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This review is taken from Poetry Nation 3 Number 3, 1974.DONALD DAVIE AND BRITISH POETRY
SINCE THE publishing of this handsome edition of his Collected Poems, Donald Davie's poetry has been moving fast and variously. 'Reticulations', for instance, in a recent Agenda, and 'Morning', in the first number of Poetry Nation, need to be borne in mind in an approach to the previous work. They are, I think, new, very different from each other, densely achieved and rich in surmise. They vindicate Davie's claim that his writing over twenty years has been 'a cautious but consistent movement towards "freedom"'; and they reveal, most importantly, that caution has now been set aside. There seems to be a fresh daring in the creative act, as seen in his own comment on 'Morning': 'the tone of the voice is both cocky and corrupted'.
In the Collected Poems themselves there's one kind of poem in particular to which I'd like to draw attention. I'm aware that my choice reflects my own interests, but I also believe that it's justified by the emphases of the work. Davie once said, in a Poetry Book Society Bulletin: 'From most points of view I would like to have written one or two long poems instead of the poems I've collected and called Events and Wisdoms. I resent the conditions which make both the writing and reading of poetry nowadays so much a matter of spurts and sprints over short distances.' Donald Davie and the long poem? It may surprise, particularly after the curtly defined, often self-enclosing pieces of his first two volumes. Yet a glance at the Collected Poems shows that, from shortly after the beginning of his career, he has been drawn to more sustained works: The Forests of Lithuania, A Sequence for Francis Parkman, 'England', Six Epistles to Eva Hesse; and his complaint suggests that only circumstances have prevented him from tackling more. It could even be significant that he chose longer poems for his anthology The Late Augustans.
The appeal long poems may have for a writer is clear: they allow him to explore aesthetic structures, and developments and meshings of experience, which would otherwise be unapproachable. And these larger measures are necessary; don't we need to note their rarity more than we do? It's not that long poems are somehow better than short ones, but that we are lacking if almost the only poetry we have is small-scale, however complex, intense, and indeed resonant. Davie's example is important.
The aims of his extended pieces have been varied, as have the means he has found for their articulation. The blurb of The Forests of Lithuania, which he seems partly to have inspired, speaks of 'the long poem's privilege of dealing with common human experiences in the way they are commonly perceived, as slowly and gradually evolving amid a wealth of familiar and particular images', and contends that he has 'attempted to win back some of this territory from the novelist'. Certainly, to shift a famous expression of Mallarmé, a decision to 'reprendre au roman notre bien' would afford a fertile programme for poetry, and one worth examining further; though it doesn't necessarily involve appropriating the novel's not-quite-modern powers of dense realism.
By adapting only slices of Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz, however, The Forests of Lithuania perhaps shows how a novelistic poem might be without fully being one. Furthermore, for his Collected Poems Davie has reduced, sadly, even his adaptation, thereby distilling the original work almost to disappearance. Maybe he judges that, however important Forests was to him as a human and literary exercise - the opportunities it provided were quite superbly taken - it failed as a whole, or as the whole he wanted. He leaves us now with fragments from an already shivered epic.
The other basic project of Forests, as of all his longer compositions, is to discover how to deal in a poem with history and geography, or rather history-and-geography. Again the book does stir doubts. Davie has claimed that, while it's set in a foreign country and in a past age, 'it can be seen to come out of England in the 1950s'. I may be missing the point, or simply have been too young in the Fifties: despite a number of elements in the work which as it were ring a bell, I can't really see that modern England is in any vital way involved. But as it happens, I find that its distance actually enhances this brilliant though possibly rather cold poem.
The later long works abandon the novel as a formal bearing and also come differently at history and geography. The most complex is Six Epistles to Eva Hesse, at once satirical, didactic and narrative verse, in cascading octosyllabic couplets. It's a kind of Art of Poetry, which associates certain severe 'English' values: sanity, common sense, a sense of proportion, compassion, with a particular view of history: empirical, linear, individualist, moralising, and with the use of fixed metres and rhyme. This it sets, under the aegis of Comedy, against the Einsteinian and mythic free-wheeling transcendence of history in the open forms of Pound's Cantos and Olson's Maximus Poems. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry has similar concerns.
Six Epistles enacts the discipline it urges. It takes over the documentary method of the Cantos and their progeny, in the interests of establishing the poem on a world objectively beyond itself. The procedure is even wittily exaggerated. The Forests of Lithuania had adapted a historical poem; A Sequence for Francis Parkman had consisted partly of centos of passages from a work of historical scholarship, Parkman's France and England in North America; Six Epistles has for its immediate pre-text, of all things, a volume of collective literary criticism, Eva Hesse's New Approaches to Ezra Pound. The verse-form too propounds and submits to rigour; and its unpompous cut ('Sparkle sparkle, little verse,/Not poetry, nor yet discourse ...') aptly deflates the bardic in the poems that Davie banters, while at the same time serving the poem's own self-mockery.
Naturally, Six Epistles is a conservative work. It brings to sharp focus Davie's continuing wrestle with Modernism and especially with Pound. His whole career has been an urgent rearguard action, from Brides of Reason to Six Epistles, from Purity of Diction in English Verse to Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, against dominant modes of writing and ultimately, indeed, against 'the age'. Could it be that his impingement on poetry in general, through both his poems and his prose, has been essentially, and enlighteningly, critical rather than creative? Here, his showdown with a certain highhanded conjuring with history is wholesome (although one notices that his defence of linearity amounts to no less than a demur about most of modern literature). On the other hand, it's hard to see how his own reading of history, and his prescriptions for 'humanising the globe', generous and self-forgetful though they are, might energise the imagination.
His rhymed tetrameters also have a reactionary air; but I submit that they're not at all, as hasty readers have asserted, doggerel. The same accusation has been levelled, one remembers, against Auden's New Year Letter, and even Hudibras. The verse strikes me as entirely right: public utterance with an almost continuous wit and inventiveness which it would be harmful to poetry to dismiss as prosaic. One could even argue that verse which can count on regular repetition of stress and sound is the best able to aim satire and let fly. The poem does not fall back on but revivifies an out-of-use metre and style. Which is not inconsiderable: it's surely important to keep open the channels of communication with older literary forms.
The metre, Davie has shown, is still profitable in longer works. It's only unpersuasive in its bid to prove something, that closed forms are more conducive to truth-telling and less to egotism than open forms. The third Epistle's defence of rhyme, for instance, written possibly against Olson's 'I, Mencius, Pupil of the Master . . .', goes no way towards convincing that rhyme, while drilling the verse, also drills the poet. On the contrary: the pointed rhyming ingenuity of the whole composition makes clear that, in the hands of another writer, rhyme, and indeed all rousing constraints, could be a potent means to display. Isn't the inner discipline of a poem a different matter altogether from its regularity or irregularity? As I'm sure, in fact, Davie would agree.
Finally there is 'England', another historical and geographical poem. It reminds one that a paramount concern of Davie's has been to recover a specifically English poetry - the book on Hardy continues the enquiry - and to find ways of writing about England. Curiously, the work that I suggest stands behind 'England' is Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Though one shouldn't be surprised, seeing that, to qualify what I said earlier, since at least A Winter Talent Davie has been building bridges, and from his constant engagement with Pound, in many respects his master, he has accepted and learnt a good deal, as he has from Eliot. From Mauberley, 'England' derives something of the manner of its cultural, moral and literary satire, its rather peremptory indignation, its lyrical Envoi and even the stamp of its jokes: compare 'Lord Strathcona/ (strath of the coffee-machine . . .?)' with / What god, man, or hero / Shall I place a tin wreath upon!'
'England' is an ambitious work, like most of Davie's poems, though again, I think, only a partial success. Pound's aid has been double-edged. It's moving as an account of personal alienation from England's present and past, as a vision of England as 'superannuated', living on 'display', and also as a lament for a corrupted language. Its sallies, however, look unfocused, like its celebrations, and often, well, ordinary (against the 'unkindness', for example, of imperialism: though here one appreciates that Davie is deliberately risking the bathetic). 'England' is a poem in which we can recognise ourselves and a moment of our history; I can't see, even so, that it possesses deep clarity.
Uncharacteristically, the form is psychological (and not in the least linear): a ruminative meditation during a plane journey assembles the poem by turning, in no rigid order, from one item to another. The versification is correspondingly freer than that of Six Epistles, being strung fairly loosely on the iambic trimeter with intermittent half-rhyming, until the strict Envoi. The aerial voyage back towards England also serves as the poem's controlling image. One passage defines the whole work:
Entranced, my thoughts of you
climb no mountains, enter
no bowels but their track
is outward always and over
a curve of the earth, the night's
selva oscura approaching
and fleeting away beneath me
as I fly over the flattened
Pole or by some other
Great Circle route to London.
If I have understood him, Davie is interestingly replacing the spatial, geographical metaphor of Dante's journey, down into the 'bowels' of the earth and up the 'mountain' of Purgatory, by a metaphor of level flight over the surface of the earth, as appropriate to the exploration of a world dispossessed now of Christian meaning. The dominant notion is 'air'. The last section begins:
Certainly air comes near it;
The idea of air does come
Near to whatever might
Now assuage the spirit.
Air is the new dimension that the poem offers after the collapse of faith and the demise of England as a place to celebrate. Maybe it's a little implausible, a hopeful gesture; though one would like to go along with it: Davie's agonies about England are those of many of us. Maybe also the final fancy of Britain being 'repollinated' from above is sentimental. The writing remains basically, it seems, historical, social, psychological and ethical, and not, as he once stated as desirable in an article on 'England as Poetic Subject', ontological, metaphysical and religious.
The latter words take us outside his long poems. He has been using them a lot, since his recoil from his early work. For Events and Wisdoms they implied a poetry of apprehending the world and learning it, of attentiveness to the non-human as to the human, and of celebration. Essex Poems then went much further, towards glimpses of transcendence, of 'Epiphany' - towards in particular a desire for 'peace', 'at the edge' of the world and beyond time - transmitted often enough in brief intensities at the other extreme from his long poems, though not entirely absent from them.
I'm sure that this is another kind of poetry which must be tried for, and that in a poem like 'Tunstall Forest' Davie opened up new reaches for himself. Yet he appears largely uncertain when writing in this vein, at times incapable of bringing the image home, or mistrustful of a transcendence which would be sheer resignation from life. His endeavour to 'assuage the spirit' may well be the direction he wants to go, nevertheless; and no doubt one should recall a statement in the Hardy book: 'so much of the finest Yeats is concerned with the effort of transcendence rather than the achievement of it' (an important idea, equally relevant to Christian poets). Still, his 'effort' is partly against his own inhibitions; I wish he would hazard more, and more often. As indeed, in other areas, his most recent poems decidedly suggest that he will.
The signs are that Davie is searching. The long works, for instance, bulk large in his output; yet according to Bernard Bergonzi he regards A Sequence for Francis Parkman as a poetic luxury not part of his true development, and he claims to have written Six Epistles to Eva Hesse light-heartedly. I may be ludicrously mistaken, but I do sense that, having begun with a very clear notion of what he was about, he is now, possibly, undecided, and perhaps at odds with himself. Even Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, despite many instructive delights, doesn't, I think, hang together.
This is maybe no bad experience to pass through, for a poet of Davie's gifts. Which I hope I haven't been undervaluing: looking back over what I've written I'm surprised to see so many reservations - no doubt because it's only relevant to discuss his works in terms of major achievement. Let me, then, say the obvious, that the Collected Poems already contains any amount of admirable writing, learned, supple, various, and well beyond the attainment of most. And also, that that perpetual severe questioning, from the very beginning of his career, arrests.
This review is taken from Poetry Nation 3 Number 3, 1974.