Nothing left alive but a pair of glassy eyes: Donald Davie, Under Briggflatts, a History of British Poetry 1960-88 (Carcanet, 1989)
One wonders at Davie’s decision to publish a book on a subject which he was resolved to omit from the text. A historian is someone who consents to write about his social inferiors; critics aren’t that broad in scope.
Some figures may illuminate the objections I have. Out of about 20 poets Davie covers in more than a phrase, four began publishing after 1960. The book could safely be named “poets of the 1950s: a dogmatic approach.” None of the 85 poets in the new british poetry 1968-88 is mentioned. (The index reference to Peter Riley, p.136, translating Mandel’shtam’s octets, is in error for John Riley.) This emotional trauma extending over poetry and the modern deprives his work of all value, but does tell a tale; DD really is stricken with panic and numbness when asked to operate without codified rules. Deverbalisation is the key event of the book: repressing things from speech indicates high regard for language, making it (often) the prerogative of authority. Deverbalising is covert authoritarianism. Poetry is speech: let’s guess that Davie probes poets for fitness to hold authority, not for artistic pleasure. Every one (possibly) of those 85 poets is either feminist or homosexual or atheist or wants to change society.
There is no rule saying Davie has to write about Allen Fisher. An appeal to “competent authorities” is no good, because Davie, after all, is a professor. A look at retail turnover would probably exclude Fisher altogether. Ultimately, there is no reason for saying Fisher is “an important writer” except my subjective reactions. I am not an authority, just another peasant. I can’t say Davie is transgressing where no rules exist. But (what I am getting at) Davie is solemnly enforcing rules that he has made up. Davie is staking a considerable sum on his own personal authority; not by chance, authority, in the form of the Church and the Crown, plays a central role in this book, in which popular sovereignty is not even mentioned. If you’re going to be authority, you’ve got to have psychological conviction. It’s painful watching someone afflicted by two opposing drives (e.g. assertion and concealment), standing or speaking bizarrely because they are ridden by two incompatible neurological programmes. Someone will not persuade you that they are well-tempered intelligences if smoke is coming out of them and bits are falling off as you listen to them. Surly, slovenly old rascals shouldn’t write books. When lordly fiat fails to command consent, the rules sustaining authority have to be brought into the light of day.
Morality; subjectivity as sin
Both ideas and emotions can be regarded as disruptive of civil order and of authority. Davie’s attitude is something like “to be emotional is to want Utopia but this can’t be had so to mention it is a betrayal so poets who are unemotional and grim and repressed are much more authentic and undeluded than anyone who feels”. He fears that anyone who is motional betrays emotions; anyone who has idea betrays domestic reality. Light is shed on this by his treatment of political poetry. This occurs in a section about the politics of Larkin and Tomlinson; they are pure because they weren’t interested in politics, didn’t believe in political change, didn’t write about the community but always about the abandoned, cognitively cut off, passive individual. Because they didn’t evince the slightest interest in politics, they could therefore be conscripted as witnesses for the proposition that “wanting political change is wrong and immoral”. Political poetry isn’t allowed into the section on politics and poetry because it is about politics and therefore corrupt.
A regime of exclusions
Since the subject is not within the text, attention is necessarily drawn to its “negative space”: perhaps the act of exclusion contains a hidden pretextual energy. Perhaps all the pleasure, all the passion, of this “History” is packed into the turnstile: thy father was an Amorite, thy mother was an Hittite, ye shall not enter the house of the LORD.
The act of repression is the only important gesture in Davie; it is interesting to focus on this act and slow it down till we can watch it frame by frame. A punitive grid is applied in which there are thousands of tiny boundaries, and at each step a poet crosses many of them, causing Davie to writhe in agony. One suspects that his rules were made with the aim of making transgression: his rules of metrics, for example, allow him to disapprove several times per line. The wish to punish comes before ideas of right and wrong.
Davie’s reluctance to discuss his own position does have one peculiarly literary aspect to it: it reminds me of certain modernist writers who wrote from a terminal zone, never explaining or comparing or talking about causes. He takes his pose of being wounded for nobility of soul. The name Geoffrey Hill springs to mind here; his inability to write personal poetry goes along with a certain style of abrupt, apodictic, high-handed, quasi-religious emotion, of vague subject and cause. What is sent up as honour, sensitivity, pain, appears to the reader as pride, sullenness, contempt. You explain yourself to equals.
One should ask how people actually behave, and what wants they are fulfilling, before legislating, and setting penalties. Linguistics speaks of “complementary distribution” for two phenomena which fulfil similar functions, but one of which excludes the other at a given site. There is perhaps a complementary distribution of archaic, Christian morality, and sociological knowledge: I mean, Davie’s rusty, pursed-lip, morality would be impossible if he had ever asked “what are the causes of actions? What are the rules of psychology? How does society work?” The acts which Davie defines as sins seem to me, no more serious than eating meat on a Friday. Or even eating spaghetti on a Wednesday. Meanwhile he excludes social change from his “historical” work.
Prosody: who is allowed to make rules
The section on prosody (i.e. stress, melody, duration, and the patterning of these things, as parts of speech acts) starts with praise of Betjeman as the one to imitate. According to DD, “prosody … depends very largely on purely notional structures of expectations.” “For a prosody was precisely a set of notions shared by poet and reader in tacit compact.” (p.121) I am impressed by the way in which he has used a fact, which leads naturally on to intersubjectivity, in order to disenfranchise both writer and reader.
Davie is right insofar as artistic meaning is based on norms: a voice, husky on a phrase, is emotional because of its offset from a norm. The question is whether these norms are promulgated by decree, of based in our emotional intuition and physiognomic knowledge of living speaking subjects. This ability to hear and perform “weight” is based on saturation in a living community and is not “notional”. Clearly, speech is not featureless, but occurs in sharply rhythmic blocks. Is it likely that the printed poem is unable to signal these rhythms? Natural prosody gives us weight and duration, pattern, and contrast. Language is not without measure just because it does not come in ten-syllable bursts. The boundary marker of every phrase, every clause, every phoneme clause, sets up a model which successive phrases, clauses, phoneme clauses will be felt as repetitions of, echoing or varying. The incidence of these is not a “compact”, but part of the information coded into the character string which is the text. The poem elapses in this absolute density of phonetic patterns and echoes.
It turns out that vers libre has every possibility of “prosody” except that of following rules of repetition; Davie has mistaken this rule-boundedness for prosody itself. He blames amplified electrical music for damaging our ears, for this loss so sensitivity. But the problem is evidently one of centralized authoritarian control versus individual rights.
Davie’s ideals of prosody have nothing to do with what we hear or say. It follows from the concept of “norm and variations” described above that it is possible to destroy any pattern by imposing a set of norms onto it. When Davie reads modern poetry, he hears a six-syllable line as “four errors”, a fourteen-syllable line as “four errors”, and so on; thus destroying its contexture. No poetry could survive this. As criminals, the poets lose their civil rights. Davie acquires eminent domain over their texts.
Specifically modern poetry is difficult because it opens up a potential space, deepening the process of verbal cognition, withholding certainty so as to make the conventions of communication and behaviour visible, and make feedback far more total. This uncertainty is based on the belief that humans can influence the future. If the reader is against change, all this effort is unrewarding. Davie writes off 1968. He also writes off changes in society, before and after 1968. They do not fit into a Christian authoritarian agenda. Symbolic activity by definition involves very small amounts of energy, small changes. In feedback loops - such as perception - small changes build up to large ones. Did the radical consciousness of 1968 have any connection with the radical social changes, happening after 1968? Symbol-formation is related to change and Davie wants central repressive control of symbol-formation because he is against change. Ideas, affecting behaviour, compete with tradition or authority or Scripture. He wipes out the “smallest steps of change” partly by denying them, partly by defining them as errors. Since he is against change, it is logical that he should want poetic language, where new symbols and language rules are formed, to be frozen or suppressed. The potential space is territorialised.
(This was written as a review for EONTA in about 1991. It never appeared and I lost the electronic original. You could see the whole of my work on modern poetry as a drive to utter aloud the knowledge of poets who were consigned to silence in Davie‘s ridiculously excluding “history“. I think there was a longer version which said more about the book.)
(“Phoneme clause” means the groups into which speech falls, the everyday feature which is stylised to produce the line of verse. I cannot now find the text which uses this term, but there is a description of the phenomenon in Alan Cruttenden’s book Intonation (Cambridge University Press, 1986) at pp. 35-45. It is referred to there as the intonation group. Further “Most commonly […] intonation groups correspond with clauses.” The typical length is between four and sixteen syllables. It follows that the iambic pentameter is not the natural pattern of English poetry, although ten syllables is quite a common length for a group.)
(This was 1991 and it is wonderful to think how Geoffrey Hill’s poetry changed and developed after that. The strictures on Hill relate to his work as it stood in 1990 or 91.)