Davie’s Rap

Neil Corcoran

  • Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988 by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 261 pp, £18.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 820 7
  • Annunciations by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 55 pp, £5.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 19 282680 8
  • Possible Worlds by Peter Porter
    Oxford, 68 pp, £6.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 282660 3
  • The boys who stole the funeral: A Novel Sequence by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 71 pp, £6.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 845 2

One of the finest things in Donald Davie’s Under Briggflatts is a sustained, learned and densely implicative comparison of two poems about horses: Edwin Muir’s well-known, post-Apocalypse poem ‘The Horses’ and Austin Clarke’s much less familiar ‘Forget me not’, a poem written out of Clarke’s angry response to the Irish trade in horse meat in the 1950s. Although generously receptive to both, Davie comes out decisively in favour of the historical rootedness, specificity and consequent stylistic bristle and speed of the Clarke against the ahistorical, symbolist stasis of the Muir, identified as the mode of ‘mythopoeia’. As the argument develops, however, Davie reaches a startling conclusion: both poems are dependent on a conception of the ‘horse’, and therefore on a conception of ‘man’ (since the domesticated horse has significance only in relation to human beings), which share a ‘belief in the sacred’. Muir’s horses clearly represent the emergence of the possibility of some new post-holocaust inter-relationship between man and animal (and therefore suggest what an ideal present relationship might be); Clarke’s vituperative disgust with Irish mercenariness, and his elaborate poetic campaign of moral re-education, would be pointless if the horse were only a farmyard animal. Even though the poems are as far apart in tone as it is possible to conceive – the Muir all rapt and visionary, the Clarke sardonic and declamatory – both bear witness ‘that every poet’s task is ultimately and essentially religious; and that it is dangerous for any poet to think otherwise.’

Davie reaches this conclusion only ‘hesitantly’, as well he might when making such an ideologically-loaded observation, but his book appears to wish to reinforce it, and he would probably take confirmation in it from the other books under review. Charles Tomlinson’s Annunciations and Peter Porter’s Possible Worlds share Renaissance Virgins for cover illustrations. Tomlinson’s is Lorenzo Lotto’s Annunciation, in which the angel has just leapt spectacularly over the balcony, terrifying the cat, to make his declaration to an overcome and pliant Virgin among the furniture of her ordinary life: a bed, a candle, a stool, a lectern. Porter’s is Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, in which a heavily pregnant Virgin points to her belly while a couple of angels theatrically raise the curtain of a canopy for her. Tomlinson’s opening poem is an account of the painting in which the angel foretells not a Christian parousia but

the unaccountable birth each time
my lord the light, a cat and you
share this domestic miracle.

The book’s strategically-placed concluding poem, ‘For a Godchild’, makes it clear how little Tomlinson is tempted by any miraculous other than the sublunary: it decides to educate his godchild out of the implacability and cruelty of Dante’s Christian God. But most of the poems in the book offer epiphanies of the ordinary, often connected with light, in a form which summons spectres of religious transcendence to the secular feast, imagining the objects of the world issuing from their ‘grail of origin’. Many of these meticulously crafted precisions and perceptions seem like secularised versions of Hopkinsian inscape and Tomlinson’s diction sometimes echoes Hopkins’s own: ‘flank’, ‘pied’, ‘shadow-pied’, ‘unroll’, ‘unshaped’, ‘down-drift’. The informing presence in Hopkins is a specifically sacramental one: Tomlinson manifestly wants to establish a continuity even where his official disbelief asserts a difference.

The poem in which Peter Porter makes reference to the della Francesca is called ‘Stratagems of the Spirit’. Its title comes from the book’s epigraph from Wallace Stevens (a poet who has always been important to Porter, and in interestingly varied ways). Stevens’s ‘Credences of Summer’ make his frequently-made post-Arnoldian point about the way a poetry must substitute for a metaphysic: the stratagems of the spirit are the attempt to find in the visible world a ‘successor of the invisible/... as what is possible/Replaces what is not’. Porter’s title for the book therefore crosses the scepticism of its evoked Voltairian tag with this spilt-religious late Romanticism in Stevens. The poem ‘Stratagems of the Spirit’ is a typical Porterian exercise in the eagerly probing intelligence subjecting the objects of its attention to a moralising inquisition.

And we must watch our crude
Interpreters muddy up the halcyon –
If the slit in the Madonna’s dress
Is sexual and she fingers it, the tent
Above her like a conquering glans, it’s God
Day-dreaming a new gender for the war
In Heaven: a marvellous smile which runs
Through flesh del parto, headlong on to love.

This is knowingly allusive, sophisticated and wry: it knows not only the painting but, probably, some of the most recent criticism of the painting; and the poem is, like a large number of poems in the book, a witty, exuberant ferreting of things into inter-relationship. Quite distinct from the lucidity and calm of the Tomlinson, in which the world seems bathed in a steady, trustworthy illumination, Porter’s poem in sceptical, and sceptical, too, about the sceptics who would rename the theological with the libidinal. This ruminative moralising in Porter, for whom the physical always strains its leash towards the didactic, a paysage is always a paysage moralisé (‘The soil/Itself is pure sententiousness’), also admits its yearning for possible revelations beyond the merely moralised. If it’s too late ‘to be religious in the census sense’, nevertheless we

Must think ourselves alive and newly-landed,
Star-faced Linneans hearing musical
Communiqués no erudition robs
Of freshness – we must pace our footfall on
The temple steps and listen for the sun.

Porter’s figuring of possible worlds for himself makes his work restless, exploratory and sometimes thrillingly superficial, a divertimento on themes from the human comedy in which the world’s objects are rendered with an almost wide-eyed zest, for all the studied display of cultured reference: the absence of the old annunciations and incarnations seems seized on almost rapaciously as the opportunity for supplying his own.

One of Porter’s finest poems of the decade, ‘Cities of Light’ in Fast Forward (1984), thinks itself both newly and very anciently landed – imagining an Australia both futuristic and aboriginal; and Les Murray’s The boys who stole the funeral, first published in Australia in 1980, also concludes with startling aboriginal visions. Versions of reconciliation and appeasement, they construct a new Christianised-pagan myth of blood sacrifice, eucharistic celebration and transformed Grail quest. They bring to a remarkable conclusion this extraordinary poem-sequence. Part road movie, part belated Australian Waste Land, it seems to take on modernity single-handed, exasperatedly combating various kinds of liberal enlightenment with the opposition of values rooted in traditional familial fidelities, rural pieties and this ideal conception of an Australia which might combine an aboriginal with an early pioneer sense of the land. Its variously-metred sonnets construct an elaborate narrative in which a First World War veteran’s corpse is stolen by a couple of young friends who return it for proper burial to his people in the Australian outback. The combinations of contemporary vignette, ritual intensity and topographical sweep make the poem seem almost like a fragmented and extremely compacted Patrick White novel; and it is not always easy to follow. It is technically inventive, a quasi-cinematic exercise in sudden cross-cutting and the talented mimicry of a wide range of Australian voices and accents: but I find the rise and swell of Murray’s free verse in his shorter poems a more satisfactory vehicle for the bruising relentlessness of his vision of contemporary Australia.

Despite the busy narrative of flight, pursuit and quest, the poem’s plot is peculiarly static, and reduces to a tediously diagrammatic binarism. One need only compare the genuine speed and unreeling vertiginousness of Paul Muldoon’s sort-of-sonnet sequence ‘The more a man has the more a man wants’ to realise how lacking Murray is in poetic, as opposed to narrative momentum. In Muldoon, the plot seems an invention in which he might learn what he thinks, and the reader is caught up in the danger and licence of the endeavour. In Murray, you feel he knows only too well what he thinks, and that the thinking long pre-exists the plot: the cards seem well marked in advance, but with little of the sharpness or suddenness of real satire. The poem’s flow of sympathy towards the agrarian, the ur-Australian, the chthonic, and away from the urban (and suburban), the academic and the ‘clerical’, gives the sequence too heavy a programme and polemic to be sustained with sufficient variety over such length. For all its passages of oneiric lushness reverencing the Australian country and the values of a conservative ruralism, the poem’s resulting caricatures – of shrill feminist, dope-smoking, spineless speechwriter, homosexual would-be rapist – stick in the gullet.

The boys who stole the funeral may be an instance, then, of how a contemporary poem can be damaged by manifesting too visibly its affiliation to a conception of the sacred: the result is liable to seem altogether too palpably designing upon us. It is interesting that one goes instinctively for analogies, as the poem does itself in its allusions, to early Modernism – in particular, to the myth-making of Yeats and Eliot. Perhaps there is bound to seem something anachronistic about such ventures of reclamation in the late Eighties, to which the Post-Modern Muldoonian metamorphic rather than the mythic or mythopoeic mode seems so much more intimately responsive. Similarly, the new annunciations of Tomlinson, for all their undoubted linguistic and formal beauty (‘The Plaza’, ‘In The Emperor’s Garden’ and ‘Far Point’ seem to me among his finest poems ever), sometimes have a debilitating tendency to over-aestheticisation. And where they attempt some more obvious statement of feeling, it can seem disconcertingly almost coarse-grained for a poet capable of such subtlety. A short squib called ‘Felix Randal’ makes Hopkins’s blacksmith an ideal heroic shadow behind his contemporary successor, a representative of the black economy, ‘unpursued by conscience or by priest’: but the poem’s apparent sense of the involvement of economic with moral collapse is not pursued beyond a kind of soured grumble. And ‘The Garden’ opens with a condemnation of what Tomlinson calls the ‘crass reading’ of cultural history which would emphasise the exploitation of labour in the creation of such perfection of artifice. The poem’s own insistence, however, is little short of crass condescension or even bullying.

The ‘crass reading’, we are told,

   forgets that imagination
Outgrows itself, outgrows aim
And origin.

Perhaps the secularised epiphany searching its ‘grail of origin’ is always likely to overemphasise the degree to which origin is outgrown by imagination, and the degree to which out-growth is dependent on labour at the source; it certainly ignores, probably wilfully, the extent to which the ‘imagination’ as a self-justifying entity has been called into question by a wide range of modern literary theory.

Under Briggflatts may exclude the more obviously secular poetry of its period for reasons to do with the view argued in the essay on Muir and Clarke: its omissions are otherwise uninterpretable. If we start presuming that, inter alia, Douglas Dunn, Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, Anne Stevenson, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and James Fenton are absent because Davie thinks they play no significant part in this history, then what are we to make of the omissions of J.H. Prynne and Roy Fisher, heroes of Davie’s earlier study of the contemporary, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973)? In a book whose title claims centrality for Bunting, a writer who signally amalgamated Wordsworthian English Romanticism and Poundian, American-internationalist Modernism, it is bizarre not to have these English Neo-Modernists displayed as central exhibits. It is also distinctly odd to find Davie writing a history of ‘Great Britain’ which actually includes a large number of Irish poets, and (given that) to find him making several highly approbatory references to Derek Mahon without offering us even a paragraph of comment on him. Also, although Davie’s title seems to promise a revisionist setting of the last thirty years of British poetry under bare Ben Basil’s head, he nowhere makes such a coherent argument. His preface – humbly or pre-emptively – makes it clear that this is not in fact his aim when it denies ‘story’ and ‘thesis’. It could hardly do otherwise, since the book is actually a collection of previously published articles and reviews loosely stitched together into three chronological sections, one per decade.

This structure is not always very reader-friendly, particularly where the same poet is discussed in several different essays: but it does indicate the kind of history we are actually invited to read in this book, despite its title. This is a history of the way the poet-critic Donald Davie, Englishman and erstwhile Irish and then American academic exile, has read some of his cis-Atlantic peers as their books have appeared – with legitimate and overt self-interest. As such, it is a deeply meditated, always enlivening story: pugnacious and embroiled, but also generous and at times even vulnerable, as preoccupied with matters of reputation and status as by the weightier matters of cultural debate evident in the Muir and Clarke essay. As a result, the book is constantly illuminating on the way the poetry Davie is interested in is imbricated in the social and cultural history of its period: chapters on ‘1968’ and ‘The Gurus’, a diatribe against poetry competitions and an attack on the Faber publicity machine, together with the use made of some of his own most memorable first reviews (particularly his Listener piece on Larkin’s Oxford Book), all make this a criticism willing to ‘take the rap’.

Davie is caustic about the way Geoffrey Hill teases that phrase in his critical prose, and Hill is often himself made to take Davie’s rap. There is a telling account of Ted Hughes’s and Hill’s varyingly suspect appropriations of a passage from Czeslaw Milosz in which Davie defines the ‘distracting sonorities’ of Hill’s prose; in a generously empathetic essay on the critic Kenneth Cox, Davie clearly relishes Cox on Hill’s ‘movement slowed to a processional drag ... all inanimate, embalmed ... like being beaten about the head with balloons’; a by no means uncritical account of Seamus Heaney nevertheless praises his refusal of Hill’s ‘ironic zero’ in favour of a labour of transcendence; ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy’ is a poem which treats patriotism and martial valour ‘monumentally’, but in which the upshot is ‘a monumental uncertainty, or ambivalence, about both of them’. The negativity about Hill derives from the case initiated in the essay on Muir and Clarke, and pursued implicitly in a number of other essays (particularly on Bunting, Sisson and Gunn) in favour of a poetry that is itself intrusive, disruptive, open to the contingent, willing to state a position and make a case. What Davie admires most is a poetry whose discourse and rhetoric are continuous with discourses and rhetorics beyond the poem, and in which this continuity registers as an identifiable stylistic friction and tremor. What other critic of Bunting would be likely to identify his work as ‘the flower of dissenting Protestantism’?

This act of reading, or active reading, issues in judgments which may surprise those inclined to associate Davie only with sour or bellicose reactionary sentiment. Outstanding among these is a reading of Thom Gunn in which Davie laments the way writing a poetry of gay apologetics – where experience itself is the only allowable source of authority – cuts Gunn off from any ‘profound resonances’ from pre-Enlightenment English poetry. Davie might have noted how quickly such a self-interested existentialism, if it existed, was convertible, under the pressure of Aids, into making a responsibility to the human community the ground of sexual ethics (and how relevant it is that Gunn has written some of the finest Aids-responsive poetry). He also shows an odd unawareness of how pre-Enlightenment poetry is made to resonate differently for all of us by the way it is read in the contemporary poetry and critical theory of the sexually and politically ‘marginalised’. Nevertheless, having made his point, Davie ends the essay with an arresting and revealing remark: ‘it could always be maintained,’ he says, ‘that for the sake of achieving objectives so obviously just and overdue, the sacrifice of such resonances and continuities was a small price to pay.’ The thing is very deftly, but not evasively done: Davie will not maintain as much himself, since that would be, possibly, to argue less for poetry than poetry deserves: but he dialogically leaves open the possibility of such a thing being maintained, since that is only to do what is required by human suffering. It is not the only moment in this book (though it is the most memorable) when, in making his sense of the irresponsibility of the aesthetic almost explicit, Davie turns what can seem a high-minded grumpiness into a large-minded empathy, reading poems the more illuminatingly for his hesitant admission that there are, after all, whatever they are, things important beyond all this fiddle.