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.

Words like ‘laurel’ and ‘jonquil’ appeal to him – or at least the names do, for he hardly knows what real objects they signify.

Spring, he says, ‘stirs’. It is what
He has learnt to say, he can say
nothing but what he has learnt.

And the same is true of the flowers, which,

   it seems, are important.
And he can name them all,
identify hardly any.

In another comparably incisive poem the poet hears a screech-owl when ill in bed and reflects on his ignorance of birdsong.

A perilously confined
Aviary of sound for
One bedridden, or blind.

This is the opposite of the homely expertise in country matters of Hardy, or the more pointed one of Edward Thomas. The disinclination to be specific, in terms of the world of real things, gives its own sort of bleak originality to the world of Davie’s poetry – a world very much more extensive than this aspect of it would seem to indicate. The most striking thing about the present collection is the sadness in it, a sadness not only moving in itself, and as poetry, but suggesting a certain disillusionment on the part of the poet with the sources of intelligence and learning out of which his poetry comes.

The professor as poet, a fusing together of the creative and critical sides in the revival of English studies, seemed at one time an exciting and indeed intoxicating possibility. No more dissociation of sensibilities, no too precise Eliotean aftermath, but students, teachers, writers working together in a new harmony in the field of literature – almost, as it were, Yeats’s ‘blood, imagination, intellect running together’. Empson was an academic whose poetry inspired others, including the youthful Davie.

‘Our argute voices vied among the bracken.’
  My sixth-form prize from the North
Was Ronald Bottrall’s Festivals of Fire,
  My own precocious choice.

In ‘Hampshire’, one of Davie’s delightful and moving Shire sequences, written in 1974, the youthful poet confides these early inspirations to ‘a willowy Wren’ who ‘recognised the bracken where we stood ... and took “argute” on trust’. It is Larkin bracken, and also points towards those tall fronds on the heath near Bockhampton where Hardy as a child sat and pondered his intellectual future. But as well as these English inspirations – Cambridge, Barnsley, the shires of Hardy and Betjeman – there was also the bright American world of the New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom, I.A. Richards, Allen Tate, and young up-and-coming members like Randall Jarrell, a world in which the academic and the poet were entering together a new world of feeling and technique, joining tradition and novelty. Bliss was it in that dawn when American campuses beckoned hospitably and offered glittering prizes.

From early on, Davie’s muse had a strong comparative interest as well, fascinated by the rhythms of Pushkin and Pasternak, imagining the Lithuanian forests of Mickiewicz. But his verse always had a beady eye on its own behaviour, an all too academic ability to turn the critic’s eye inward and see that aspect of nature steadily and whole. This, as he knew from the beginning, is not the way the poem’s eye has usually looked. ‘Pushkin: A Didactic Poem’, the first to be written and included in Davie’s previous Collected Poems (as we know from its Notes), already makes the point incontrovertibly. Pushkin the poet exhibits

How to be conscious in every direction
But that of the self, where deception starts.
This is nobility; not lost
Wholly perhaps, if lost to art.

Pushkin’s simplicity remains an ideal even in our age, and strangely enough Davie’s own poetry has always shown its best powers in being ‘conscious in every direction but that of the self’. Davie has a kind of civic ability to think himself into other authors and their works, books and periods, places and people (‘The Battered Wife’ is a poem of moving sympathy expressed in the sparsest and cleanest fashion). Davie can put his own originality of elegance into sentiments that have to remain muddled in life, and on which he bestows, in precise metre, their own proper appearance of muddlement.

I have as much to do with the dead
  And dying as with the living
Nowadays; and failing them is
  Past forgiving.

As soon be absolved for that, as if
  A tree, or a sea, should be shriven;
And yet the truth is, fail we must
  And be forgiven.

For Hardy, that would be a personal matter, and a personal poem. For Davie it is an imagining, like that of the Shires, or a battered wife, or, in ‘Townend 1976’, a town today taking on the impersonal squalor of a city.

The end of a town – however mean, however
Much of a byword – marks the end of an age,
An age of worn humility. Hereafter
The Prince of Darkness and his equipage!

All his explorations – critical, philosophical, topographical, related or addressed to friends or other poets – have an air of impersonal drama about them. But paradoxically this devotion to life – to Pushkinian or Pasternakian life, not self – can also appear as a total awareness of life as literature. In his unemphatically sardonic way Davie is well aware that everything that occurs in his poetry occurs as it would in a book. The absence of the self, the impersonal drama, are a clue here to experience seen as literature, as in their poetry it habitually was by Browning (‘Childe Roland to the dark tower came’) and in the same self-satiric way by Kipling in his poem ‘Tomlinson’, the man who referred all experience to books.

Epiphanies all around us
Always perhaps. And some
Who missed the flash of a fin
Were keeping their eye on rhyme-schemes.

The point about ‘Epiphanies’ is that they occur in literature, not in life: artists manufacture them and critics applaud them as if they had really happened. Davie is too well aware of this to need to direct attention to the irony: to say that Epiphanies are all around us is like saying that the angels keep their ancient places, or that if we look about we shall find we are surrounded by characters out of Jane Austen.

We focus only through the lens of literature and the imagined past; the plains of Troy, like the forests of Lithuania, are in the poetic mind. Davie made the point early, in ‘Remembering the Thirties’.

It dawns upon the veterans after all
That what for them were agonies, for us
Are high-brow thrillers, though historical;
And all their feats quite strictly fabulous.

This novel written fifteen years ago,
Set in my boyhood and my boyhood home,
These poems about ‘abandoned workings’, show
Worlds more remote than Ithaca or Rome.

                  The Devil for a joke
Might carve his own initials on our desk,
And yet we’d miss the point because he spoke
An idiom too dated, Audenesque.

The point is made as deftly but with a more powerful charge of style in Three for Water-Music (1981), one of the books that make up the present collection. ‘The Fountain of Cyane’, recounts the rape of Persephone and her grieving friend who liquefied into a Sicilian spring. This elegant and disturbing poem examines the way in which Ovid turns the violence of his Metamorphoses – as if they were in our own literary terms Epiphanies – into the pathos and the prettiness of myth. Without forfeiting poetry Davie, as so often, lays a critical finger on the nature of such verbal and allusive skills: in this case, the quasi-pornographic appeal of violence turned into literature, a taste for which is better than that for violence itself:

                         Or how excuse
Our intent loitering outside Syracuse.

In another note at the end of Collected Poems 1950-1970 Davie observed that he was ‘not a poet by nature, only by inclination; for my mind moves most easily and happily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet’s need of concreteness.’ The same could be said for Ezra Pound, on whom Davie has written so effectively, and who shares the same capacity for writing ‘clean’ poetry, poetry that is sculptured rather than organic, impersonal rather than wholly expressive of itself.

Larkin said that a poem is like an egg; Keats talked of the personality of a billiard ball. Poems that are like eggs and billiard balls can only be themselves, making everything in them a part of their nature. Davie, like Pound, and like Browning and Kipling too, I would say, has, on the contrary, the knack of using his materials without absorbing them. His poetry seems to respect, in detachment, the meanings which it has assembled.

Fortunate is the age that has such poets. As Pound showed, in relation to Yeats and Eliot, they confirm and as it were define the poet-hood of the organic, while at the same time giving a clearer and harder edge to tribal language, for their language does not belong exclusively to them as it does, for better or worse, to the organic poet. They supply the medium in which eggs can hatch and billiard balls can glide: sometimes, as in the case of Dryden or the great Auden, they can be both: both the object and the space cleared around it. The recognition of space and object makes for what Davie has called ‘purity of diction’. In demonstrating the interdependence of object and space, his poetry, like his criticism, shows how inevitably the organic and the abstract, the real and the literary in literature, meet to feed our experience.