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

refuses to join the silent conspiracy which now unites all the English poets from Robert Graves down to Philip Larkin, and all the critics, editors and publishers too, the conspiracy to pretend that Eliot and Pound never happened. Tomlinson refuses to put the clock back to pretend that after Pound and Eliot, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens have written in English, the English poetic tradition remains unaffected ... he appears to believe, as Pound and Eliot did before him, that a Valéry and a Mallarmé change the landscape of poetry in languages other than their own. No wonder he doesn’t appeal to our Little Englanders.

‘British’ is in fact Davie’s avoidance of the word ‘English’, and even the word ‘insularity’ in Davie emerges redeemed and enlarged, as in his essay on David Jones: ‘If on the one hand this is the voice of an insular sensibility that preferred Langland to Dante, on the other hand this insularity, recognising Church-Latin and Brythonic Welsh as tongues of the insula along with Middle English, is more notable for what it disconcertingly invites in than what it comfortably shuts out.’

‘Disconcertingly inviting,’ he says of David Jones, but the phrase holds true for Davie, too, in a book which has room not only for Larkin, Betjeman, Auden and Housman but for Bunting, J.H. Prynne and Roy Fisher, and which takes time to confront the impact (‘in languages other than their own’) of Pasternak and Pound. With Davie, such words as ‘provincial’, ‘insular’, ‘tradition’ fight back against the pejorative connotations they have acquired. To be ‘insular’, as Davie uses the word, is to accept that four languages and literary cultures exist, not one; to be ‘provincial’ is to connect with the geographical and temporal moorings (Bunting in Northumberland, Charles Olson in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Hardy in Dorset) that make experience, and its rendering in language, unique; to have the sense of a tradition is to watch with pleasure as it expands and extends itself.

Davie seems to have begun the Hardy book (its title obliquely alluding to W.C. Williams’s In the American Grain) to argue the extent to which Hardy’s example, rather than those of Yeats or Pound or Eliot, has determined the shape and aspirations of modern British poetry and to defend him from the charge that he is a Victorian nostalgic. Davie also sought to explain to the American reader why British poetry – its ‘apparent meanness of spirit, painful modesty of intention, extremely limited objectives’ – was, in fact, enormously challenging. The book may be ‘about’ Hardy, but its aim is to contextualise a British poetry which, while having Larkin as its ‘centrally representative’ figure (Davie makes this prescient claim for Larkin very early on, in 1963), can accommodate writers such as Prynne and Fisher, whose work fully understands the claims of ‘Modernism’. Two years after taking Little Englanders to task for ignoring Tomlinson, Davie returns to the same theme in ‘Hardy and the Avant Garde’: ‘Little Englanders quite often appeal to the poetry of Hardy, to show how an indigenous tradition ... traced also through smaller poets like Auden and Graves ... went on undisturbed through all the shrillness of the avant-garde rallying cries.’ Davie prefers to think of Hardy as a contemporary of Eliot and Pound, a rooted but cosmopolitan writer, a self-taught craftsman and a poet. One of the best chapters is his discussion of Hardy the ‘laureate of engineering’, in which he suggests that technology, far from being something Hardy escaped, was a force he allowed to shape his aesthetic. Davie, like Pound and Gautier (to both of whom he turns for ways into Hardy), is interested in the analogies through which the act of writing is figured. Art forms which dispose mass in space (rather than, like music, in time) intrigue him most: sculpture, carving, metalwork. Where Pound is the ‘poet as sculptor’, Davie’s Hardy is the writer for whom ‘the poem is itself an engine, a sleek and powerful machine; its rhymes slide home like pistons inside cylinders, ground exactly to fractions of a millimetre’.

One of Davie’s contentions is that British poetry’s most characteristic feature has been irony, and that it was through the diminution of the ironic mode that it cloistered and disempowered itself in the postwar decades. For this, Hardy was unintentionally responsible, but Davie suggests that the transformation of irony between Hardy and his successors is both momentous and modest; it is a change from ‘cosmic’ to ‘self-defensive irony’. Hardy and Housman ‘do not recommend irony as a secure and dignified stance from which to confront reality, rather it is the stance of reality as it confronts us. Their irony is cosmic, where an Auden’s is provisional and strategic.’ A Davie poem, ‘Remembering the Thirties’, counts the cost of this diminution, as the poets of Auden’s generation discover that what began as ‘provisional and strategic’ avoidances of the pretensions of Yeats and Pound had themselves hardened into a position:

They played the fool, not to appear as fools
In time’s long glass. A deprecating air
Disarmed, they thought, the jeers of later schools;
But irony itself is doctrinaire

Hardy is prized, it seems, but not necessarily his impact, Auden is valued, but not his influence, and Larkin is admired, but not his imitators. All the while seeming to trace a ‘line’, Davie in fact traces the various isolations that compound into a tradition – ‘tradition’ in the sense of something that must be extended and pushed out. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is a curious book, in that it defends the many things it has no real enthusiasm for, while at the same time manifesting a serious commitment to writers – Bunting, Olson, Louis Zukofsky – who had (by the late Sixties) made little impact on British or American audiences. What these writers demonstrate, and what Davie finds lacking in the Movement and the American poets sold as its antidote, is a different relationship between reader and writer: ‘a poem is a transaction between the poet and his subject more than it is a transaction between the poet and his readers ... the reader, though the poet cannot be oblivious of his presence, nevertheless is merely “sitting in on” or “listening in to” a transaction which he is not a party to.’ This ‘cutting the reader down to size’ is something Davie discerns in poets as diverse as Hardy and George Oppen, but finds absent in modern British poetry. Only Bunting, whom he considers to be both the heir to international Modernism and the finest, most rooted, modern British poet, fulfils the brief: ‘he achieves the hieratic tone not by archaic diction but by ramming his words so hard, one on the heel of the other (object on verb on subject), that no interstices are left through which his eye on the thing to be said can be deflected towards the reader, the person he is saying it to.’

No wonder Davie was unwilling to take the dose of Plath and Lowell and Berryman prescribed by A. Alvarez in The New Poetry (where Davie is anthologised for his most unyieldingly unemotive poems), in which the American confessionalists were held up as liberating examples to reserved and complex-ridden Britons. He had no time for the self-lacerating public intimacies of these poets; in 1971, writing in the TLS, he called them ‘self-disgusted and self-hating stripteasers under die arc lamps of their own rhetoric’ (this in response to Alvarez’s remarks about the ‘arid, in-bred aestheticism of Black Mountain’). While seeming to repudiate it, Davie often writes poems in something approaching the confessional mode, but it is the confessional of someone unused to the practice, who baulks at the idioms of introspection. In ‘July 1964’, prompted by the death of Theodore Roethke, a confessional poet his criticism never tarried over, he writes:

The practice of an art
is to convert all terms
into the terms of art.
By the end of the third stanza
death is a smell no longer;
it is a problem of style.
A man who ought to know me
wrote in a review
my emotional life was meagre.

More than any of Davie’s books, this one is marked, sometimes obtrusively, by the obsessions of its time. The Alvarez/Davie debates are typical, but there are also attacks on the Wilson Government and on the student riots of the late Sixties, interpolated into discussions of Kingley Amis or The Hobbit. Despite all this, the book is radical, innovative, yet with a filigree of reaction which characterises Davie at his best.

The criticism is avowedly programmatic, and these essays aim to change the poetic landscape they identify. British and American poetry have not been ‘on hearing terms’, and the ‘American Reader’ he addresses at the end of the Hardy book is a reader not only closed to British poetry after Hardy, but to American poetry after Pound (as well as to Pound himself). The case Davie makes for Pound and Olson and Zukofsky to the American reader is analogous to the case he makes for Bunting to the British reader: both ‘counter-traditions’ are ignored and marginalised by their respective mainstreams. This idea of a ‘countertradition’ recurs in a review of A Various Art nearly twenty years later, in which Davie contends that little has changed in the intervening decades. But a British poetry of ‘lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations’, he argues, is as challenging to readers as the ‘exciting and ambitious’ poetry of America. Pluses are converted into minuses: ‘lowered sights’ become an ‘anti-rhetoric of pregnant terseness’, ‘diminished expectations’ are evidence of hard-learned diffidence. Though he does not say so himself, his own poetry exemplifies this impasse and hints at the way out:

So here we are upon the heights, my love,
Though in habit’s level pastures still.
We want, and yet we do not want, the skill
To scale the peaks that others tell us of,
Where breathing gets so difficult, and the will
Kicks back the ground it tries to rise above.

                                                                                      (‘Jacob’s Ladder’)

The poem is tense with what it holds back, winning the double bonus of an intensity as forcefully invoked as it is fended off. In Hardy, Davie calls this ‘enabling constriction’, and it holds true of his own poetry and criticism.

Canon-mongering is agreeably absent from this collection. Indeed, when Davie detects that critical approach in others, he is not impressed. His sympathetic but dissenting review of George Steiner condemns the Steinerian ‘literary stock exchange’, in which authors are sweepingly quoted at canonical ‘selling prices’. Steiner, Davie believes, is complicit in an ‘inert consensus’ of literary values, which has its own grandiose but barren discourse of ‘greatness’. Davie has sometimes been seen as peddling precisely these kinds of absolute values: Ian Hamilton’s Davie (LRB, 4 March 1999) is a cantankerous maligner of legitimate poetic effort, yet his poetry and criticism are not governed by the rancour which surfaced from time to time in his critical career.

Yvor Winters, the critic, Davie once wrote, could never have condoned some of the things written by Yvor Winters, the poet. But where other commentators sought to smooth the problem out, Davie proposed his own solution, of its nature irresolute because it saw no problem in the first place. ‘The poetry,’ he declared, ‘traffics in realities that the criticism knows nothing of.’ Davie’s poetry and criticism constantly trafficked in realities they at once distrusted and embraced, and were even, on occasion, suspicious of each odier’s enthusiasms. He was one of the first English critics, and one of the earliest English poets, to recognise the importance of Olson, Zukofsky, George Oppen and others. He came to them with difficulty, but his difficulty was productive, enabling him to keep hold of his objections even as he found ways of surmounting them. His ‘Recollections of George Oppen in a Letter to an English Friend’ is a masterpiece of resisted sentiment:

      Pathfinder, though? Trailblazer?
Never for me, threading the roaring dells
and snapping branches of morose
inspirations, aspirations, habits
held up to the weak light, scowled at. Not a bit
of help to me was George, or George’s writing:
though he achieved his startling poignancies,
I distrusted them, distrust them still.

Oppen was one of Davie’s friends, and they deserved well of each other, but the poem is powerful above all because, almost callously and in a worrying reversal of genre protocol, it refuses to bury the differences in poetics that transcend the friendship. This is so typical of Davie as to approach caricature. With Pound, with Oppen, with Black Mountain, indeed with any issue or idea that he takes on, the resistance is so solid that his qualified accession (if and when it comes) seems all the more persuasive. Many of Davie’s poems are about resistance, about knowing that life is too complicated for contradictions to resolve into anything other than dilemmas:

How else explain this bloody-minded bent
To kick against the prickings of the norm;
When to conform is easy, to dissent;
And when it is most difficult, conform.

                                                                     (‘The Nonconformist’)

In 1989 Davie reviewed A Various Art, an anthology of poets associated with, or connected to, the ‘Cambridge School’, for the Sunday Telegraph. The review, printed in this collection, was never run. It is sympathetic and searching; perhaps the Telegraph was hoping to commission a stiff dressing-down from the author of Church, Chapel and the Unitarian Conspiracy. In his time, Davie has been considered (frequently by the same people) both a highbrow reactionary and a new-fangled avant-gardist (Graves thought him a dangerous proto-Post-Modernist), but the body of his work resists such easy categories. The demands his poetry and criticism make on us are quite other: translations of Mickiewicz, Mandelstam and Pasternak, books on Russian and Polish literature; on syntax in English poetry; on Scott, Pound, Hardy; on contemporary poetry, Nonconformist religion and the English hymn; forty years of poems, and hundreds of essays and articles. He has, Helen Vendler wrote, ‘drawn a map of Modernism ... that remains one of the definitive outlines of 20th-century experiment in form and language’, but this map of Modernism was only one of the many maps he drew.