Under Briggflatts

by Donald Davie
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2532

Any detailed report from an explorer who is sensitive to and aware of prominent features in the terrain, who is keenly intelligent and eloquent in expression, and who has had considerable experience in the field will be greeted with high expectations, especially when it is a pioneering venture, covering ground previously mostly uncharted. Yet if the explorer is apparently blind to certain prominent features in the landscape, almost repulsed by others, and of a very strong mind about the value of what he examines, the result of his explorations will be a map of an uneven character, vivid and precise in some regions, blurred in others, deceptive or inaccurate in still others. Donald Davie’s version of the history of poetry in the British Isles, claiming as its province the three decades from 1960 to the year of its publication, is just such a map, a report loaded with insight and opinion backed up by erudition and a powerful sense of poetic excellence, but also a report directed by Davie’s particular tastes. In several previous books he has made them clear enough—they include a favorable estimate of familiar forms, a commitment to the preservation of an unspoiled English countryside, a sense of approval of the self-sufficient values of the shire, and an emphasis on the importance of continuing cultural traditions.

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From the perspective of these values, Davie has written “an essay in literary history” that seeks to “commemorate, or keep in memory” both well-known and slighted poets who share and express Davie’s concerns, but one that undervalues or ignores a considerable number of poets whom other commentators have seen as masters of poetic art as accomplished and as crucial to the history of British poetry as the ones Davie champions. His book recalls the publication of the Donald Hall/ Robert Pack/Louis Simpson New Poets of 1957, an influential anthology featuring poets esteemed by the “New Critics” which was followed three years later by Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), a book that offered selections from forty poets with no duplication of the contents of the first book. The retrospect of history has indicated the merits of the work of many people in each anthology, but the schism in sensibility that led to the mutual exclusion by the editors is repeated to an extent by Davie’s choices and explanations. This in no way diminishes interest in the book, and, indeed, by choosing a definite point of view, Davie’s arguments have the necessary bracing vigor of a man who knows his mind and his field and is confident of the validity of his position. As Davie provocatively puts it, “If this book seems to promote certain British authors as, however modestly, canonical, it is on the understanding that these judgments are disputable and ought to be disputed.” There is no hidden agenda here, only one that is not only disputable but also boldly assertive, and if it is a “history,” it will surely draw counterhistories and revisions that will confront all of its major assumptions and nearly every one of its conclusions. As a matter of fact, Robert Richman in The New Criterion has already published an attack on Davie from an extreme position beyond the generally conservative stance Davie has taken, an attack from what might be called the American intellectual right wing of the academy that Davie actually joins with this text.

As a matter of organization, Davie divides what he calls his historical “narrative” into “three chapters” (for the three decades under scrutiny) of “one unfolding story,” but cautions that there is no “single story-line” so that his book does not become a “polemic.” His overarching title, Under Briggflatts, is an appropriate recognition of the importance of Basil Bunting, a friend of Ezra Pound whose work was not noticed until the end of his life. While Davie respects Bunting and admires certain aspects of his poetry, however, his praise is almost always qualified (“This suggests that all Bunting’s poetry is, for good or ill, a poetry of what Dissenters have always called the inner voice’”), and many of the poets working today in the British Isles who owe the most to Bunting’s sense of language and rhythm are not among those often praised or even mentioned by Davie. The reason he has chosen Bunting as a figure of consequence, a fixture in the poetic firmament, is revealed by his comment in the third chapter that “Briggflatts is most truly seen as, on the grand scale, a monument of. . . modern classicism,” and by his observation that “Bunting did have, as every great poet must have, a politics, and a philosophy of history.”

Davie shows no reluctance here or elsewhere to express his carefully developed theories about what constitutes poetic excellence, but in the interest of avoiding the impression that he is writing a “polemic,” he has introduced his most profound criteria in a gradual fashion throughout the text. In a subtle and possibly more effective method of presentation, he introduces his fundamental precepts amid commentary, criticism, and informative observation, so that he has not fully accounted for his emphasis on a particular poet until the book is concluded, the principles behind the choices becoming clear essentially after the choices have been made. In addition to admiration of Bunting’s “modern classicism,” his political commitment, and his “philosophy of history,” crucial elements in Davie’s formulation include a fondness for the pastoral, which leads to his approval of Austin Clarke’s only slightly sardonic lament for the disappearance of the horse as “man’s workmate”—a real loss for Davie, who believes that “the rhythms beaten out by horses’ hooves” are “so insistent that one may indeed wonder whether they are not imprinted on man’s nervous sys tem.” Tom Gunn is celebrated for using “purely formal means” in defiance of the “vulgar modernism” that has “declared illegitimate” the pentameter, and for having “dug back further than any of his contemporaries … to recover that phase of English” that could register “the sleazy and squalid,” but also, even more important, “the frankly heroic.”

C. H. Sisson is admired for expressing in his poetry a political “allegiance to the nation, and to the Crown as embodying the nation,” as well as for his commitment to Christianity in the manner of John Dryden. Davie also cites with deep approval Sisson’s belief that “poetry, like all the arts, is necessarily elitist” and likens Sisson to Thomas Hardy, the ultimate compliment Davie can offer. One of Davie’s most ambitious books is his study Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972), and when he says of Sisson’s “Burrington Combe,” “The concluding section is exceptionally beautiful and moving, worthy of Thomas Hardy,” he is thinking of Sisson (like Hardy) as a “patriot” because of his connection to a “larger identity called ’England,’” a patriotism that is rare and “not to be attained (by intellectuals) except through studious labor.” In summarizing his claims for Sisson as a major poet, he is also summarizing his elemental criteria for poetic worth, suggesting that Sisson’s rhetoric “depends upon assumptions of continuity between the English of poems, the English of prose, and the English of considered and heartfelt speech.” Along these lines, the younger poet Jeremy Hooker is complimented for being “untypically in earnest,” while Ted Hughes is noted for being an unalienated poet who is not modern but “Lawrentian,” and Michael Hamburger is cited as an “admirable example” of the “modern classicism” Davie found in Briggflatts.

In almost every case, there is a historical aspect to the poetry Davie extols. This leads him to devote sections of chapters to Austin Clarke, Jack Clemo, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivor Gurney, Edwin Muir, Edward Thomas, and others who completed their work or died decades before the period supposedly covered in the book. In a chapter on the critic Kenneth Cox, Davie stresses the importance of making “contact with poets distant and past,” and for Davie, the life of poetry in Great Britain in the decades 1960-1990 is at its most vital when it is in reciprocal interlinkage with centuries of poetry by antique masters. While the centenary of an earlier poet or the first real collection of all of his work is an important literary event, Davie’s reliance on these rather contrived occasions strongly directs the attention of the book to a particular kind of poetry at the expense of other possibilities. Some of these possibilities draw a strong antipathy from Davie, who implicitly defends his exclusions by noting what he considers negative influences and trends in the latter half of the twentieth century. Foremost among these are what he calls “consumer-friendly” poems that are a part of a “service industry,” and even Seamus Heaney, whom Davie grudgingly admires to an extent, is attacked for being “nimble … in manipulating the poetry market and the poetry-reading circuit.” This is a mild critique compared to Davie’s almost incoherent rage at Louis Zukovsky, who is blamed for an Americanized disregard of sacred “form” and for being a lamentable example of “the wilder shores, or the lunatic fringe, of the American avant-garde.”

Going further back, Davie locates the source of many problems with William Carlos Williams, whose “The Red Wheelbarrow” he dismisses as “the little squib (for it is nothing more),” and whom he blames for being a poet who “takes for granted the absence of any agreed hierarchies.” This leads to a general calumny directed at popular culture in Great Britain, and a section called “The Gurus” that savages Herbert Marcuse, Norman 0. Brown, and Marshall McLuhan for espousing “an unreflecting primitivism.” Summarizing in the section called “1968,” Davie condemns style based on “costumes and accoutrements” which turned poetry from the serious and significant (likened to a “manufacturing industry”) to the frivolous and theatrical (likened to the previously mentioned “service industry”), and he lambastes the modern reader for expecting “heat and feeling” and for not making the effort to meet the poem halfway, “where his own sympathies must go out to meet it.”

For Davie, all these manifestations of intellectual decline, literary careerism, and a persistent blindness to history have led to poetry that does not carry the profound weight of “the old eternal England” and is thus a distraction at best, inferior and dismissable (like Stevie Smith, who gets a two-word description, “endearingly eccentric”) or not worth noting at all. Thus, while Davie is often enlightening on the poets he admires, even if they range over the entire century rather than the period the book is supposedly examining, he is also responsible for producing a map with some enormous black holes—areas of matter so dense as to exert pressure on everything around them but invisible to the instruments that Davie uses. Where, for example, is Eric Mottram, editor in the 1970’s of Poetry Review, venue for most of the best poetry of what is known as the British Poetry Renaissance? Poets such as Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Ian Hamilton Finley, Gael Tumbull, Ian Sinclair, and Allen Fisher rate no mention at all, as if Davie had not seen the edition of The New British Poetry compiled by Mottram and Ken Edwards which includes these poets and many others Davie ignores.

Can it be that Elaine Feinstein is the only woman among all the poets in Great Britain whose work merits discussion? The chapter called “Elaine Feinstein and Women’s Poetry” suggests that Davie actually believes that there is something called “women’s poetry” which that sex alone produces. Perhaps this misguided inclination accounts for the absence of even such traditional craftswomen as Penelope Shuttle, Ruth Fainlight, and Val Warner, not to mention some of the more radical, post-modern poets such as Kate Ruse-Glason, Wendy Mulford, Denise Riley, and the Irish poet Medbe McGuckian, who is included in the relatively conservative anthology edited by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison, The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1983).

The point is not that certain poets are absent, because every student of the era will have particular favorites whom others regard as nonentities (Robert Richman complains about the absence of Craig Raine and Andrew Motion, as befits his ultraconservative bias), but that an entire generation has been systematically excluded. This is hardly an act of ill will on Davie’s part, but a consequence of his convictions about what constitutes good poetry, and a result of the company he associates with in the literary cosmos. His seeming lack of awareness of many small- press enterprises in Great Britain, such as Asa Benveniste’s Trigram Press, Allen Fisher’s Spanner Books, and William David Sherman’s Branch Redd series, places emphasis on those figures published by established firms. In a dangerous extension of this insularity, the fact that a poet is not mentioned in this book may contribute to further difficulties in placing work in the future. For an American reader, probably not familiar at all with poets such as Barry MacSweeney, Norman Nicholson (who is briefly mentioned but not discussed as one of the outstanding poets to work in the Lake Country), John Fuller (son of the better-known Roy Fuller), Jeremy Reed, Bill Griffiths, and many others, the omission of lesser-known poets writing in unfamiliar modes seriously distorts what is already an idiosyncratic arrangement. In reality, a diverse grouping of younger British poets has been left out. As Davie indicates in an inadequate afterword, he is not at all comfortable with the whole enterprise roughly covered by the term “postmodern.” While this does not detract from the book’s virtues, it undermines any claims that the book might have to being a complete history of the period it purports to cover.

Still, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1988 is consistently interesting—even chatty in its many short sections (which the publisher insists are not merely ’miscellanies of reviews”)—and Davie’s inclination to discuss writers from the outer isles such as Sorley Maclean and Norman MacCaig at least acknowledges that England is not the entire universe of British poetry. Even with the strong feelings that Davie possesses about many subjects (royalty, religion, and the like), one can sense a determined effort, if not always a successful one, to be open. With typical grace, Davie also modestly omits any mention of his own poetry, although it is surely an important element of the tradition he believes in. He was also the man who, when head of the literature department at the University of Essex in the early 1960’s, hired the gifted American poet Ed Dom, whose work is closer to that of the American lunatics Davie despises than to that of the poets he praises. It is in this spirit of fairness that his book should be received—a map of a fascinating, complex, and still largely uncharted domain that can contribute to an understanding of the landscape.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Thibune. April 10, 1990, V, p.3.

Choice. XXVIII, September, 1990, p.104.

Listener. CXXII, November 2, 1989, p.34.

The New Criterion. IX, June, 1990, p.81.

New Statesman and Society. II, October 13, 1989, p.32.

The Observer. October 22, 1989, p.49.

The Spectator. CCLXIII, December 16, 1989, p.33.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 24, 1989, p.1291.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXVI, Summer, 1990, p.101.

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