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

Against the Grain Neil Powell

THE WORD WHICH continually recurs when one thinks about Donald Davie is 'Dissent': theologically, he was born into it, has returned to it and written about it; intellectually, it will do to describe his stormy relationships with the prevailing literary, political and moral climates of his time; and, of course, he very frequently provokes it in others. At the start of his book of 'Recollections', These the Companions, he worries about whether he should call himself a writer, a poet, a critic or a teacher. He might have settled for 'dissenter'.

Yet so persistent a temper of dissent - one, moreover, which devotes much time and energy to arguing with itself - may have odd consequences for a poet, one of which is to question the notion of being a poet at all. This is what happened in the note of 24 July 1957 which Davie appended to his poem 'With the Grain', a much-quoted piece of writing which is usually described as vulnerable and revealing, and taken at face value. It is, I think, subtly though perhaps not deliberately misleading. In it, Davie admits that he is 'not a poet by nature, only by inclination' since his mind 'moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences'; and he suggests that his poems written up to that time were not 'natural' poems 'simply because the thought in them could have been expressed … in a non-poetic way'. Nevertheless, ...


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