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

Poet as Sculptor Clive Wilmer

DONALD DAVIE, as becomes a man of Puritan stock, is much given to examining his conscience. Though rarely confessional, he has made a habit - in poems as in critical prose - of drawing attention to his own limitations and frailties. More often than not, such self-castigation is the spur to some noteworthy change of direction. Now, looking back over forty years of his writing, one is almost bewildered by the range of what he has attempted. Yet still more striking is the underlying coherence.

I have a particular instance in mind. In These the Companions (1982), he confesses to being unobservant: '… seldom do I really and consciously see, seldom thus hear … '. It is a damaging charge for a poet to bring against himself and yet it is one that often occurs in the poems themselves - in 'Screech-Owl', for instance:
 
In fact the birdcalls I
Can name are precious few.
Nightingales sang to me
Once, and I never knew.


To know the word for something in nature and understand its resonances yet not to know the thing is a limitation to which those whose business is words need to be especially sensitive. It was not something I noticed in Davie when I first read him, I think because he seemed so conscious of the danger himself, so convinced of the value of being observant.

For the Davie I first read with ...


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