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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 88, Volume 19 Number 2, November - December 1992.

Editorial
P·N·REVIEW 88 is devoted to Donald Davie on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Contributions are arranged alphabetically by author, the issue topped and tailed with interviews - Clive Wilmer's concentrating on the verse and Nicolas Tredell's ranging more widely.

Davie is no longer writing poetry. To Scorch or Freeze was in his view, as in that of several contributors to this issue, a formal and thematic culmination. However, some early, uncollected Davie poetry finds its way into one of the contributions.

In P·N·R 88 readers will encounter a teacher, Protean poet, friend, irritant, inspiration. Thom Gunn's tribute, 'Boyd's Sonnet', takes its bearings from Ezra Pound and Yvor Winters, writers central to both these escapees from the old Movement. Taken together, Davie and Gunn represent another, open Movement, or a Movement into the open, the one that did not triumph. When Davie was at Stanford and later at Vanderbilt, and Gunn at Berkeley, it was possible to see them as the Movement in exile: it might return (their eyes were focused often enough on England) and open the windows in the stuffy house. Their radical impact - impacts, I should say, since they are different in kind - is now being registered more forcibly than before. Maybe the place is almost ready for them.

Both are strict task-masters when it comes to poetry. The first letter from Davie that I preserved (12 January 1973) throws down a familiar gauntlet. He has thrown it down dozens of times since, in these pages, in letters and conversation. It's a hard gauntlet to take up:

… I've a hunch that you don't share to the full my admiration for Ezra Pound. Why should you? Yet I suspect that your blessedly right and timely and well-informed exasperation with the self-congratulating permissiveness of the American poetic scene may have blinded you to the authentically heroic passion of Pound and some other Americans of the Poundian persuasion, such as George Oppen; and to the woeful and conspicuous lack of just that passion among their British contemporaries. To bring it really home, I suggest that when Poetry Nation makes its case for the British poets it admires … the case should be made - not just for tactical reasons, but in mere justice - on the grounds of greater passion and intensity, a passion which, once it is recognised, makes the intensity of Hughes seem what you rightly see it as being - merely rhetorical. No other argument will really force into a corner what I see as the most resourceful and remorseless opposition that you'll have to deal with - the world-weary urbanity of a Peter Porter.


I may have been wrong about Hughes, but I have a hunch Davie was right about the literary ambience at the time - and now - and about a quality of passion which cannot be faked, which is an abiding concern for language, form and the possible scale of poetry past and present. This passion informs Davie's controversial critical history Under Briggflatts, his long essay on Milosz, his writings on the 18th century, on syntax and diction. A young editor receiving advice like Davie's is chastened and invigorated. It took a year or two before I realized I could sometimes disagree.

Almost every contributor to this issue has learned from Davie: he has been a catalyst. Yet several dissent, with more or less courteous vehemence. This teacher has not created a school. He has helped to clarify different individuals' own concerns. To work with Davie, as to read him, is to tussle, sometimes acrimoniously, over issues which are at the core of the vocation of writing and reading. He makes us take them as seriously as we should. 'Dear Michael, I write in a sort of panic. Truly, you mustn't think Yeats was right about Wilfred Owen.' There follows an essay, closely argued, with some concessions but an unbending passion. A few months earlier, responding to an article I wrote about him, he speaks of the incompatibility between the Poundian model and

the Ricardian position (I.A.'s that is) which you have sketched in letters more than once. The Ricardian view of the poem as self-sealed, self-corrected into a tense equilibrium, will serve for only some poems; some of the ancient past, as well as modern poems on which Pound has cast a shadow, must be rejected by Richards as by Larkin, and on what are ultimately the same grounds. What is not realised is that the appearance of arrogance on the part of the Poundian poets is the very reverse of the truth; it is these poets who are humble enough to confess that there is more to any experience or tract of experience than what they have been able to enclose in a poem. Larkin and Richards are humble towards their readers to just the extent that they are presumptuous towards their subjects.


Letters like these, long, detailed and never approximate, always ad rem, were of radical use to me, and to P·N·Review. Without them I doubt whether I should have responded, as I eventually did, to John Peck's work; and Davie helped me with some of C.H. Sisson's poems after In the Trojan Ditch. Perhaps I'd not have responded to Ashbery, Ash and O'Hara without him, either. Sometimes the medicine exceeds the physician's intentions!

Davie allows latitude for dissent more readily than Pound did, and makes different kinds of demands. He is rare in this age, willing to engage unknown young writers in serious correspondence with an optimism and generosity that grows out of a passion for poetry which he assumes is shared. Some day a range of his letters - to his elders, his peers and younger writers - may be published. I imagine the book will reveal a civility, a generosity of intent, and a critical severity - unlike Leavis's - helpful in a host of different ways; like Ford Madox Ford a great enabler of three generations of writers.

It annoys me to hear him relegated to the caste of 'academic poet'. He teaches, to be sure, and is proud of that vocation; he is a scholar and critic, a poeta doctus. But the quality of his creative engagement sets him apart from the academic poets encountered on the campuses of American and British universities. His urbanity is not high-table; indeed, that is the tone he most despises. His writing courses have not produced 'identikit poetry' (to borrow David Wright's phrase). On the contrary: writers who have worked with him describe how well he understands and encourages their otherness. He has taught creative writing after teaching literature. The 'imaginary museum' has given him a sense of generic and formal variety and possibility, but not of cultural relativism. Of a young poet in one of his Stanford writing groups he wrote:

All I ask of him is that he write poems which are hard to write not in the sense of being technically tricksy but because in them the poet says things which are hard to say, acknowledging things about himself which none of us want to acknowledge about ourselves.


During the twenty-odd years of our author-editor collaboration, we have participated in several controversies. The first was with the new review group; then with Jon Silkin and Stand; then with the Church of England. There were internalized conflicts. The first was over the audience for P·N·Review - I couldn't tell him who our readers were and he was exasperated for two or three months. Ten English Poets, an anthology I edited with Davie in mind, caused great ructions: his negative reaction set me to rethinking Pound and jumped me beyond a dogged attraction to the clarities of Winters. Then there was contention between Davie and C.H. Sisson over the 'deliberate' nature of poetic utterance, an argument in which I sided, and still side, with Sisson. An editor steering the rough waters between Scylla and Charybdis, I discovered that though Davie and Sisson both had Pound at heart, the poet from whom they took measure had a different valency for each. In retrospect the contest between them seems to have been between a sensibility which relishes scholarship as an end and one which respects it only as a means. There is more instinct and certainly more libido in Sisson than in Davie. Not Cavalier and Roundhead so much as 17th and 18th centuries at respectful loggerheads. But they share a culture and that culture is the complex and vanishing entity called England, with its institutions, its culture, its language. In the rows with external foes, real or imagined, and in the battles waged in the pages of the magazine itself, Davie and Sisson end up as brothers in arms. Even from this distance, those contests retain their urgency: they define in impassioned dialogue questions of moment for readers and writers.

Davie inspires in me a mixture of filial piety and impatience. Piety is common enough: many of the younger writers who contribute here - and now that Donald's 70 most of us are younger - express, with varying degrees of warmth, a debt which goes deeper than gratitude. As Christopher Ricks said in an interview to mark his 60th birthday, he's one of those of whom we are made, who helped shape our attitudes and approaches.

My privileged debt runs deep: though I never had him as a teacher, I've had the benefit of his books and more, his often stringent direct criticism in letters or conversation connected with P·N·Review. There's been our shadowy adventure of the literary fray, our campaigns against this and that, the exchange of gossip, the revision of judgements, in a framework of friendship. I have had an impact on him as well: he allowed eventually that John Ash's astute criticism might mean that he'd misvalued the poems; that Frank Kuppner's first contribution to P·N·Review was outstanding; he's warmed to a range of younger writers, though not always to those for whom I have most sought his approval. He has engaged vigorously in my own critical battles and never spared me when I published a book, poem or essay he regarded as bad in style, or manner, or morality. Every editor needs a Davie; not all are endowed with one so vehement, or blessed with one so generously giving.

But I occasionally experience impatience: he is not predictable. There is an instructive trajectory rather than a unity in his verse and prose; he seems impelled by an impatience with the familiar, to crave for extension, not only in his own writing but in the work of writers he admires. 'Needing to know is always how to learn,/ Needing to see brings sightings,' he says. What might have pleased him in 1956 displeases him in 1976. What he praised in 1960 he half-rejects in 1990. His engagement often appears strategic: a sense of the cultural moment and an instinct for the corrective it requires.

There is much besides the poems, but it is the poems that lend the prose and polemical writings their authority. His point of maximum vulnerability and exposure, In the Stopping Train, took me entirely by surprise. It revealed suddenly the kind of candour he had been edging towards; and having written the poem, he was able to move on to magnificently nuanced work like Three for Water Music. But To Scorch or Freeze combines candour with the allusive risks of his most elaborated verse, to ends which John Peck in 'Brilliance and Res' identifies, making it clear, too, how rare a bird Davie is in the challenges he sets himself both formally and spiritually. Few writers are concerned with the sacred, their reading informed by a deep, troubled faith. Not for Davie the clerisy of the seminar room or the reputation quoted on the London bourse. Something more serious is afoot. What matters is the hard-won poem; publication in a journal is neither here nor there.

The shape of his life's work - cultural advocacy, civic and literary dissent, spiritual quest - is now clear, though doubtless he has more surprises to spring. It is this trajectory - as in the work of Thom Gunn, who has gone as far, though with less argument, fewer drums and canon - that finally is so instructive: where Davie has been, and why he has moved on. Each work leads in a direction that comes to seem inevitable in retrospect, though to go that way involved risk. It's a forward direction which also leads back, in a changed and deepened spirit, to first things, early landscapes, relationships and pieties re-apprehended. It is a movement towards understanding which brings within its range the oddest variety of materials, and makes memorable sense of them.

This item is taken from PN Review 88, Volume 19 Number 2, November - December 1992.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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