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This article is taken from PN Review 143, Volume 28 Number 3, January - February 2002.

Donald Davie in the West Peter Campion

Reading Two Ways Out Of Whitman, the posthumous collection of Donald Davie's essays on American poetry, I was reminded of an incident in Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail. Parkman, the young Bostonian who has journeyed west as a correspondent for The Knickerbocker Magazine, gets lost on an evening horseback ride. He takes a compass reading, but he can't remember which direction he rode in the first place. He finds the river which he knows runs alongside the camp, but he isn't sure whether he has travelled upstream or down. Remarkably, the tone of the passage never slips into utter bewilderment. For while he is lost, the twenty-three year old historian begins to observe the animals who surround him. Woodchucks, swarms of 'metallic beetles', even buffalo appear through the endless, green waves of prairie-grass. Up until this point, Parkman's prose has been nothing if not crisp and efficient. Yet a new intensity appears now. It almost seems that the clarity of Parkman's observation depends on his being lost.

In my analogy Parkman stands, as one may have guessed, for Donald Davie, and the animals for American poets. Such comparison may seem unfair. Davie, who lived and taught in the States for twenty years, and who himself wrote an excellent sequence of poems 'For Francis Parkman', was never lost in the literal or literary landscapes of America. And if some American poets still insist on beating their shaggy, bardic chests, poets like John Peck and Robert Pinsky can hardly be ...


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