Peter Davison Davison, Peter - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Davison 1928–

American poet and editor.

Davison's first book, The Breaking of the Day (1964), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. It contains themes and subjects which recur throughout much of his poetry: death, depression, spiritual isolation, and loss. The volume includes tributes to members of the confessional school of poetry with whom Davison was acquainted early in his career. A number of poems concern the late poet Sylvia Plath, with whom Davison was once romantically involved. In Half Remembered (1973), an autobiographical account of his unhappy childhood and his self-discovery through psychoanalysis and poetry, Davison provides insight into the psychosocial dynamics which shaped many young poets of the confessional movement after World War II. Critics have commended this volume for its intelligent and representational, rather than self-absorbed, stance.

Walking the Boundaries: Poems 1957–1974 contains a chronological arrangement of Davison's best poetry during this period. Critics note a discernible shift in his style and thematic emphasis. His earlier verse leans toward rigid formality and didacticism, while his later work is more meditative. Robert Frost is often mentioned as having the strongest influence on Davison's work. From Frost's poetry Davison learned to use nature as an apt metaphor for an ideal, harmonious human society. Davison's recent volume Barn Fever and Other Poems (1982) is considered by many critics to be his best collection. Much of the formality of his early poetry has been replaced by a more relaxed and confident association with the subject matter and an increasingly skillful use of nature imagery.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

James Schevill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The way in which young poets are using autobiography meaningfully to extend the range of their subject matter is shown in two fine sequences in Peter Davison's first book, The Breaking of the Day…. The first sequence, "Not Forgotten," contains five poems about his mother's death from cancer. Since the sequence focuses on a real protagonist, the mother, the poet has the advantage of a dramatic relationship, which he expresses with rare compassion and powerful imagery…. The second sequence, "The Breaking of the Day," derives from Genesis, the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. The subject is the poet's search for identity and faith after his conflict with his Christian father and his Jewish mother. Again, the characters are presented with compassion and understanding and no self-pity. In these poems Davison uses a direct, colloquial style that he makes uniquely his own. In other poems his subjects and techniques are often more conventional, sometimes revealing the rather strange, combined influence of Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. Nevertheless, in such poems as "To a Mad Friend" and "After a Nightmare" he shows that ability to move deeply into an experience and transform it with brilliant technical control that is the mark of the real poet. This is a strong first book, and Peter Davison takes his place with the important young poets in the country. (p. 30)

James Schevill, "Poets Ascend the Technical Trend," in Saturday Review (© 1963 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVII, No. 27, July 4, 1963, pp. 30-3.∗

Dudley Fitts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of Peter Davison's book [The Breaking of the Day] is taken from the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. Specifically, the symbol illuminates the internal agôn of the seven concluding poems, a severe and perilously poised act of introspection. The agonist self is engaged with itself, and the contest ends—if it can be said to end at all—with the equivocal blessing of recognition: 'And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face.' Each of us moves towards his own Peniel in one way or another, and we shall probably agree that Mr. Davison's use of the metaphor is as right as it is impressively climactic. Nevertheless, it is with a minor and more diffuse application of it that I am concerned in this prefatory note. Encounter and struggle are figured here not only in the great perplexities of religion, of race, of love; they are constantly recurring as variations, seriously parodic, to cast new light and shadow upon the contours of the main design. In nearly all of these poems there is an encounter, a question, more often implied than stated; and there is an ambiguous answer. It was the delicate management of this counterpointing that attracted me on my first reading of the manuscript, and my pleasure in it has grown with each rereading.

There are two principal tones of composition here, both of them, in a sense, rhetorics. The first, and the less frequently...

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Josephine Jacobsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a preoccupation with death in The Breaking of the Day. Of the best poems in the book—and the best are good—a number are concerned with the implications and act of dying, this concern being illustrated in ways totally different by Not Forgotten (a sequence of five poems), The Suicide, Finale: Presto, and The Massacre of the Innocents. The foregoing poems are—basically—narrative, and in the narrative poem Mr. Davison moves extremely well; it is his forte. (p. 203)

The more introspective or abstract poems are very uneven. They range from the excellent—as in At the Site of Last Night's Fire, and North Shore—to the unsatisfactory—as in Jenny and Out of Tune, poems with good fragments but which in their final lines have a horrid patness. The apparent necessity to write a poem about Robert Frost, and The Bomb (not necessarily in that order), is so rampant today that one should be grateful to find here a better-than-fifty-fifty break: Mr. Davison's poem on Frost is agreeable, and his poem on The Bomb achieves the startling success of making its reader forget while he reads it that others have been written. It is a potent and moving poem. (p. 204)

Josephine Jacobsen, "Five Poets" (© 1964 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CV. No. 3, December, 1964, pp. 201-06.∗

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Expertly made, varied in technique, superficially concerned with topics ranging from an eclipse of the sun to misfiled papers, the poems [in The City and the Island] are in fact all part of an examination of the differences between the public world and the private one. The island is a protean territory, shifting from individual imagination to the practice of art to the general graveyard of history; it is always lonely and sometimes terrifying. The city is no less alarming but not so chameleon in habit…. Both city and island are full of unexpected images and meanings that turn into other meanings, unforeseeable until Mr. Davison casually lifts a rug or a rock.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in a review of "The City and the Island," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1966, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 218, No. 6, December, 1966, p. 160.

David Galler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have little to say of Peter Davison's second book of poems [The City and the Island], except that it is pretty much on a par with his first of two years ago. He is still "all promise", with few fulfilled poems. His chief faults are an average imagination and lapses in tone within a given poem, both amply illustrated in Eurydice in Darkness and One of the Muses. These poems are also among those which continue to search his chief thematic concern: the minds of women. Writing on this theme, he has written more evenly but also more dully, as in Lucifer Ashore, Intacta, and Mary Magdalene at Easter.

Davison has, however, a considerable virtue, especially nowadays: his constant, however precarious, involvement with craft is evident throughout his book; and the result, when not burdened with tonal lapses, is an open, simple, declarative diction wholly without pretentiousness—which deserves congratulation. The question is whether complicated material can become successfully absorbed into this casual language. And also whether Davison can resist putting this asset to work in his lighter pieces, such as Letter from a City Dweller, Galop, and In Season. Too often still, a Frostian simplicity of language is vying with either psychological material not wholly understood or with post-Auden lighter social ironies. I respect Davison's mode; enjoy my belief that eventually he may gain both more analytical depth and more tonal control.

David Galler, in a review of "The City and the Island" (© 1967 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CX, No. 4, July, 1967, p. 269.

Victor Howes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Davison is not one poet, he is an anthology of poets. By turns he can sound like Auden, like Randall Jarrell, like Thomas Hardy, like Frost, like Roethke, like, even, would you believe Tennyson?…

Make no mistake, [in Pretending to Be Asleep] Mr. Davison is not writing parodies. He does not, like the parodist, zero in on a writer's mannerisms, and hammer them into absurdity. Nor is he writing imitation, lifeless ventriloquist's dummies fashioned on well-known models. He seems rather to be pacing himself against his masters, attempting to bring off new and original poems in traditional modalities. And, amazingly, the experiment works.

Though now he alludes to Yeats, now modifies a phrase from Sir Thomas Wyatt, now employs an epigraph from Coleridge, the effect Mr. Davison achieves is not "literary" in the pejorative sense. In poem after poem he at once transcends his sources, and at the same time offers new insight into the poetic tradition.

If pressed to explain how he gets away with it, how he succeeds, in fact, at a most dangerous game, I should suggest that he succeeds because he is a poet with something to say. Unlike the parrot, or the parodist, who deals only in echoes of things overheard, Peter Davison reads like a man talking to men. He writes about life-and-death concerns, about being aware (awake), and about being unaware (asleep), and about pretending to be asleep when you are really awake….

Peter Davison's third book of poems is the virtuoso performance of a man trying on a variety of poetic hats in an effort to find one that fits. Fits, that is, for everyday and for all days in all kinds of weathers. His problem may come when he has to choose among the hats that fit.

Victor Howes, "A Poet Who Writes Like an Anthology," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1970 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), June 4, 1970, p. 7.

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I find it difficult to form a clear opinion of Peter Davison's Pretending to Be Asleep. There are a few excellent poems and a few major embarrassments (as when he compares himself and his father to Telemachus and Odysseus). But the collection is not vividly memorable for either its faults or its virtues. It is basically competent but basically unexciting. Perhaps Davison simply has not found any theme which can exercise to the utmost his imagination and his moderate but genuine talent. I was most attracted by A Word in Your Ear on Behalf of Indifference, which is sensible and funny; Afterwards, which has a Herbert-like simplicity to its music; and Stumps, which deals nicely with those "amputations / Too short to see, too tall to be mown over."… I do not feel that the 14-poem title sequence captures, except in a very few places, the strangeness of the borderlines between sleep and waking, dream and reality. The best parts are those written for other voices (especially Third Voice: the Widower and Fourth Voice: the Grandmother); this suggests that Davison has a flair for the dramatic monologue, and one hopes that he will attempt further poems in this form. The distinguished quality of a handful of these poems heightens my disappointment with the book for its general lack of energy. (p. 229)

Robert B. Shaw, "Poets in Midstream" (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXVIII, No. 4, July, 1971, pp. 228-33.∗

Helen Bevington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Half Remembered" Peter Davison] has written a personal history indeed. The stern candor of it makes one wonder at first if he is to be linked with the confessional writers—the Robert Lowells, Sylvia Plaths—who have walked naked before us these years in bitter anger and resentment, accusing and hating their fathers, finding life worth revealing only in its guilts and humiliations, its appalling failures. But of Peter Davison this is far from true. If his search is, like theirs, a search for identity, unlike them he has escaped self-pity; he has made the impossibly difficult journey from resentment to compassion. And he has found himself….

The tale is a familiar one, of course, as all...

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Alison Lurie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The 'confessional poetry' which is now being produced in such quantity, especially in America, has been received, especially in Britain, with a good deal of affectionate mockery, if not with hostile jeering. There is likely to be a similar reception for the latest development in the genre, the Poet's Confession in book-length prose, of which Peter Davison's Half Remembered is a prime example. What do I care about the details of Mr Davison's schoolboy masturbation experiences, reviewers are going to say, or the interpretation of his nightmares? Why does he feel obliged to tell me all this, either in verse or in prose?

One answer at least is that Davison, like many of his contemporaries, held it...

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John Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walking the Boundaries is a substantial selection from the work of an American poet … who has not been published over here before. What an assured talent is here unveiled! There seems to be little that Davison can't accomplish within the Frost/Jarrell tradition he is largely working in. The earlier poems have a fine singing line, sure-footed rhythms and a well-directed variety of form. There are monologues, confessions, ratiocinations, erotic mythologies, much sympathy and intelligence and surprising imaginative leaps. He can create characters and situations with facility, and later develops a descriptive power much in evidence in the rustic-symbolic landscapes of the four title-poems. There are a few bad...

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James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walking the Boundaries is subtitled Poems 1957–1974, and collects what [Davison] considers to be the best from his previous three volumes, as well as an ample selection of new poems. Arranged more or less chronologically, Walking the Boundaries moves from the decorous formal modes of an educated, rather inhibited practitioner of poetry to more meditative autobiographical poems that demonstrate a gathering of confidence in the narrative possibilities his own experience can yield. With few exceptions, the earlier poems are stylized, overly literary, grandiose, their subject cautious and generalized…. There is an element of pathetic fallacy to Davison's imagination; his efforts to imbue...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I first encountered Davison on the page about ten years ago in the appropriately titled multisequence poem, "Not Forgotten." I was impressed beyond measure by the dexterity with which … the poet had juxtaposed orders of emotion and simile so discrete as to imply, if this had been proposed and not yet actualized, a feat unlikely or impossible to achieve…. The present selection of his verse [Walking the Boundaries: Poems 1957–1974] surpasses the most confident expectations I had meanwhile formed. And the essential character of his art—its character, not its full range nor its scale of intonations—is trenchantly illustrated … [in] the almost instinctive reference to creatures of the wild, the...

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Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Voice in the Mountain is a pleasant, intelligent collection by one who obviously wants to be understood. There is much that is elegant here, but it is an elegance tempered with urbanity and a good narrative technique. Peter Davison has obviously learnt much from Robert Frost. "Making Much of Orioles", a tale about saving orioles from a felled elm, is written in competent Frostian iambics and it ends in a predictably Frostian moral…. To write like Frost but not quite as well as Frost is the risk this poet seems willing to take to get himself in trim, as it were, for writing poems which are not at all like Frost but wholly his own. Mr Davison is at his best when he is least self-conscious and allows his...

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Jay Parini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Voice in the Mountain is Peter Davison's sixth book of poetry. His last collection, Walking the Boundaries: Poems 1957–1974, established him as one of America's finest contemporary poets, one whose sharpness of vision and candor left the reader breathless…. Davison offered his world in a language chill as mountain water. He wrote with intensity about his struggle for identity, with all of its attendant complications…. With an eerie detachment, he traced the lineaments of himself and catalogued his passions. He faced directly the Medusa, memory, refusing, like Perseus, to deflect his vision with a mirroring shield…. Davison remembered his life selectively, as a poet must, plotting the...

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James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Barn Fever and Other Poems, Davison's] seventh book of poems, demonstrates his steady growth as a reporter of life fashioned close to the land and the thoughts that arise from such a life. Drawing on his own experiences of living on a farm in Gloucester, Mass., he describes in the title poem the 200-year story of the barn he now owns: "Time and some care have spared this barn, a sign / of the work a farm does to keep itself a farm." Deliberate echoes of Robert Frost reverberate in these country verses—a debt that goes back to family friendship—but Davison is his own man with his peculiar approach and idiom. He writes about cows and sheep, pasture and planting, with the specific knowledge that rural life...

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Stephen Sandy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No one would accuse Peter Davison of failing to address large themes. Barn Fever is Davison's strongest book to date; in conjunction with it his previous collection, A Voice in the Mountain, reads like a loquacious staging area in which momentum builds for this vibrant array of poems, at once more passionate and more knowing than earlier sequences. Writing outside the clamors of poetryland, in urbane "exile and cunning," Davison is a poet with a fortunate gift. He takes himself seriously and is afraid of nothing, not even Meaning—whether found in a barnyard or at a dinner-party, the span of occasions for these poems. Davison has long been pegged either as a "nature poet" or as a mere disciple of his...

(The entire section is 493 words.)