my translations through the process of publication. He seemed never to say no, and persuaded me that I could do whatever I set my mind to. When times were hard and my spirits were low he was there for me.
My career and my life would be very different had it not been for David's encouragement and support. It is an honor to be invited to join in the celebration of his life and work.