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’.

Davie was early attracted to verse-forms and to some of the manners of 18th-century poetry, and if it was only considerably later that he began to see his attempts to echo them as a romantic aberration, he should perhaps have been warned by the fact that, in the Thirties, certain Augustan habits had attracted not only Edgell Rickword but Roy Campbell. It is significant, however, that the first poems in this Collected show Davie as under the spell, not of Pope or of any of the other primarily satirical authors of the century, but of William Cowper.

A pasticheur of late-Augustan styles,
I too have sung the sofa and the hare,
Made nightmare ride upon a private air
And hearths, extinguished, send a chill for miles.

This ‘Homage’ ends with reflections which one can see, in retrospect, as projecting far into Davie’s oeuvre tastes and convictions profounder than any that could be indicated by a mere liking for a period flavour. ‘Most poets let the morbid fancy roam.’ Not the poet of this collection! ‘For Horror starts, like Charity, at home.’

The poems of Brides of Reason (1955), as a whole, sufficiently demonstrate that being a ‘pasticheur’ is not at all in Davie’s line, and that, in the Cowper poem, the word was not a programme but a self-accusation. He leaves such superficialities far behind him: he has matter to convey. His face is indeed set against letting the morbid fancy roam, but he does not shrink from horror; he insists only that it should be squarely faced and soberly spoken of, and this, as ‘Thyestes’ shows, following the pattern not of the 18th century but of older and more radical times when

          The savage poet sang
Enormities that happen every day.

There is a link between the horror that begins, like charity, at home and the ‘baby’s finger in the plate’ presented to the king who ‘spooned his baked-meat children from a dish’. Davie, however, does not specialise in horrors of any kind. ‘Among Artisans’ Houses’ evokes a more familiar sort of homeliness – a terrace on the hills above Plymouth Sound:

There are not many notice this
Resourcefulness of citizens
And few esteem it.

Davie does notice the ‘civil sense’ of those who – we are still in the Fifties – lived in these modest circumstances and managed to keep ‘The strong though cramped and cramping tone / Of mutual respect’, and he is inclined to attribute it to the continuity ‘from Drake to now’ which broods over Plymouth. It is a passing reflection, but it is in tune with much that was to come, both from Davie the poet and from Davie the critic.

The critic is never far from the poet when he writes, and Brides of Reason contains more than one poem in which the form provides the material as well as oversees the technique. One such piece, ‘Method’, harks back to ‘Thyestes’, apparently in reply to a reader who found the poet’s style ‘too neat and self-possessed’ to treat of atrocities, and suggested that he ‘ought to show a more disordered mind’. That is not Davie’s method. Another piece, ‘Poem as Abstract’, engages the subject of poetic method head-on.

A poem is less an orange than a grid;
It hoists a charge; it does not ooze a juice.
It has no rind, being entirely hard.

This insistence on hardness probably owes something to T.E. Hulme, to whom Articulate Energy shows Davie to have given considerable attention, though he is there less concerned with Hulme’s ‘hardness’ than with his criminal behaviour in having, Davie alleges, ‘in effect’ excluded syntax from poetry altogether. In A Winter Talent and Other Poems Davie pursues the ideal of an unyielding surface as far as the Cubist’s canvas and the sculptor’s stone, asserting the superiority of such an appearance not only in these contexts, but more generally in the artistic process. He is for cherries. ‘Other fruit,’ he says,

Have too much bloom of import, like the grape,
Whose opulence comes welling from a root
Struck far too deep to yield so pure a shape.

It could be maintained, pace not only Théophile Gautier but many writers of verse who have treated the subject without any of Gautier’s severity, that the artistic process is not altogether a suitable subject for poetry, but Davie’s passion for ‘trying to explain’ does not stop at the frontiers of prose.

Yet the place of reasoning, of the conscious marshalling of argument, in poetry remains a question which haunts the reader of Davie’s work. He is quoted on the dust-cover of this volume as saying: ‘I have the least philosophical of minds. I can argue only from one case to the next.’ The distinction is not altogether clear, and becomes mystifying when, in Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric (1986), he expresses a strong preference for ‘the language of the schools’ in poetry as against the use of non-technical language, where that alternative is available. There is no reason why such terms should not be used in verse but it is, so to speak, the poem itself which has to decide whether it can accommodate them. Davie is too good a critic to disagree with that, but he is here toying with what seems to me a dubious theory of poetic language: that there is a ‘lyrical’ usage, declared ‘insufficient’ in the title of his book, and a superior usage which confines itself to good prose truth. This rests on an innocence which removes at a swipe all our proper scepticisms about language: Davie is in fact asserting that there are available to us forms which offer an escape from the limitations of time and place which all language suffers from, and which are indeed inseparable from the human condition in general.

This confusion goes deep into Davie’s later work. He has come to advance the pretensions of the tourist’s eye as the key to objectivity – ‘the only eye you can trust ... the eye ... of the man who is moving quite fast, and moving quite light’. But tourists, however fast they move, notoriously come from somewhere, and their reportage is not generally all that convincing. I hope it is not impertinent to suggest that this divagation owes something to Davie’s sense of having travelled so far from Barnsley. The Navy in wartime sent him to a Russian Arctic shore. He has studied and taught at Cambridge; taught at Trinity College, Dublin, at Essex where he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor, at Stanford, California and at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, besides travelling fairly extensively in Southern Europe. All these movements have left notable traces in his work. The Arctic experience – marvellously described in These the Companions (1982) – clearly has a bearing on his enthusiasm for Russian literature, though he quite late speaks of the language as one he ‘cannot command’. The period in Dublin has helped to give depth to more than his study of Yeats; Cambridge in varying forms has been an enduring presence, and his time at Essex – his last employment in England – has, one suspects, been crucial for his later orientation. But it is, naturally, the long and varied experience of America which appears to have contributed most to what I would call his illusion of rootlessness.

Poems from here and there show a more than touristic curiosity and there is continuing and developing worry about the human implications of what the poet sees, and simultaneously a care for the words which can leave a clear trace of them. This is the characteristic and undeniably weighty Davie:

The English that I feel in
Fears the inauthentic
Which invades it on all sides
Mortally.

That poetry must have ‘the reek of the human’ would not have been everybody’s conclusion to a book on syntax, but it was his, and he exemplifies his concern in poem after poem. If I look critically at those aspects of his critical theory which seem to lay claim to an objectivity which can never be guaranteed, it is not that I do not accept his contention that poetry must refer to ‘the world of common experience’, and it is the authenticity of this reference that I admire in this volume. Davie does not write for effect, or to enlarge his own claim to consideration. He writes what he thinks is true, however awkward it may be:

My strongest feeling all
My life has been,
I recognise, revulsion
From the obscene;
That more than anything
My life-consuming passion.

That so much more reaction
Than action should have swayed
My life and rhymes
Must be the heaviest charge
That can be brought against
Me, or my times.

Davie’s poems are characterised at once by variety of topic and by consistency of temper. To the variety contained in these nearly five hundred pages one cannot begin to do justice; to the consistency one can at least give a clue by pointing out the correspondence between the first ‘Homage to William Cowper’, conceived as an exercise in late-Augustanism, and that astonishing late collection, To Scorch or freeze (1988), where he restates the words of the Psalmist, sometimes dissenting from him, but more often endorsing him ‘enthusiastically though with shudders’. He does not ape the older performers in this field, but instead uses procedures unknown before the present century. He has himself commented, with what in our day must count as shamelessness: ‘The versifier has one gift, that of versifying; and that gift, the only one he has, he lays before the Throne.’