Enlarging Insularity

Patrick McGuinness

  • With the Grain: Essays on Thomas Hardy and Modern British Poetry by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 346 pp, £14.95, October 1998, ISBN 1 85754 394 7

In a recent poem, ‘Languedoc Variorum: A Defence of Heresy and Heretics’, the American poet Ed Dorn honours Donald Davie’s penultimate collection of poems, To Scorch or Freeze (1989), as ‘the most economical rebuke ... this age in moral free-fall is likely to get’. It is Davie’s most experimental poetry book: a series of religious meditations based on the Psalms (he edited The Psalms in English for Penguin) which take their bearings from Pound’s Cantos (he also wrote two ground-breaking books on Pound and numerous essays on the Poundian tradition). Dorn’s homage is apposite, too: his poem is founded on the conviction that heretics have been persecuted because they are, in fact, the only people who really care about religion, putting established cults to shame. Davie, a dissenter rather than a heretic, in religion as in poetry, had his fair share of polemical spats with what he called the poetry ‘establishment’: big commercial publishers and the metropolitan journals (the LRB gets a dishonourable mention in this category).

Ed Dorn is the author of Gunslinger, an epic Wild West transposition of the medieval quest, in which a gunslinger goes in search of the elusive Howard Hughes (‘They say he moved to Vegas/or bought Vegas and/moved it./I can’t remember which’), accompanied by a narrating ‘I’ and a talking horse who paraphrases Heidegger. To find Dorn, the Black Mountaineer and poet of the American Dream Post-Modernised, honouring Davie, Larkin’s one-time ally and fellow Movementeer, a native of Barnsley who retired to Devon, is puzzling only if one doesn’t acknowledge the range of Davie’s work. Since most people don’t, Dorn’s graceful homage seems a good place to start, not least because it shows the extent to which perceptions of Davie’s achievement differ across continents and across different versions of the same language.

For Dorn and his fellow Americans, Davie is the poet of To Scorch or Freeze, the critic of Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor and The Poet in the Imaginary Museum, the energetic promoter of a startling variety of poets and poetries, from Black Mountain and Objectivism to Yvor Winters and the ‘plain style’. In Britain he is more likely to be known as a deviant Movement figure, author of such books as Purity of Diction in English Verse and Articulate Energy, and as a poet who, while initially espousing Movement plainness, refused to meet his readers halfway (halfway was already too far, which is another way of saying he wanted a different reader). Un-happy with what he saw as the Movement poets’ implied philistinism (‘cultural teddyboys,’ he called them) and their ever diminishing returns on Englishness, Davie fell out of step not only with the likes of Larkin and Amis, but with the alternatives on offer: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the American ‘confessional’ poets. Finding himself at odds with the poetic values he opposed and with those he had helped to articulate, he might have been expected either to abandon Britain and British poetry, or to devote himself to them. In his idiosyncratic and contradictory way, he chose to do both. His reputation has suffered as a result.

Thomas Hardy and British Poetry was first published in 1972, and written in California, where Davie had taken up a professorship at Stanford. With the Grain reprints the Hardy book in its entirety, along with a number of essays, directly or obliquely related, spanning almost forty years: on Basil Bunting, Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Robert Graves, Hugh MacDiarmid, J.M. Synge, David Jones, George Steiner, Geoffrey Hill, Elizabeth Daryush and the fraternity of poets anthologised by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville in A Various Art. It also includes a number of Davie’s poems. If we were to read the adjective ‘British’ in the subtitle of the book as an indication of defensive nationalism, we would be seriously wrong. Davie writes of Charles Tomlinson that he

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