Ten Poets

Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Poems by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 124 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 595 X
  • Collected Poems: 1947-1980 by Allen Ginsberg
    Viking, 837 pp, £16.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 670 80683 8
  • Instant Chronicles: A Life by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 58 pp, £4.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 01 921197 X
  • Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan
    Carcanet, 139 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 596 8
  • Selected Poems by Jeffrey Wainwright
    Carcanet, 79 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 598 4
  • Selected Poems by Gillian Clarke
    Carcanet, 112 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 594 1
  • The Price of Stone by Richard Murphy
    Faber, 92 pp, £4.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 571 13568 4
  • Selected Poems by Iain Crichton Smith
    Carcanet, 121 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 597 6
  • Selected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner
    Carcanet, 95 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 585 2
  • From the Irish by James Simmons
    Blackstaff, 78 pp, £3.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 85640 331 8

One of Donald Davie’s early poems, and one of his strongest, is ‘Pushkin: A Didactic Poem’, from Brides of Reason (1955). As in Davie’s ‘Dream Forest’, Pushkin is taken as a model, a poet

Who recognised no checks
Yet brooked them all – a mind
Molten and thereby fluent,
Unforced, easily strict.

In this didactic poem the speaker is professional, drawing his comparisons with rehearsed casualness:

In the matter of Pushkin, Emily Brontë
Is the best analogy in some ways
Among our poets.

But Pushkin is more various than Brontë, apparently, more resourceful in relation to the wider circuit of experience available to him. Poetry for Pushkin was a means of circumventing the spleen. Unforcedly assenting to each experience as a gift,

     The poet exhibits here
How to be conscious in every direction
But that of the self, where deception starts.

Not that self-consciousness is necessarily at fault, according to the poem, but it has to be kept in balance, ‘under laws/Of disciplined sensibility’, as in 17th-century Wit. When these disciplines of social use are lost, a mind has to be heroic, like Pushkin’s, to maintain the law of sound imagining. The law, if it held, would state that we are diseased

   When the moral will
Intervenes to sap the heart,
When the difficult feelings are
Titillated and confused
For novel combinations, or
Ransacked for virtue.

To be specific:

As Byron said of Keats, ‘I don’t
mean he is indecent, but
viciously soliciting
his own ideas.’

The exact quotation, incidentally, comes from a letter Byron wrote to John Murray on 9 October 1820:

Mr Keats whose poetry you enquire after – appears to me what I have already said; such writing is a sort of mental masturbation – he is always f – gg – g his Imagination. I don’t mean that he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state which is neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium.

Davie’s poem speaks powerfully for ‘moral commonplace’, and repudiates what he regards as the morbid kind of self-consciousness: ‘titillate’ is his decorous version of ‘soliciting’ or ‘f – gg – g’. But his certitude is chilling, and is not warmed by his appeal, in ‘Dream Forest’, to ‘a sculptor’s logic’. Such logic, whether it is enforced in Pound’s Cantos or in Yeats’s ‘The Statues’, is no protection against vanity and self-deception. How to be conscious in every direction but that of the self, where deception starts: it sounds a worthy programme, but it leaves many questions a-begging and much vanity undisciplined.

An enforced choice between masturbation and happily wedded love doesn’t seem to be the best analogy for the discrimination of poetic styles. Again in ‘Dream Forest’ Davie praises Brutus:

 imperious, curbed
Not much by the general will,
But by a will to be curbed,
A preference for limits.

Davie has made a distinctive poetry from this preference, placing himself squarely between titillation and the abyss. Like Allen Tate’s narrator in The Fathers, he believes that ‘excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss,’ and that civilisation is ‘the agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone’. Davie arrived at this preference not slowly, it appears, but as if spontaneously and by a law of nature.

His poetry, however, is not as innocent or as unmorbid as he claims. He is conscious in every direction including – very much so – that of the self. If that is where deception starts, he is as ready to be deceived as anyone – as Ginsberg, for instance. Davie is just as relentlessly preoccupied with the self as Ginsberg is, just as conscious of the profile he offers his readers:

Lighting a spill late in the afternoon,
I am that coal whose heat it should unfix.

The appeal to late 17th-century Wit is acceptable here, but it isn’t made innocently or without self-regard. When Davie pulls out the vox humana on the Wurlitzer –

What will become of us? Time
Passing, beloved, and we in a sealed
Assurance unassailed
By memory

– the vibrato on ‘Time’ titillates the sentiment before it makes the plangent claim of ‘passing’. I accept the claim, and am willing to give whatever is asked of me, but not to pretend that no claim is made. The Yeatsian touch in

These have I set up.
These have I set, and a few trees,

and the carefully withheld preposition in the repeated phrase are effective, but the effect is self-consciously sought. Indeed, the title-poem of Davie’s In the Stopping Train plays with motifs of stopping and starting, not as a play of mind or an act of ‘the mind turned outwards’, but as a self-soliciting process for which f – gg – g is the best analogy.

In another poet, this wouldn’t matter: it would be accommodated by a more genial rhetoric. But in Davie’s poems there is a worrying incongruity between the claims incessantly made – notably to ‘enlightened but still common sense’ – and the insecurity of judgment which finds claiming necessary. In his best poems, as in ‘Remembering the Thirties’ and most of The Forests of Lithuania, there is already a sufficiently dogged body of lore or prejudice which he can point to, such that the poetry becomes his particular sense of it, and of his distancing himself from it. His weakest poems are those, as in The Shires, in which there is no obstacle to his feelings, but he is not sure enough of them to leave them unsolicited.

Many of Davie’s poems seem laboured, and sometimes I want him to care less and risk more. He knows that this is a common response to them, and he has two or three poems which dispute the case. But at least the labour is one of care and love, and he has the civility to work at his poems before flourishing them. He doesn’t believe, as Ginsberg does, that first thought is best thought. Ginsberg claims: ‘Spontaneous insight – the sequence of thought-forms passing naturally through ordinary mind – was always motif and method of these compositions.’ I believe him, but there is little evidence of composition. I’ve just been through his Journals: Early Fifties Early Sixties (1977), and I find no difference between his momentary jottings and many of the items in the Collected Poems. In the new Introduction he refers to ‘the drama of breakthrough from closed form to open form in American poetry’, and in many places he aligns himself with Whitman in that episode. I’m sure it felt dramatic at the time, but now that poets write any way they like and have given up worrying about openness or closed-ness, the drama has drifted away.

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