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

This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.

A Comment Donald Davie

AN EDITORIAL MANIFESTO has to be trenchant. It sets out to provoke; considered niceties of language aren't to be looked for. And so, although I could quarrel with Schmidt about particular words (both 'conservative' and 'radical', for instance, have too much work to do in his vocabulary, and turn up in too many different suits of clothes), instead I'll declare myself generally in agreement-as how could I fail to be, so flattered as I am ? - and, to begin with, try to show how difficult it is in practice to distinguish the sort of poem he calls formal from the sort that he calls informal or formless. (Which? But let that pass.)

In the poem that I've submitted for this first issue of POETRY NATION, might not an unprejudiced reader think that he finds just what Schmidt castigates as 'extreme subjectivity', 'ultimate irresponsibility'? Does it not show, this poem of mine, 'a total absorption in personal response'? Isn't this the sort of poetry in which 'One speaks harshly of harsh realities, brutally of brutalities, one tells it how it is and finds in one's responses to the subject matter the idiom of the poem'? Perhaps the editors themselves shook their heads over the poem when it came through the mail, and only reluctantly agreed to print it. I don't know. I hope not. Because I wouldn't have written the poem, or at least not submitted it, if I hadn't thought that it achieved 'perspective'; and achieved it through 'form', that 'prime objectifying tool'. But where is that form? How do you point it out to a reader who can't see it? It isn't there in a counting off of syllables to the line, or of lines into stanzas, nor in a regular recurrence of rhyme. If 'form' has to do with symmetry and balance and predictable recurrence (and most people would suppose that it does), then this poem doesn't have it.

What I hope and think, however, is that my poem has form, and of a very traditional kind; because it belongs to a tradition of poems from many centuries in many languages, any one of which poems could be entitled 'A Description of the Morning'. As it happens, the two examples that I had consciously in mind are both from the English eighteenth century: a little known poem called 'Morning' by John Cunningham (1729-78), and a poem that ought to be known more widely than it is, Christopher Smart's 'A Morning Piece; or an hymn for the haymakers'. I've misquoted from Smart's poem into my own. For Smart has:


Strong Labour got up with his pipe in his mouth
And stoutly strode over the dale . . .


Now, I didn't quote so as to give a knowing nod to some in-group reader who could be expected to 'pick it up'; when I adapted Smart's verses into mine, I didn't have the reader in mind at all, but only my own pleasure - which perhaps lays me open to another charge that Schmidt brings, 'a lack of respect for the reader'. However that may be, a reader isn't supposed to 'pick up' the allusion; he loses nothing if he doesn't. What he does have to know, if he's to perceive the form of my poem, is that there exists a traditional genre: Descriptions of the Morning. He need be aware of this only vaguely, he need not be able to cite a single example, but awareness of some sort he must have.

I'm supposed to be a learned poet, though compared with Milton (or Christopher Smart!) I'm a very unlearned poet, and I write unlearned poetry. Still, I will plead guilty to having in the past used bits of out-of-the-way information that I happened to have, without paying enough attention to how a reader's lack of it might fox him. But it ought to be clear that this isn't that sort of case: this sort of knowledge, awareness of the genres, is something that a reader must have, and I have every right to expect it. Poetry has always fed upon its own past in this way, and if it ceases to do so now, it will change into something for which we'll have to find a new name. Impatient ignorance of the past is common now, and is tolerated by educators, who ought to know better; to speak for myself, it is this which gives me my direst forebodings about a future for poetry, my own or anyone else's.

At any rate, here we have a sort of 'form' which is wrapped up with 'genre', to such an extent that perhaps 'generic form' is the name for it. And I'm not at all clear whether this kind of form was in the mind of Mr. Schmidt when they wrote their manifesto. I tend to think it wasn't, because in their list of reprehensible poets there are one or two who I think could plead the same case as I've just pleaded: Robert Duncan could plead for some of his poems, and Ed Dorn for some of his (including the comic romance, Gunslinger), that they have traditional form because they are deliberately enlisting under the flag of some traditional genre.

The fun of writing in this way (for let's get it plain - poems are fun to write, and should be fun to read; pleasure is what we're talking about) . . . the fun, I was saying, is in making some hoary and innocent genre, like A Description of the Morning, accommodate material that seems quite different: brash, up-to-the-minute, knowing. And so in my poem the references are as far as possible from the idyllic, the tone of the voice is both cocky and corrupted, the syntax and rhythms are fractured and compacted as in a telegram or a diary-entry. And this is what creates the illusion that the poem 'speaks harshly of harsh realities, brutally of brutalities, . . . tells it how it is'. But this is an illusion, and as the poem unwinds the reader is supposed to recognise it as such, and to take pleasure (pleasure!) in the recognition.

Not a trivial pleasure, either. For if the poem works as it's meant to, by the end of it the hoary old genre has been vindicated: it will accommodate (it has!) things like cranky motorcars and typewriters and us, with our hawkings and splutterings and piteous little addictions. Thus the past is wiser and more comprehensive, more comprehending, than we thought it was. (And if this is to be conservative, then conservative I am, yes indeed!) But the process works the other way too; because the old idyllic framework with its quaint properties, Sol and Flora, can comprehend us with our cigarettes and our typewriters, then perhaps we can look with more indulgence, less distaste, upon our habits, our technologies, our own wretched selves. (All this, of course, if the poem works as it's meant to.)

And let it be quite clear what I'm doing. I'm not denying that the reprehensible poetry which Schmidt describes does indeed exist; that it is reprehensible for the reasons he gives; that it ought to be reprehended as angrily as he reprehends it (because it has been around, darkening counsel, for all too long); that most of the names on the black list richly deserve to be there. But I am saying that a poem very seldom, if ever, carries its credentials on its face; that you cannot 'see at a glance'. An alternative demonstration, in no way difficult to arrange, would have taken a poem in four or five regularly rhymed stanzas, metrically adroit and symmetrical, tricked out with suitably distancing and ironical tone and with two or three strikingly 'contemporary' references, and would have shown that the whole shapely kaboodle was heartless, was as 'extremely subjective', as 'ultimately irresponsible', as 'totally absorbed in personal response', as any of the metreless and rhymeless lucubrations that the editor rightly points an accusing finger at. I'm sure he would agree. The point is (I suppose) that 'form' is indeed the key; but that form comes in many disguises, and so does formlessness.

As for 'conservative' and 'radical' and their friends and relations, surely the trouble is in seeing political attitudes on a spectrum from left to right. Schmidt falls foul of this common but wrong-headed metaphor at the point where he says, 'conservative or reactionary'. A reactionary wants to put the clock back; he is a counter-revolutionary, a revolutionist of the Right. The conservative (by which I do not mean necessarily nor in the first place a follower of Mr Heath) adjures revolution and counter-revolution alike, and belongs therefore to the political Centre. In this connection, I'm grateful for the free publicity for my polemic, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry; and yet the Schmidt seems not to have read the book that I thought I was writing. What I thought I was doing was making the case for the political Centre, starting from an assumption (which certainly doesn't originate with me) that the extremes, Left and Right, have more in common with each other than either has with the range of respectable political attitudes allegedly 'in between'. And in my understanding a parliamentary socialist belongs to this Centre just as a parliamentary Tory does; both adhere to assumptions that I call 'liberal'-a word from which I should like to clean some of the dirt that has been cast at it. As for 'form', in my book I talk about it rather little, except where I adopt (not without misgivings) a current but hazy distinction between 'open form' and 'closed form'; and so far from arguing that closed form in the poet committed him to political conservatism, I maintained rather strenuously that Roy Fisher, whose forms I take to be 'open', seemed to occupy precisely the same political ground, to have just the same political sentiments, as Philip Larkin, whose forms I take to be 'closed'.

Muddle comes in, I think, as soon as we try to make these political equations work out for Americans as well as for the British. In the U.S.A. the political tradition is so different from ours that what works out for us won't work out for them. 'Conservative', for instance, whatever it means in an American mouth talking of American politics, certainly means something wholly different from what we in Britain understand by the word. (And for this reason I propose with all due respect that Partisan Review's symposium on the New Conservatism, so plainly a product of the New York talking-shop, is for us a red herring, irrelevant to our situation.) I will take some of the blame here, for when in my book I argued that American poets had been more radical than British poets such as Hardy or Larkin, though I think that what I meant is clear and correct, I didn't distinguish between my use of the word 'radical' and the sense that it has from time to time in the political arena. And indeed as to the right political sense, I find myself still uncertain; I suspect that in terms of political action a radical, whether of the Right or the Left, has to be prepared to consider Revolution as a possible political strategy (not as the only one, but as one among others). And if so the political radical, Right or Left, is outside the Centre as I conceive of it. If this is right, then in this sense of the word my criticism of our society is not radical; though I'm happy to accept Schmidt's assurances that in all other senses my criticism is radical, i.e. it goes to the roots. Certainly, I meant it to.

But as to the main point that Mr. Schmidt is making, of course I agree: there is no analogy between artistic forms and social and political forms (and it still puzzles and alarms me that from where the editor stands I should seem to have thought otherwise.) No English poet of the past was more radical, in every sense, than Walter Savage Landor; and no English poet had an idea of form more rigorously classical. Thus, certainly we have to resist the impudent attempt of the revolutionary Left to lay a privileged claim to our poetry. And yet . . . what other body of political opinion has valued poetry enough to make such a take-over bid? If, as I think, POETRY NATION represents another bid, this time from the Centre - well, heaven knows, it was high time! And I support the venture with all my heart.

This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.



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