Enormities

C.H. Sisson

  • Collected Poems by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 475 pp, £25.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 85635 875 4

What sort of a poet is Donald Davie? The factual answer, as with all poets, is to be found only in a volume such as the Collected Poems which he now lays before the public, but Davie himself appears to have worried more than most practitioners about what kind of poetry he was writing and – if one can put it that way – about the politics of style. He first came to notice as one of the Movement poets of the Fifties, which marks him as originally associated with, among others, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin. No less than they, he has gone his own way and no purpose is served by hanging this historical label round his neck now. Even in its time it contributed more to publicity than to enlightenment. Robert Conquest, as editor of the group’s anthology New Lines (1956), claimed that what the members had in common was a ‘negative determination to avoid bad principles’. What bad principles? It fell to Davie to define as well as to denounce these evils, or at any rate to be specific as to the good works proposed as an alternative. He has described his first book of criticism, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), as ‘a thinly-disguised manifesto’, and Articulate Energy, which followed in 1955, as having grown ‘quite immediately out of’ it. Yet, though the later book may have been conceived as polemical, it turned out to have a more valuable function as a work of exploration. It was nothing less than ‘An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry’. English poetry? There was some confusion in the Movement about a ‘return to Hardy’, and twenty years later Davie himself was asserting that the work of Carlos Williams had ‘nothing to do with an inquiry into English poetry’, thus endorsing the popular – and, as I think, mistaken – view that there could be an American poetry which had severed ‘all ties with English poetry’.

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