A durable poet in a disposable age

Cole Moreton on the final regrets of the late Donald Davie
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The Independent Online
DONALD DAVIE, described after his death last week as "the defining poet-critic of his generation", spent his final years embittered by the marginalisation of his art.

Famous in the Fifties as a member of "the Movement" with Philip Larkin, he had become saddened by the public's loss of interest in poetry, and disliked recent trends in verse. He felt sidelined by the poetic establishment and blamed leading members of it, including the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.

"I do feel marginalised and I feel bitter about it," he told me in February 1992, as his 70th birthday approached. "Very bitter. And I can convict certain people of having brought it about." They included Hughes, whose brutally physical poetry and its fascination with the subconscious was sharply different from the cool, cultured tones of the Movement in general and Davie in particular.

"It's not that they took out after me vindictively," he said. "But one way or another they have, for 30 years, promulgated a view and a practice of poetry which is inimical to the sort that I schooled myself to write."

He was "totally out of sympathy" with the proliferation of workshops, festivals, competitions, prizes, and teaching methods. "The bitterest point of all is not that poetry is marginalised, but that good poetry is. Sloppy, amateurish, self-expression poetry isn't marginalised - that is recognised, esteemed and printed."

His friend, and publisher at Carcanet Press, Michael Schmidt, said Davie's scrupulous, academic approach to verse had simply gone out of fashion. "He was against the commodification of culture, which has led to the kind of fast-food poetry that consists largely of anecdote and entertainment; in recent times that has led to a proliferation of performance poetry. It is poetry that is disposable, whereas Donald was concerned with that which sought to be durable."

Professor Davie, a Yorkshireman, became known in the Fifties as a member of the Movement, a loose grouping of poets which also included Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis and, pre-eminently, Philip Larkin.

Of all the verse they produced, his was the coolest, most rational and disciplined in tone. His critical work, Purity of Diction in English Verse, was the closest the group had to a manifesto. Yet while Larkin and the others built on the fame of those times, Davie became known as an academic poet and theorist.

He taught at universities in Dublin, Cambridge, Essex and California. There were 16 books of criticism and 15 of poetry, including the three volumes of his Collected Poems.

By the time he and his wife, Doreen, retired to Devon in 1988, he was a reclusive elder figure, respected more for his criticism than his poetry.

"The highest praise I get is for being consistent," he said. "They say, `We will treat him with respect, limited by his academicism, by his being part of the Movement and to some degree still located in that 1950s set of assumptions'."

But his poetry had moved on. His final book of new verse, To Scorch Or Freeze, was published in the year of his retirement. It was the last step in a journey from the strict metre and limited subject matter of his early career to a more idiosyncratic, modernist, fractured and allusive language. It was also an attempt to translate and imitate the Psalms, and to come to terms with the difficulties of a Christian faith into which he had been baptised in 1972.

Davie saw it as the formal and thematic culmination of his life's work. Hardly anyone else did, and the book was barely recognised by the critics. "There were very few attempts to engage withwhat he was doing," said Schmidt, who edits the magazine Poetry Nation Review and organised a tribute edition to mark Davie's 70th birthday. Contributors included Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, Seamus Heaney and nearly 30 others who claimed Davie's influence.

He should not be seen as a sad figure, Schmidt said on Friday. "He was a grumpy and curmudgeonly man, but he was also hopeful. He still believed there is such a thing as a common reader who has intelligence and discretion."