Clean Poetry

John Bayley

  • Collected Poems 1970-1983 by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 172 pp, £5.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 85635 462 7

The Acmeist poet Zenkevich declared in 1911 that when he first met Anna Akhmatova he was struck by her saying that poetry was ‘something organic’, and that she was amused at the idea of the poet Valery Bryusov schooling himself to write a certain number of lines each day. ‘Organic’ is a word now considerably overworked, but the little anecdote does suggest aspects of an elemental distinction. Poetry has always been ‘something organic’, and also an art to be practised at a certain length each day, in order to retain and develop not only verbal skills but a poet’s habit of mind. Organic poetry (like Akhmatova’s) is delivered, and is silent. It has none of that daily discussion which animates the poetic art that keeps itself always in training. In fact, ‘organic’ poetry does not and should not seem like ‘poetry’ at all: its delivery compels an absolute concentration on the reader’s part, something wholly hit-or-miss. True of it what for Larkin, another organic poet, is true of time.

And saying so to some
Means nothing; others it leaves
Nothing to be said.

Such poetry does not ‘say so’ but leaves ‘nothing to be said’. Like time, it collaborates only with silence, always invoked in Larkin’s poetic medium.

Donald Davie has an expressive metaphor for the other kind of poetry, in a poem aptly entitled ‘Ars Poetica’:

Walk quietly around in
A space cleared for the purpose.

Most poems, or the best,
Describe their own birth, and this
Is what they are – a space
Cleared to walk around in.

Their various symmetries are
Guarantees that the space has
Boundaries, and beyond them
The turbulence it was cleared from.

Small clearances, small poems;
Unlikely now the enormous
Louring, resonant spaces
Carved out by a Virgil.

Davie’s poems have always been peculiarly good at clearing a space around themselves, and becoming themselves in the process of clearing it – in the process of exercising their art. The Stopping Train, and Other Poems, first published in 1977, shows at their best his special gifts for the theoretical, for making points that could only be made by the poetic art and ‘in the small/Rooms of stanzas’. That phrase comes from ‘Mandelstam, on Dante’, a poem in four parts, in which one poet imagines another writing poems about a third.

Rhyme, you once said, only
  Points it up, tags it, the blue
Cabinet-making of Heaven
  And Earth, the elegant joints
All of them flush as given!

‘The Stopping Train’ is a haunted meditation on the self as poet, a memorable feat in wry self-satire: the train jolting the poet through life bears a much more generalised and abstract significance than Larkin’s Saturday carriage, which keeps its ‘slow and stopping curve’. Somewhere in the future is the last stop.

No, they said, it’s the last
start, the little one; yes,
the one that doesn’t last.

In the meantime the gifts reserved for age will torment the poet ‘with his hatreds/and love of fictions’.

He never needed to see,
not with his art to help him.
He never needed to use his
nose, except for language.

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