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Notes on Modernists III



I first started reading Donald Davie, one of my own heroes, because of his odd critical book/assemblage of reviews Under Briggflatts. He did not inspire me to read Pound, not consciously, so much as to ask more questions of mainstream British poetry. I came to Pound later, and then dived into Davie on Pound. I’d got the Pound bug. It had split me off from all the mainstream stuff I had been trying to emulate.

I looked to Davie to guide me towards other poets who had also, perhaps, read Pound and treated the Cantos as Basil Bunting had:


There they are, you will have to go a long way around
if you want to avoid them.


Davie was a great quasi-anthologist. His critical prose cites perfect exemplary passages from poets you may not have read and, indeed, the poems don’t look as good when you seek out the books they came from. He had an ear for the crescendo, the orgasm, of a poem; and his skill with prose (which he could bash out as easily as breathing) could bring the reader into tune with the exemplary excerpt to read it right. Here are some lines I love from Davie:



Horace of course is not
a temporiser, but
his sudden and smooth transitions
(as, into a railway tunnel,
then out, to different landscape)

it must be admitted elide,
and necessarily, what
happens up there on the hill
or hill-ridge that the tunnel
of syntax so featly slides under.

(Wombwell On Strike)


The wider the range of manners,
The more inhumane the enforcement.

(Through Bifocals)


In, of all places, Tashkent
They were reading Keats; and were wrong
As the wives and widows of
Poets are always wrong:
‘Each word is a self-confession.’
True; but not to the point.

To the point is how
It (his poem) measures
Up to, takes note of, departs from
Ovid or Dante. Ladies,
This is where he departs from
You, and you cannot abide it.

(Two Widows in Tashkent)


Just so may a grudging respect
Be, from a despised one,
Not just better than none
At all, but sweeter than any.

(Grudging Respect)


These lines and many others have stuck with me for 25 years. When I started translating Horace (inspired by Bunting’s translations of Horace, which Davie, an admirer of Bunting generally, hated), and a friend was struggling to express what my English versions were doing to her brain, I cited the conceit of the tunnel (1.) and the words “featly slides under” and she cried “yes, yes, that’s what your translation is doing!’ (Proof positive that one tries to bring across the affect, the thing that the poet would do if writing in your language).  I am still dealing with (2.), to which I was initially hostile. The poem is about razing land in order to build new cod-nostalgic houses. It ends the Collected Poems of 1990. It seems to warn against mere diversion. It certainly has felt more true as time has passed: we have more interesting recipe ingredients in the shop, and everything feels more tight-arsed. (3.) infuriated my first girlfriend, a painter, perhaps because it painted women as unsubtle and is sexist. But the general theme that there are few readers who can feel a larger matrix of influences… that stays. To me, if you don’t know Paradise Lost, you miss the main movement of the Prelude. (4.) speaks directly to my temperament (and the time I have wasted among the hostile when I could have been snuggled up with the loving, perhaps.)

As many poet-critics will, Davie was in no small part writing about other poets as he wished other critics would be writing about him as a poet. In the case of the poetry of some poet-editors, the work has remained unread and with good reason.

He is, quite wrongly, associated with the Movement (where he began), and the few poems of his that are online are the earlier formal and Movement-y ones. But Davie has some of the rawness, the sticky-out elbows (like haiku) of Pound. He is a late modernist, and a fascinating one. Study of his poetry is rewarding, full stop, but rewarding particularly in the way it throws light on some of the choices of persona and public relations that the Modernists took. Davie memorably snaps at Jeremy Hooker in one review for wanting to fit in with his neighbours, for not accepting the Modernist lot of alienation. It’s an unfair snarl, although it perhaps reflects a larger exasperation of Davie’s, that Hooker wasn’t interesting him enough. As a critic, one only has any right to that kind of snarl when one has proven again and again to have drawn attention to the strongest voices of a period, and strong trends.

The very simple point I want to make about Davie, to contrast him with Pound, is that Davie like Pound has strong and interesting opinions. But unlike Pound, Davie clearly arrives at his opinion’s expression (even its thinking) by writing a poem. The opinion’s particular eloquence can come from the mood (or snarl) and music that the poem has set in train. I find that Pound is oppositional and not foundational. He gives one skepticism, and tools to ask for alternatives. But he’s too reckless, and so is likely to be sidelined. He manages to allow for his recklessness by just being a poet, a silly sometimes emetic bohemian eccentric.

With Davie, not only is he not importing a controversialism that would work in any arena (that, in Pound, could transfer to an essay, a radio broadcast, or a chat), he is arriving at his opinions by creating almost a social milieu in his poetry. Linguists talk of the ‘phatic utterance’: the equivalent of saying down the phone line “can you hear me, are you still there?” In Pound’s case, his phatic utterance is often, as a performer, “can YOU hear ME” not “can WE hear each OTHER”. Davie is no flatterer, but he does work with an ambience more like persuading a loved one in denial to face their denial, and being surprised into eloquence by how mutual the atmosphere feels: and still to say something awkwardly truthful. No mean feat.

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Image: Robert Delaunay, Rythme, Joie de vivre, 1930

Image credit: Yann Caradec