These are some remarks on the poetry of Donald Davie, whose Collected Poems, edited by Neil Powell, were published by Carcanet in 2002.
In an essay of 1959 (reprinted in The Poet in the Imaginary Museum), Donald Davie presented himself, and those contemporaries associated with him in ‘The Movement’, in a light at once harsh and unforgiving. What underpinned his remarkably brutal self-exposure was the question of tone. The thing that stuck in his craw was what he came to see as the peculiarly deprecating and ingratiating mode of voice in which the poetry of the group had presented itself to the educated readers of its time. As Davie icily remarks, what in effect the poets of the Movement had succeeded in doing was to replace a poetry of self-expression (the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell) with one no less egregious, namely, a poetry of ‘self-adjustment’—a poetry dedicated to getting on the right terms with the reader and to hitting off the right attitude towards him. Davie came to see the poetry he had written during the 1950s as an act of public and private therapy, in its own way another and no less contemptible mode of self-expression. His work, and that of those associated with him, was guilty of what during the 1960s and onwards he was to regard as the cardinal sin: the failure to respond creatively to the world as such. For the English poets of the 1950s, he believed, the world out there, in its quiddity, was accessible, if at all, only by way of an overweening irony, at once self-defensive and self-deprecating, which denied the world its integrity and otherness. Things in themselves were permitted no impact upon the poet unless submitted to categories and attitudes he himself had already imposed upon them. As Davie puts it: ‘This imperiousness towards the non-human goes along with excessive humility towards the human, represented by the reader’. To make the manipulation of ‘tone’ the central preoccupation of poetry was to deny the ontological in the interests of the social. The refusal, characteristic of English poetry from Yeats, Auden and Empson to the Movement, and on to Thom Gunn and others, to accept the reality of ‘alien modes of being’ was taken by Davie to be symptomatic of a deeper malaise: the catastrophic failure to acknowledge the reality of being as such. Awareness of this failure was to remain for Davie throughout his life a touchstone of what he saw as the peculiar deadness lying at the heart of English culture and mentality. Davie noted it especially in the willingness of modern English poets (including Hardy) to sell poetry short and in the diminished expectations and philistinism of the culture as a whole.
What Davie’s Collected Poems reveal is a constant struggle to overcome these failures, as he saw them, within himself.
Worry hedges my days
Like a roil of thick mist at the edge of a covert
Fringing a tufted meadow. In that field
Monuments of art and sanctity
Arise in turn before
The clouded glass of my eye.
Last year two churches of St Francis
Were piled up there, at the lowest verge of Assisi.
This poem, ‘On Not Deserving’, from Poems of 1962-1963, is suggestive in its ambiguities. There is in place a ‘roil’ of thick mist obscuring the edge of a covert which is compared to the ‘worry’ hedging the poet’s days. The first line implies that worry not only limits or sets bounds to the speaker’s days, it also allows him to hedge his bets and to trim, to hold to the middle course and avoid extremes. ‘Roil’, which as a verb means to rile, vex or annoy, or to make water muddy or unclear by stirring, has become a substantive, a displacement of use which effects precisely the blurring of boundaries essential to the poet’s strategy here. Furthermore, the boundary or edge in question is the edge of a covert, itself a hiding-place, a thicket hiding game. The field thus delimited by the poem is of uncertain definition. However, it is here that ‘Monuments of art and sanctity’, invoking the transcendence of Yeats’s ‘Monuments of unageing intellect’ and the humility of St Francis, are said to ‘arise’, and ‘arise in turn’. ‘Turn’ evokes ‘verse’ and ‘before’ points to what comes next, which is, as we pull over the line end: ‘The clouded glass of my eye’. Here, the poem is showing itself for what it is, a ‘turn’—a turn that clarifies what it clarifies with respect to an eye whose glass is ‘clouded’. To clarify is thus an obscuring. The opacity of the situation is marked in the last line by the spatial deictic ‘there’, suspended before the caesura and pointing back to the equally unfocussed temporal marker of the previous line—‘Last year’. Just as the poem seems poised to impose its images on the world, so, in the same gesture, the flat, almost paratactic phrasing seems on the ‘verge’ of withdrawing them, as too overweening an importunity. What is piled up is piled up at ‘the lowest verge of Assisi’, a phrase that fails to point to anything, except perhaps itself, engaged in the act of pointing. The speaker is not ‘deserving’, not worthy—of what, we don’t know—on the evidence of the very act he has just performed. He has accomplished his own failure, and, as it were, by pleading his innocence established his guilt. The poem’s lack is the possibility of its being.
‘The Hill Field’ (Events and Wisdoms (1964)) is a more extended and complex piece in the same vein:
Look here! What a wheaten
Half-loaf, halfway to bread,
A cornfield is, that is eaten
Away, and harvested.
How like a loaf, where the knife
Has cut and come again,
Jagged where the farmer’s wife
Has served the farmer’s men,
That steep field is, where the reaping
Has only just begun
On a wedge-shaped front, and the creeping
Steel edges glint in the sun.
See the cheese-like shape it is taking,
The sliced-off walls of the wheat
And the cheese-mite reapers making
Inroads there, in the heat?
It is Brueghel or Samuel Palmer,
Some painter, coming between
My eye and the truth of a farmer,
So massively sculpts the scene.
The sickles of poets dazzle
These eyes that were filmed from birth;
And the miller comes with an easel
To grind the fruits of earth.
This poem, like the first I quoted, refers to other writing. The reference here is to ‘The Solitary Reaper’. The poem also refers to itself, as the singular act of composition that it is. That is, in referring to itself, it simultaneously refers us to another writing. This is to stress, not intertextual reference in general, but rather the singularity of the act of referral itself. What Davie has here constructed is a poem that is open and closed at once. Because of the uncertainty of context this play of reference creates, an uncertainty concerning who is saying what to whom, the poem’s tone—its explicit ‘address’ to the reader—can no longer be understood as it was by Davie in 1959. That this is so can be seen at the beginning of the opening line. The imperative, ‘Look here’, serves to confirm the identity of this text (or, at any rate, of this phrase) by moving outside or beyond itself, in order to point to itself from the position of an other, the reader who is addressed by words that apparently refer only to the event of the poem itself—the event of the poem’s depicting what is depicted by it. (This ‘event’, it would seem, is the poem’s ‘wisdom’.) The phrase, ‘Look here’, can of course also be read as an expostulation. The status of the poem’s beginning is thus rendered immediately problematic.
This point may be made clearer with respect to the image of the field which is in play here, as in ‘On Not Deserving’, and which fulfils much the same role in this poem as it did in that. The image of the field is what the poem is in the process of constructing, and part of what the image is an image of is the process whereby it is being constructed. In effect, what the poem shows is itself as it emerges from, or is engendered by, the process of being said. As a critic, Davie had elaborated on this kind of symbolist configuration in essays on Eliot, Pound, Mallarmé and Pasternak, some of which were written prior to or during the composition of the poetry of this collection. Thus, in ‘The Hill Field’, as with many other poems he wrote during the same period, one can see the poet developing a complex modernist poetry based on that of the earlier masters, but as it were transposed into what looks like the minor key of a poet who also has his eye on Hardy, a poet who was, according to Davie, unlike Eliot and the other major modernists in that he failed to transform or displace ‘quantifiable reality or the reality of common sense’. In ‘The Hill Field’, symbolist techniques are present, and signalled as such. ‘Wheaten’ is reduced to ‘eaten’ as the ‘half-loaf’ of the field set up by the poem is reduced by the removal, or harvesting, of the letters ‘wh‘. In stanza three, ‘the wedge-shaped front’ is there on the page, shown in the shape constructed by the way the words ‘and creeping’ in line 3 protrude beyond the second and fourth lines. The apostrophe ‘how’, beginning at line 5, is only revealed to be an apostrophe, rather than a question, by the end of line 12. The opening ‘See’ of line 13 looks like another apostrophe, but by the end of line 16 it is seen in retrospect to be a question. The palpability of the words is further emphasised by sound: ‘ee’ provides a kind of basic pattern, through which other vowels intertwine in a series of complex variations.
More generally, the poem doubles back on itself, as though it were referring to itself referring to itself. It separates itself from itself and by so doing opens a gap within its structure across which reference can operate. This is signalled and effected by the temporal displacement at the opening, whereby the cornfield is presented as already the loaf it has not yet become, a loaf baked before the harvest is gathered in. It is in this temporal shifting that we see what gives rise to the various metaphors of violation carried by words like ‘knife’, ‘cut’, ‘cheese-mites’ and the ‘sickles’ (inevitably evoking ‘versicles’) that occur throughout the text. By means of a folding or turning back of time on itself, something that occurs only in the order of writing, the end is enabled to precede the beginning, and the beginning to come after the end. The device results in so profound a rupturing or undoing of intelligible order that, as Davie describes it, in an essay on syntax and music, there remains to the reader only one order of time which he can trust: ‘the one time the tales takes in the telling, the time which the poem takes to be spoken or read’. This foregrounding of the device, or ostranenie, is a procedure central to the poetry of Pasternak, as Davie’s essays and book on him make abundantly clear, and it is central also to his own:
Most poems, or the best,
Describe their own birth, and this
Is what they are – a space
Cleared to walk around in.
The ramifications of this reach very far. A word that has special privilege in Davie’s earlier poetry is ‘edge’, and there are others related to it, like ‘knife’, cut’, ‘sculpture’, ‘stone’ and words and names associated with art more generally. ‘Edge’ seems to have the same role here as ‘blanc’ in Mallarmé. Like Mallarmé’s writing (or Pasternak’s), Davie’s is a writing of spacing—in the sense that it foregrounds spatio-temporal differing—and words like ‘edge’ or ‘cut’ or their substitutes refer to the very spaces or cuts that make possible the series of which they are themselves members. (One may be inclined to see something paradoxical here, comparable to the problem arising when we consider the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. Is this set a member of itself? If it is then it is not. If it is not then it is.) The edge thus understood is what gives to the poem the conditions both of the possibility of meaning and of its impossibility. Thus, in ‘The Hill Field’, the names of the artists, Brueghel and Samuel Palmer, constitute a movement of undecidability: they mark what makes the poem possible and what stands outside, or transcends, that possibility, inasmuch as they mark what conditions it, ‘coming between/My eye and the truth of a farmer’. The final stanza takes this further: in acknowledging that the poet’s eyes were ‘filmed from birth’, a play is engendered on ‘from’ (inasmuch as ‘from’ may mean both ‘since that time’ and ‘due to’) that is repeated in the double genitive in the last line: ‘fruits of earth’ allows or constitutes a doubling which in turn allows (or calls forth) a play on ‘earth’ itself, a word resonant with implication and connotation. The complex play of meaning and counter-meaning at the end of the poem is thus shown to be an effect internal to the conditions of writing as such. For an instance of a poem that can be said to take this procedure to the limit, see the extraordinary ‘Bolyai, the Geometer’: it is a fully achieved symbolist poem in the mode of Pasternak.
And it is this excess, the excess of syntax over semantics, that Davie’s work continued to explore, throughout Events and Wisdoms and beyond. To align Davie in this way with an advanced modernism, may seem, despite Davie’s own critical clarification of these very modes of writing, perverse, wrong-headed. And yet, in ‘Sonnet’, a poem of the 1980s, Davie writes: ‘the scarp/Of language you would quarry, poet, whirls/Indeterminately shaped in/Helix on nebulous helix, not to be netted’. In ‘Thomas and Emma’, which, according to the editor, Neil Powell, is the last poem Davie wrote, in July 1995, two months before his death, he wrote:
Hyperbole, analogy, allusion
Build up what is no lie, although so wishful:
Conspiratorial, conjugal collusion.
The alliterations hark back to what ‘builds them up’ and suggest that the ‘collusion’, which is no lie, depends upon a poetic understanding of language that is hyperbolic, dependent upon analogy and allusive. I am not offering a modish characterisation or deconstruction of texts against the grain of an author who would have been resistant to readings of this kind. I am attempting rather to point to ways in which Davie came to see how the foundation of meaning in what is itself without meaning was inseparable from the vision his poetry gives us of what poetry, and so life, can or might be. It is here that his earlier self-castigation finds itself assuaged. In the enhanced sense his poetry shows of terms such as ‘between’, ‘before’, ‘after’, and so on, terms which resist being straightforwardly conceptualised or being turned into nouns, as well as in its sensitivity to the syntactic exploitation of the different values of words, a thematic or moral reading of the texts must give way to something else—something more ‘nebulous’, ‘not be netted’:
Moreover, space is encoded
to signify lapses of time.
(One verse-line under another;
this one after that one.)
The nearness of God is known as
an aching absence:
the room the reception-desk
cannot locate nor account for,
in a fictitious or
analogous space that does not
answer to or observe
the parameters of Newton,
any more than a page of verse does.
This, from a late poem, ‘Thou Art Near At Hand, O Lord’, is not an attempt to identify the language of modern poetry, with its predilection for negativity and a dialectic of lack, with that of negative theology. The lines serve only to suggest that the thematic or didactic, often seen as typical features of Davie’s poetry, may not be as easy to identify there as we might like to think. The play of wit and irony, the play, that is, of the sudden idea and its ironic realisation or separation out into paradox, allows Davie a writing at once playful and serious. Davie’s poetry is one of an interminable oscillation between meaning and the loss of it, between rapidity and the discursive. In this, Davie, the exponent of late Augustan order, is also the exponent of the romantic fragment, in which both creation and destruction are sustained. ‘He branches out, but only to collapse,/Imprisoned in his own unhappy knack,/Which, when unfailing, fails him most, perhaps’. Perhaps, for Davie, the truth of literature is captured in that ‘perhaps’.