(Poets and Poetry in America)

From the time he took up the pen, Peter Davison characterized the act of writing poetry as an exercise in self-discovery. This assertion is validated by his very first volume, The Breaking of the Day, and Other Poems, which set the stage for all his later work by establishing the poet’s two principal approaches to charting the parameters of self-identity: the individual’s relationship to other people (parents, lovers, friends, and mentors) and the individual’s relationship to nature. However, for Davison, who understood with often somber irony that what he sought was essentially unknowable, poetry was both a means and an end.

The Breaking of the Day, and Other Poems

The centerpiece of Davison’s first volume, The Breaking of the Day, and Other Poems, is probably the poem titled “Not Forgotten,” a five-part elegy for the poet’s mother, who died of cancer in 1959. This poem, one of many that Davison wrote in response to his sometimes ambivalent relationship to his parents, was the earliest of his poems to attract considerable critical attention. It chronicles the poet’s experience of loss, from a state of mute numbness to a faltering acceptance of his mother’s death because of his abiding sense of her “hovering/ In a hundred places.”

Similarly, the title poem of the volume, the seven- part “The Breaking of the Day,” focuses on the parent-child relationship. In this case, the poet assumes the role of Jacob, a biblical patriarch of the book of Genesis, wrestling with his own personal angel until the crack of dawn. The struggle described in the poem is symbolic of Davison’s own coming to grips with the double displacement that he felt because of his upbringing: the betrayal he felt because of his mother’s suppression of her own heritage (only at the age of thirteen did he learn that he was half Jewish) and the inhibition he felt about his own writing goals because of his father’s failure to live up to his early promise as a poet. In the end, there is no sign from God, his father’s incarnation in the poem; there is only the continuing quest for identity, a journey that the poet pursues from book to book for the next forty years. Davison learns only that he must “Put God in words,” or find his own poetic voice.

Pretending to Be Asleep

Perhaps as an outgrowth of his own experience with psychoanalysis, Davison devoted his third volume, Pretending to Be Asleep (1970), to the complexities of the psyche and his hope, as he explored his poetic vocation, to find some balance between ego and id, between a conscious response to external experience and the mysterious prompting of imaginative insight. “How are we to see what must be seen,” the poet asks in a poem titled “The Losing Struggle,” “before shaping our language to the sound of it?”

Achieving this equilibrium between awareness and what Davison calls “unawareness” is difficult at best. At times, as in “Old Photograph,” another poem about summoning up memories of his dead mother, Davison registers a failure of the imagination: “How can I keep in touch/ When there is nothing to touch?” However, in other pieces, such as the fourteenth and final section of the title poem, “Pretending to Be Asleep,” Davison marvels at finding poems on his desk ready for him to revise. “When did this happen?” he asks, amazed by the unconscious activity of his brain. However, once the id has done its work, the ego takes over. “I know my job,” he avows. “Possession they say is nine points in the poem.”

Walking the Boundaries

With his fourth volume, Walking the Boundaries, Davison’s focus shifts from the desire to explore the boundaries of self as delineated by...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)