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Kenneth Cox

Donald Davie’s History

(Originally published in Agenda 28.2 [1990]: 63–68.)

Donald Davie, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960–1988. Manchester: Carcanet, 1989.

The subject could have been indicated more clearly. The title is rather obscure and the subtitle is out of step with the author’s Foreword, which says the book is about the poetry of the British Isles. Its three chapters are delimited by decade alone.

Why the book is called a history is not immediately apparent. There is no narrative tracing trends and movements, with a thumbnail sketch of each poet and a summary judgement of his work. It is an exercise in contemporary kulturgeschichte steering a winding course around criticism (what’s good, what’s bad), dogmatics (what’s right, what’s wrong) and journalism (who’s in, who’s out). It examines various examples of recent writing with a view to eliciting salient features and significant tendencies. Its perspective embraces several centuries and its observations are imbued with the historical sense.

The matter actually treated is mostly poems written in England and in English since about 1910. Of the other countries Ireland comes off best, Scotland worst. Apart from MacDiarmid’s early poems in the language Davie still calls Lallans, writing in Scots is ignored. Two poems by Sorley Maclean are discussed on the basis of translations. A little attention is also paid to translations from foreign languages, none to the immigrant languages.

Limitations of scope and method are further restricted by drastic selection of material. Martin Booth’s British Poetry from 1964 to 1984 is in both senses valueless as criticism but it does tell you what went on. Davie assures the reader:  I deal with no poet whom I do not consider as in some measure admirable. What the reader would like to know is whether those not dealt with are considered negligible. Evidently if not explicitly Davie excludes what he considers beneath attention.

If that were all the result could be understood. But an unattached observer standing at an angle of view not wildly divergent from the author’s will note the absence of Patricia Beer, George Mackay Brown, Thomas A. Clark, Iain Crichton Smith, Peter Dent, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Geoffrey Grigson, Lee Harwood, John Heath-Stubbs, J.F. Hendry, Alan Massey, John Montague, Stuart Montgomery, Norman Nicholson, E.J. Scovell and Gael Turnbull. In addition the following are mentioned only once and in passing: Roy Fisher, W.S. Graham, John Holloway, Tom Pickard and Stevie Smith. John Riley would figure here but that Peter Riley is named by mistake instead.

Davie includes however some recent revaluations of poems written before his stated terminus a quo. Those are by Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Edwin Muir and T.S. Eliot. Incidental comment is passed on Yeats, Pound, Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. The range of reference extends well beyond the declared topic but the choice of topics is bound to seem either wilful or ill informed. A cause may be the method of composition. The book appears to have been compiled by revising occasional pieces and adding others here and there.

The writing has an oratorical eloquence marked in places by mannerisms probably deriving from oral delivery. Davie qualifies bold assertions and subordinate escape-clauses, paradoxical epithets and sentences opening with an adversative link. Ranging shots leave a target located but unhit. He uses we to associate his audience with himself, often emitting an opinion as a hypothesis to hang in the air for impersonal contemplation. He likes to prefix And to sentences already linked to the one before by some semantic join. It accelerates the transition and a reader moderately alert can watch him slide over the non-sequiturs.

The historian’s pose dissociates the author from all the observations he lets fall save those sealed with a personal cachet. He posts himself at an imaginary point of vantage from where a question can be viewed under different aspects. The discussion proceeds in the middlebrow muddle above the data of experience and below conceptual exactitudes. Occasionally a conclusion is reached. Davie is not afraid to expose his obsessions, possibly believing them strengths:  we may hesitantly conclude that every poet’s task is ultimately and essentially, if not mythopoeic, at any rate religious; and that it is dangerous for any poet to think otherwise. The note of menace would be ugly if it were not absurd.

Literary qualities escape extraneous considerations when these are pursued into their connexion with language or verse. At times they flash out of the blue as spontaneous recognitions of merit owing nothing to creed or policy. The various shifts of view together with the unpremeditated insights maintain interest.

Davie’s preferred approach to a poet’s work is to quote a few lines and subject them to close examination. Usually he fastens first on some edge of the text, some prominence where the writer can be observed exhibiting himself in a characteristic stance, and from that handhold raises himself to questions of religious or political significance. Or he takes examples superficially similar from two poets to show how they differ: lines about horses in Edwin Muir and Austin Clarke, lines about a flower in Basil Bunting and Ted Hughes. In those examples the inferences he draws are true enough but only demonstrate step-by-step what was obvious from the start. In others the inferences can be disproportionate or wide of the mark. He faults Norman MacCaig and Geoffrey Hill for evading issues of importance and finds Hugh MacDiarmid as well as Austin Clarke both insistently erotic poets.

Attention at the level of vocabulary has been a feature of Davie’s criticism since his first book Purity of Diction in English Verse. In the present book he picks on a poem of Michael Hamburger’s which includes a rare word, ectopistes. He has a quick eye for implications, a somewhat inquisitorial nose and a good ear for verbal echoes from English writings of the past but is less sensitive to kinaesthetic values. His conclusions are naturally best justified when the poets he examines cling, like C.H. Sisson and R.S. Thomas, to modes of expression with familiar overtones.

The practice of textual examination might be thought to provide a prophylactic against extraliterary distractions. So it would but for two potential dangers: (1) fixed and prolonged attention to a piece of writing, as to anything else, may activate a subjective concern and (2) neglect of crucial factors in the text may lead not merely to misinterpretation but to one believed proof against rebuttal. The cause of error in the first case is impossible to know, in the second it can be pointed out.

Davie tries to show that Bunting’s Ode 36 ‘is what it says’, i.e. sets words side by side in the verse-line, like the mosaic described, with no connective, no ‘cement’, beyond the monosyllabic preposition, ‘to’. That cool beyond should have given him pause, it adduces evidence to the contrary. It is verses that are laid as mosaic, not words. Words constitute the verses but within each verse they are ‘cemented’ as required. Bunting is comparing a feature of Persian architecture with a feature of Persian prosody, where verses each of two half-lines can be self-contained and self-supporting, bearing no direct relation to those before and after, though kin to them in topic and direction. Elsewhere Bunting adapts the technique, here he describes it.

In another comment Davie stresses the conversational quality of Bunting’s English. Conversational is not perhaps quite the word but the mode of address it adumbrates is indeed present in Bunting. It is one of the things he liked Malherbe for: frank speech and a modest assurance of manner, to Bunting as Quaker and Northumbrian naturally congenial. But to illustrate it by a line from Briggflatts, It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti . . . is to treat the line as nothing but casual speech, to the neglect of formal elements. Not only is the time things happen in Briggflatts important to the poem’s structure, the line itself is beautifully poised. Its two halves, equally balanced, echo, reordering the consonants and remodulating the vowels. Even without a harpsichord sounding behind it and behind the lines following, you seem to hear one.

Davie’s essay on Edward Thomas calls for special mention. It considers the poetry damaged by the deficiencies of Thomas’s education: The damage . . . can be recognized only by those few who understand in all seriousness that a writer’s primary material, his palette, is his vocabulary. This view projects onto the creative processes of the writer the limitations to which a reader faced with a text is obliged to submit. What matters most is the strength and truth of the writer’s mind in the moment of composition. Critical as is choice of word it cannot be primary, if only because any word used is subject to revision. Nearer to primary would be movement and shape of phrase. By one of those generous turns that make Davie unpredictable he nevertheless acknowledges what Thomas finally achieved, not scrupling to call it great poetry. A reader coming new to it in the book should beware of an unfortunate misprint in one of Thomas’s clinching end-lines: millers for milkers.

Writing about Thom Gunn Davie finds it disconcerting that a poet promoting certain modern causes should apparently have to sacrifice . . . any profound resonances from periods earlier than the eighteenth century. The remark sheds light on his addiction. It would be curious if anyone expounding a theoretical subject should stray far from the vocabulary appropriate to it. In that situation a serious writer will not ‘sacrifice’ but gladly renounce any resonance of diction. Other means of indicating literary filiation are available. One might for example put economic theory into verse of a very elaborate structure previously used for a medieval poem on the psychology of love. Resonance is in any case more a matter of calibrating the sensibility than of forming opinion and its effect is rather piquant than profound. From expressions here and hints elsewhere Davie’s conception of literary resonance appears limited to a sort of verbal nostalgia.
His essay on prosody once more shows an honest man tackling a crucial subject with an inadequate set of concepts. Time and again it advances towards a solution only to be foiled by want of an appropriate term. The old terms never made sense enough anyway, to reinstate them would be a step backwards. Retooling is necessary.

Other terms applicable to verse of any type might be extracted from the sense prosody has in Firthian linguistics. They would show how certain constituents of language, some dependent on the will and skill of the speaker and others modified automatically as his utterance proceeds, become to variable degrees enhanced or reduced by being referred to an abstract pattern. It may be a traditional system of measurement or some schema self-evident from apt application or insistent repetition, occasionally a nonce-device announced as such. From the constant referral there comes into being a continuous play of embodied language against disembodied model, smaller in range than music’s but within that range much subtler.

Incidentally Zukofsky’s ‘distribution of n and r sounds according to the formula for a conic section’ was not a system of prosody for general application. It was a device Zukofsky used in his imitation of Cavalcanti’s canzone, Donna mi prega. The imitation forms part of his poem “A” and a capital A looks like a two-dimensional outline of a cone without its base, cut through at the middle. Zukofsky liked to go one better than his model and adapt it to a purpose of his own. He was a writer of technical ingenuity, personal integrity, emotional depth and intellectual power. He enjoyed a joke and to call him an engaging crazy-man would not be wrong for one facet of his work. To use the phrase as a description of it all is unjust and reflects on the intelligence of the user.
Among other poets dealt with in Davie’s history but not mentioned above are John Betjeman, Jack Clemo, Peter Dale, Elaine Feinstein, Ivor Gurney, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Jeremy Hooker, David Jones, Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Readers of Agenda may also like to hear that Davie comments on William Cookson’s founding and editing of the magazine, saying it has been the most important literary magazine in Britain over the past thirty years, as well as on some of the critical contributions of the present reviewer.

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