Rory Waterman reviews Donald Davie, Selected Poems, ed. Sinéad Morrissey (Carcanet, 2022)
1922: the high-water mark of literary high modernism in English, with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. And also the year of birth of several poets associated with that least modernist of movements, the Movement, among them Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Donald Davie. The Movement poets worth reading now rarely adhered to the formal and thematic conservatism of Movement poetics, though. Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings – admittedly an unusual pairing, which is part of my point – did, but transcended them by dint of their exceptional talents, and were thus not typical of the Movement at all, despite their constraining aesthetics. Others left the Movement behind, and largely found their enduring work elsewhere, both poetically and geographically, and later in life.
The most widely read of those poets now is surely Thom Gunn, who expanded both his world and his verse following a move to California in the 1950s. Davie is considerably less prominent a century after his birth, but he was hugely influential for much of his life: “the definitive poet-critic of his generation”. I am quoting the poet Sinéad Morrissey, who edited this selection, and who is in turn quoting Michael Schmidt, the book’s publisher, and to whom those words might also be applied. Like Gunn, though about a decade later, Davie swapped England for the US, in his case for professorships, first at Stanford, then Vanderbilt. In these august chairs, he wrote several learned, argumentative, highly engaging books on poetry – I had to replace my copy of Under Briggflatts when I was an undergraduate in the early 2000s because it had fallen apart from overuse – and, between 1955 and his death four decades later, twelve slim volumes of poetry, the earliest bearing most of the hallmarks of what we might regard as a Movement sensibility, and the others ranging variously beyond it.
I approach this review with an agenda: Davie, in my opinion, should not be forgotten – should, indeed, be read widely, both for his criticism and his poetry. But it feels as though he might almost have been forgotten already. And besides, where is the uninitiated reader to start? In 2002, a second and definitive Collected Poems appeared, edited by Neil Powell. Considering that he was an extraordinarily erudite, astute (if in my decidedly humble opinion often maddeningly incorrect) critic of other people’s poetry, Davie perhaps published a little too much of his own, and that volume – much as I wouldn’t want to be without it – is as uneven as it is substantial. Morrissey’s introduction quotes Powell’s:
A mildly diverting, if ultimately pointless, exercise might involve winnowing it down to the equivalent of those three volumes by Larkin [The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows, the very short collections on which Larkin’s reputation rests]. That could, up to a point, be done; and the daunted reader would then discover a poet as approachable as Larkin.
“Pointless exercise”? One can almost see the lightbulb flickering on above Morrissey’s, or Schmidt’s, head, for that’s essentially what this book does. Davie had in effect made his own attempt at the job in 1985, when his erstwhile most recent Selected Poems appeared, but he had ten years of poems left in him at that point.
I approach this review with an agenda: Davie, in my opinion, should not be forgotten – should, indeed, be read widely, both for his criticism and his poetry. But it feels as though he might almost have been forgotten already. And besides, where is the uninitiated reader to start?
In December, at the online launch of this book, Morrissey was candid about her relationship to the subject, and confessed to having barely read Davie until being approached to edit this selection. She is an inspired choice to do so: a poet with a comparably expansive unpredictability and some unusual confluences of poetic temperament, who has been able to approach Davie’s oeuvre fresh, as will most readers of this book. She is also apparently a fine editor of her own collections, including her Selected Poems, published in 2020. I am comparing apples and oranges, and a concluded career with one that has not, but Davie was apparently less proficient in this regard, frequently throwing the wheat and chaff together. Morrissey seems almost apologetic that this “is admittedly a highly personal selection”, but that is its idiosyncratic triumph: this is a sampler of one of the major poets of the last generation that has been assembled by leaning into the proclivities of one of the major poets of our own.
The book presents Davie chronologically. (It is a shame there is no indication of which poems belong to which collection.) The early Davie is regularly a Movement poet par excellence – both in Morrissey’s abridgement and when read more extensively: rigidly formalist, hard-edged, unsentimental, an observer and declarer, his poems often skilful thought puzzles to move the head if not generally the heart. In ‘Homage to William Cowper’:
Most poets let the morbid fancy roam.
The squalid rat broke through the finch’s fence,
Which was a cage, and still was no defence:
For Horror starts, like Charity, at home.
That gives a flavour of Davie’s preferred form at the time: tightly rhymed, tightly metrical quatrains of primly accentual-syllabic iambic pentameter, with commensurately formalised diction. ‘Poem as Abstract’ begins:
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 is memorable, and encourages thought beyond reading, but ultimately it is self-advocacy masquerading as argument. ‘Gardens no Emblems’, on the other hand, is one of several examples here of the earlier Davie’s occasionally staid formality lending his lines a vivid appositeness they could not otherwise possess:
Man with a scythe: the torrent of his swing
Finds its own level, and is not hauled back
But gathers fluently, like water rising
Behind the watergates that close a lock.
The subtle shift away from metronomic iambs in the middle lines of the stanza, then the gentle return to them, is part of the effect, experienced even if it is not noticed. You can see and feel the scene, and the closing simile, in part because of that. But this twelve-line poem transcends simple portraiture – and is, for the little this is worth, Davie at his most Larkinesque in terms of the trajectory his poem takes: ‘But forms of thought move in another plane’, the final quatrain begins.
Morrissey … confessed to having barely read Davie until being approached to edit this selection. She is an inspired choice to do so: a poet with a comparably expansive unpredictability and some unusual confluences of poetic temperament, who has been able to approach Davie’s oeuvre fresh
Oh – to use an exclamation the early Davie loved – his poems were soon to move cautiously, determinedly away from such formalities. However, much of the restrained voice and all of the inquisitiveness would never leave him – nor would the desire to question the art he practised, a process Morrissey is evidently drawn to, as she opts to include a disproportionate number of poems doing so. One of the earliest signs of Davie’s increasing breaking of the mighty line is ‘The Wind at Penistone’. As Morrissey notes, ‘stylistically, this is a poem of windy gaps and disjunctions, a battle between text and white space, between speech and silence.’ The poem is in blank verse, ‘a grid’ no less, but blank verse as buffeted and cut through, yet solid, as the landscape it describes:
The wind reserves, the hill reserves, the style
Of building houses on the hill reserves
A latent edge;
which we can do without
In Pennine gradients and the Pennine wind,
And never miss, or, missing it, applaud
The absence of the aquiline;
which in her
Whose style of living in the wind reserves
An edge to meet the wind’s edge, we may miss
But without prejudice.
And yet in art
Where all is patent, and a latency
Is manifest or nothing, even I,
Liking to think I feel these sympathies,
Can hardly praise this clenched and muffled style.
You can sense the poem trying and failing to blow itself open.
Davie had served in the Navy during the Second World War, mainly in the Russian Arctic, though only occasionally does that become his subject – in ‘Behind the North Wind’, for instance, which describes “a forgotten Front / Of 1942”. Its effects, however, are evident in several unglamorous portraits of England. In ‘For an Age of Plastics’, for instance:
Chance in the bomb sight kept these streets intact
And razed whole districts. Nor was the lesson lost
On the rebuilt Plymouth, how an age of chance
Is an age of plastics. In a style pre-cast
Pre-fabricated, and as if its site
Were the Canyon’s lip, it rises out of rubble
Sketchily massive, moulded in bakelite.
There is a hint of Larkin again in ‘Barnsley Cricket Club’:
‘A thing worth doing is worth doing well,’
Says Shaw Lane Cricket Ground
Between the showers of a July evening,
As the catch is held and staid hand-clappings swell.
How homely this is, and every bit as vivid as Larkin’s ‘someone running up to bowl’, but the poem hardly encourages us to go there. The apotheosis of his apparently growing distaste for England is the opening to ‘Lowlands’: “I could not live here, though I must and do / Ungratefully inhabit the Cambridgeshire fens.” “But a beauty there is”, he writes with begrudging passivity in the poem’s final stanza, having undermined the opening gambit with three of the most euphorically beautiful stanzas he would ever write: “slow light spilt and wheeling over calm / Inundations”; “it wears like a bus-conductor / tickets of brown sails tucked into polders’ hat-bands!” As so often in Davie’s landscape poems, this is a depiction of a state of mind as much as of a place. If, for Hardy, “Everything glowed with a gleam; / Yet we were looking away”, for Davie things can glow with a gleam while you’re looking at them, noticing them intensely, and feeling like Hardy’s speaker all the while.
Frequently self-chastising, Davie is anything but a poet of simple certainties when it comes to matters of emotion or conduct
Frequently self-chastising, Davie is anything but a poet of simple certainties when it comes to matters of emotion or conduct. In ‘July 1964’, he writes:
Love and art I practise;
they seem to be worth no more
and no less than they were.
A man who ought to know me
wrote in a review
my emotional life was meagre.
That ‘ought’ is balanced, ambiguous: it might mean he should; it might mean he does. And Davie’s equivalent of carpe diem is a glass half empty but held tight. “Now is the time”, he writes in ‘Christmas Syllabics for a Wife’,
to measure wishes
by what life has to
give. Not much. So be
from now on greedy.
Those are simple syllabics, but certainly he hadn’t shown much interest in such principles of poetic organisation earlier in his career. What influence, specifically, did America have on Davie’s poetry? In her introduction, Morrissey sees hints of Frank O’Hara in some of his later work. Poems such as ‘Morning’, which she singles out, are certainly loosely conversational and frenetic, starkly at odds with the earlier ‘Movement’ poems in style if not underlying attitude:
Sin, I will say, comes awake
With all the other energies, even at last the spark
Leaps on the sluggard battery, and one should have
Prosopopoeia everywhere: Stout Labour
Gets up with his pipe in his mouth or lighting
The day’s first Gauloise-filtre; then stout
Caffein like a fierce masseur
Rams him abreast of the day; stout Sin
Is properly a-tremble; […]
Other of his later poems are sparse, pithy, graceful, exclamatory – often all at once, as in ‘Benedictus’, a single-sentence poem stretched taut over twelve short lines, and which cannot successfully be excerpted. Though raised in a Baptist home, Davie deserted Christianity for most of his adult life, before turning to Anglicanism in his sixties. This is reflected in his 1988 collection To Scorch or Freeze, eleven poems from which are selected by Morrissey, more than from any of his other books, and none of which were included in the earlier Selected because he hadn’t written them yet. In ‘Attar of Roses’, he asks:
do we live in a nest of boxes,
the nubs of ourselves, so tiny, secreted in
the innermost, most reclusive, most
cramped of the boxes? If not
we have to believe in, we already believe in,
the resurrection of the body.
I for one am not wholly convinced; and, even if I were, this more didactic Davie would still leave me largely indifferent, neither scorched nor frozen – though these are not simple songs of praise. ‘If I Take the Ways of the Morning’ ends:
Speak if you cannot sing.
Utter with appropriate shudders
the extremities of God’s arctic
where all the rivers are frozen,
and how He tempers our exile
with an undeserved planting of willows.
I find Davie most engaging when he is full of contradiction, quarrels, appears to be in dialogue – as he frequently is with other writers: Horace, Pound, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky (he had taught himself Russian) or, in one of his last poems, Tony Harrison, the dedicatee of ‘Northern Metres’, which evidently alludes to Harrison’s flawed masterpiece ‘v.’:
On parents’ headstones have
Made a morass of Beeston.
Will not disperse that stench,
Nor tidy metres quench it.
Is this nuanced admonishment? Certainly it reads like a quarrel with Davie’s younger self, and serves as a marker of how far he’d travelled.
I find Davie most engaging when he is full of contradiction, quarrels, appears to be in dialogue – as he frequently is with other writers
It is a slight shame this book leaves out some of Davie’s longer poems and sequences. For example, surely room might have been made for ‘In the Stopping Train’ (“This journey will punish the bastard”), which isn’t that long, and is remarkable – the 1985 Selected included it, though perhaps that is its own argument for the poem’s omission here, and the two selections are robustly different throughout. If you have the earlier book, there is therefore no reason not to read the new one, which is in any case worth the ticket price for the introduction alone; and if you have read none of Davie’s poetry before, you have a small, perfectly-formed, ever-expanding universe to explore.
Rory Waterman is the author of three collections from Carcanet: Tonight the Summer’s Over, which was a PBS Recommendation and was shortlisted for a Seamus Heaney Award; Sarajevo Roses, shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Prize, and most recently Sweet Nothings. He teaches English at Nottingham Trent University, has written several books on modern and contemporary poetry, and co-edits New Walk Editions. Rory Waterman’s website is here.