Monday, October 17, 2011

Donald Davie

English poet, Donald Davie (1922—1995) was a significant part of “The Movement”, which emerged in Britain during the 1950s, and included such poets as Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin. Their poetry turned from the imagism of recent poets, to a greater clarity of language and content.

Davie served as an English professor on both sides of the Atlantic, at the University of Essex, Stanford and Vanderbilt. His influence as a critic is as important as his place as a poet. Davie was raised a Baptist — and long defended the dissenting tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — although by the 1970s had, himself, moved over to the Anglican church. He is also known for his verse translations of Boris Pasternak, and as the editor of The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981). In his obituary in The Independent he is called “the defining poet-critic of his generation”. His Collected Poems were published in 2002 by Carcanet.

The following is the opening poem from his 1988 collection, To Scorch or Freeze (Chicago), which is subtitled “Poems about the Sacred”; the book is influenced very much by the Psalms.

The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted

I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model,
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”

I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
very discomfiting.

Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a fever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:

“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.

One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.

Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.

(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)

Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.

I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)

Now give me a chance, I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: