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This report is taken from PN Review 112, Volume 23 Number 2, November - December 1996.

Donald Davie: 'A Problem of Style' P.J. Kavanagh

There is a straightforwardness in Donald Davie that is blunt, northern, English, which my own convoluted Irishness is forced, enviously, to admire. Every response to a poet, or more specifically to a poem, is in a sense autobiographical. The work appeals to, or coincides with, some part of our own nature, or perhaps to some deficiency of ours, of which we are aware, and it supplies some lack. His is a protestant mind, but generously so. In prose he wrestles with a problem rationally, tenaciously, with patience enough, but also with an exciting air of one who might explode at any moment.

His approach is best defined by himself (in the 1992 Foreword to Purity of Diction in English Verse). It is, revealingly, that of the 'old sweat'. The literary task he has set himself in that book can only, he says, be tackled by philosophy or common-sense: 'And philosophy, in my experience, is very much the worse option, because characteristically it answers only by abdicating philosophically… Commonsense on the other hand - the commonsense of "old sweats", ex-servicemen - knows very well, because self-preservation has taught it, where bravery topples over into fool-hardiness, caution into timidity, subtlety into sterile ingenuity.' Those are the sorts of hands we like to be in; and how careful is that glossing, for a post-war generation, of 'old sweats'.

What is moving about his poetry is that it contains this commonsense, and also the controlled exasperation, that of a ...


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