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This review is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

PROFESSOR DAVIE CHANGES TRAINS Donald Davie, Under Briggflatts (Carcanet) £18.95

No one will expect a book by Donald Davie to be uninteresting, unintelligent or uncontroversial, and to that extent Under Briggflatts will not disappoint its readers. It is, however, a worrying and a problematical book, many of whose problems arise from the nature of the enterprise - a recycling of occasional pieces unconvincingly disguised as a continuous narrative - and the claims Davie himself makes for it. He calls the book 'A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988', and that might be forgiven as a simplistic grand subtitle were it not for the fact that he spends a Foreword proclaiming his new-found role as historian rather than critic: he is, he says, 'anxious to ensure than no deserving name falls out of the historical record', and he insists that the book is not a polemic ('that I very much did not want') and that, while he may have axes to grind, 'in this book I have tried not to grind them'. Well, we shall see.

The first snag is that word 'History'. Davie takes as his central bearing a long inaccessible poem which hardly anyone has read, Bunting's 'Briggflatts'. Now the advocacy of an unjustly neglected masterpiece is a wholly legitimate - perhaps the most legitimate - function of literary criticism, but it's a quirky if not a cranky starting-point for a 'History'. It is, however, a fair signal of what's to come. Because Davie happens to have written about them, a random selection of long-dead poets (e.g. Ivor Gurney, d.1937; Keith Douglas, d.1944; Edwin Muir, d.1958; and even Thomas Hardy, d.1928!) are surprisingly placed by this historian in his survey of British poetry in the years 1960-1988; so are writers like Marshall McLuhan and Claude Levi-Strauss, who are neither poets nor inhabitants of Great Britain. Conversely, there are astonishing omissions. Our historian makes no mention of Fuller père et fils, Alan Brownjohn, Peter Scupham, Anthony Thwaite, Andrew Waterman, Robert Wells; he fails to notice the resurgence of writers like John Heath-Stubbs and E.J. Scovell; he has nothing to say about the lively controversies surrounding the Review poets (Ian Hamilton, Hugo Williams) in the sixties, the Martians (Craig Raine, Christopher Reid) in the seventies, the Penguin anthology editors (Andrew Motion, Blake Morrison) in the eighties; and Auden, though he published five collections during the period and returned (albeit briefly and unhappily) to England, is mentioned only in passing. As well as these and numerous other omissions, there are simple historical errors: the Profumo affair was in 1963, not 1960; Gunn's Touch was published in 1967, not 1974.

What, then, of the professed absence of polemic and grinding axes? Two instances will suffice - partly because they will point towards the book's underlying problem. One is the piece called 'Translations and Competitions' which suddenly veers from a useful, typically eclectic discussion of poetry in translation into an attack on the Arvon Foundation Poetry Competition which he describes as 'part of a manifestly, profitable enterprise dreamed up by Ted Hughes or his advisers'. I find myself genuinely baffled by that: it looks as if Davie must mean financially profitable - but can he really be unaware of Arvon's precarious financial state, or indeed of the splendid experience its courses offer both writers as tutors and aspiring writers as students? Praising one poem's 'heart-warming dexterity', he derides (but doesn't quote) another, which won a more valuable prize, as 'eighteen solid unpunctuated pages of pornographic daydream': since elsewhere he seems quite keen on long unpunctuated poems (as in Pound or Bunting), the trouble must be that he disapproves of pornographic daydreams, which is in turn an oddly censorious attitude from a critic who fifty pages earlier has written of another poet, 'On grounds of private morality, or personal hygiene and civic order, we may or may not agree with him; but that is another matter' [my italics]. Clearly what is wrong with this poem is that it's won a major prize in a competition. And that, indeed, becomes all too evident later on: of the entries, Davie writes, 'we learned to our consternation that the field had been originally nothing like eighty-five but, incredibly, 35,000!...The statistic was appalling'. Appalling for who, precisely? For 'us'. And who are 'we'? Not the writers, nor the judges, nor the Arvon Foundation, but Donald Davie. Sharing with Mrs Thatcher the classic conservative neurosis of believing more and more passionately in less and less, he similarly adopts the regal plural. And although I agree that the majority of poems (or anything else) entered for a competition are very likely to be terrible, neither Donald Davie nor I have any right to be appalled by a figure: we could only be appalled by the individual poems. Davie's high-handed implication is that it is somehow impertinent for 35,000 people to write poems when they might be doing something more appropriate to their condition, such as shopping or gardening or knitting or smashing up underground trains.

Davie's malevolent combination of academic arrogance and snobbish paranoia is still more evident in his treatment of Philip Larkin. He loathes his late contemporary - partly, one must suspect (see his aside on the subject in PNR 70, p.38), for having even more readers than there were entrants to the 1980 Arvon competition. But loathing diminishes his understanding. Unable to see that 'Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses' is above all a funny poem, he sneeringly ('would never trouble to construct ...', 'could never be bothered...') berates Larkin for his 'aversion to the academic profession'. Unable to appreciate the mixture of yearning tenderness and honest envy which informs 'Annus Mirabilis', he misconstrues the poem in terms of ludicrously Whitehousian primness: 'never before was life - the life's gifts, for instance of the person - held so cheap, traded at such cut-price rates'. Unable, even now, to understand the extent to which Larkin's Oxford anthology was a wry joke at the expense of po-faced literary critics, he reprints this indefensible sentence: 'But the poems that we had loved, that we love and cherish still, turned out to have been written by a man who thought that poetry was a conjuror's trick or a professional entertainer's patter or at most a symptom for social historian to brood upon'. And at the very end of Under Briggflatts, Davie concludes that 'no-one... is so blameable as the late Philip Larkin' for conveying the impression 'that British poetry had chosen to turn inwards, parochial, self-comforting and serviceable, content to address no public outside the tight little islands'.

This, remember, is the non-polemical, non-axe-grinding, even-handed historian, and there are several possible responses to him. One is that addressing the tight little islands may be a bigger kind of enterprise than addressing the tight little lecture theatre. Another is that Davie's insistence - implicit here and explicit elsewhere in the book - that poetry should not be a 'service industry' (as the predictably maligned sixties made it) but a 'calling' is, however fine-sounding, an almost impossible distinction which has never applied to poetry nor to any other art: Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Mozart would all have found it unworkable or incomprehensible. And a third is the saddening suspicion that only an academic chronicly alienated (as some of his contributions to Mark Fisher's Letters to an Editor make painfully clear) from the chastening realities of the literary market-place could see Larkin - rather than, say, Pam Ayres or John Cooper Clarke - as epitomising the vulgarity of British popular literary taste in recent years.

Some of the book's defects would have been excusable if Under Briggflatts had been honestly presented as a collection of occasional pieces: then, the contexts could have explained the quirkiness, the irascibility (any literary journalist may be forgiven the odd overheated review). Yet even as a collection, let alone a history, it would have seemed scattily unbalanced: a two-page piece on the early poems of Elaine Feinstein ('trivial... and lacking resonance') is hardly worth reprinting; but then neither, for different reasons, is eleven pages on the criticism of Kenneth Cox. And Davie's style, strangely in a writer who once seemed along with Frank Kermode to have brought demotic lucidity back to literary criticism, is continually obstructive: a typical example, ironically enough, comes in the piece called 'Poets' Prose', where the arcane (and very silly) word 'inspissated' shares a page with defunct colloquialisms such as 'Yea or Nay' and 'all-of-a-fidget'. Throughout the book there is a strong sense of a writer in retreat from the language people actually speak, often hiding behind adjectives and adverbs which are overladen with archaic moral baggage. Incidentally, the two poems by 'an English poet in self-exile' which are quoted with such elaborate anonymity on p.56 may be found respectively on p.226 and p.194 of Davie's Collected Poems 1950-1970 (1972).

The underlying problem is not that Davie treats poetry too seriously, but that he treats it with the wrong kind of seriousness. He presents himself here as one dedicated to the stuff with evangelical zeal, someone who scarcely mentions other (why not equally?) serious literary forms such as fiction and drama, who like Cassius hears no music, and who can't be imagined downing a pint in the local or shopping in Sainsbury's. This is not frivolous: it probably explains his lack of regard for, say, Roy Fuller - who plainly does all these things and makes them parts of his literary world.

But the survival of poetry depends, as it always has done, upon the writer as craftsman and upon the intelligent general reader - upon, that is to say, the likes of Philip Larkin, the 40,000+ people who bought his Collected Poems and the 35,000 who entered the Arvon Poetry Competition. Poetry has to be brave enough to risk the chance of death by mediocrity when the alternative is certain extinction through wilful academic obscurity; and Under Briggflatts, though laudably trying to protect it from the former, looks uncomfortably like a contribution to the latter.

Donald Davie writes:

Mostly I don't reply to hostile and malicious reviews. But my relationship to PNR is so special that I accept your invitation to respond to Neil Powell.

My Under Briggflatts is not 'a recycling of occasional pieces'. Much of it is here in print for the first time; when I incorporate review-articles from some years ago, in every case I have rethought and to some considerable extent rewritten them; and many that I have put into print in the past I have excluded from the book, because I judged them ephemeral. I take it that the serious historian tries to screen the merely ephemeral out of the record. This is difficult when writing a history of one's own times, because one cannot second-guess the future. Thus, the names that Powell challenges me with - John Fuller and Alan Brown-john and Peter Scupham, Andrew Waterman and Robert Wells, Ian Hamilton and Hugo Williams and Craig Raine and Christopher Reid, Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison and also (I will now add) Neil Powell - these stand for literary reputations that look ephemeral now but may in time become substantial. I have my own ideas about which of them have staying-power, but a responsible historian doesn't bet on the future. For the moment Powell and his contemporaries just haven't been around long enough - he must learn to be patient. By the same token Ivor Gurney and Keith Douglas, Edwin Muir and Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy, figure in Under Briggflatts not because I happened to have written on them, but because changes in our conceptions of them through the last thirty years seemed to me, after careful consideration, anything but ephemeral. Gurney and Douglas, Muir and Thomas and Hardy, to whom I will add McLuhan and Lévi-Strauss and the critic Kenneth Cox, are living and moving presences in our poetry as Raine and Waterman and Brownjohn aren't, not yet.

Powell surmises that I disapprove of pornographic day-dreams. He is so right, especially when they masquerade as poems and win prizes. He cannot square this with my refusing to be flustered when Thom Gunn seems to celebrate drug-taking and homosexual prostitution. But where's the connection? Nobody (before Powell) has thought that Gunn writes pornography.

Why the Prime Minister has to be invoked, I don't see. But Powell is not alone. Another of my reviewers, Alan Brownjohn no less in The Sunday Times, saw in Under Briggflatts 'a fascinating revelation of a High Tory outlook which separates him from the entrepreneurial culture promoted by the post-1975, new-style Conservatives'. Set that against Powell's description of me as 'sharing with Mrs Thatcher the classic conservative neurosis of believing more and more passionately in less and less'. (And admire in passing his use of 'classic'.)

By the time we get to 'Davie's malevolent combination of academic arrogance and snobbish paranoia', it's plain we're into territory where it's fruitless for me to reply. Powell is provoked to this by my treatment of Philip Larkin. 'He loathes his late contemporary' - so he assures your readers. It is a lie. The late Philip Larkin was my friend, and I loved him. I also thought he went seriously and influentially wrong, particularly as an anthologist. Larkin understood my position perfectly well, and bore no grudge.

To go much further would be wearisome. No one has ever thought that the distinction between manufacturing and service industries had any meaning before the present century. And so for Powell to say that the distinction would not have made sense to Michelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart is to state the obvious, and gets us nowhere. I should have thought Roy Fuller would agree. I confess to a twinge of guilt at not having found a place to name Fuller, but mere naming is all I could have done for him, as it was all I could do for W.S. Graham - both are honest and engaging poets, whose work, however, so far as I could see, had no historical significance. Consider, as a counter-case, Elaine Feinstein's first book, In a Green Eye; it is a weak book, as I acknowledged, but it pin-points a historical moment that it was necessary to define. I take my job as a historian (rather than chronicler) more seriously than Neil Powell understands. My book is not a Guide nor a Survey: it is, or it aspires to be, a History. But these are distinctions that Powell hasn't thought about.

I am 67 years old. And I dare say I am dated in my assumption that 'inspissated' and 'Yea or Nay' and 'all-of-a-fidget' can lie together on one page of English prose. But it is my having been around so long that qualifies me (so I thought, and still think) for trying to put our times in a historical perspective. I draw on a similarly out-dated idiom when I say to Neil Powell, 'Get some time in, chum!' That expression once went along with 'downing a pint in the local' - which last, I can assure Powell, I do quite often.

This review is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

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