Davison, Peter (Hubert)
DAVISON, Peter (Hubert)
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 27 June 1928. Education: Fountain Valley School, Colorado Springs; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. (magna cum laude) 1949 (Phi Beta Kappa); St. John's College, Cambridge (Fulbright Scholar), 1949–50. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1951–53. Family: Married1) Jane Truslow in 1959 (died 1981), one son and one daughter; 2) Joan E. Goody in 1984. Career: Page in the U.S. Senate, 1944; editorial assistant, 1950–51, and assistant editor, 1953–55, Harcourt Brace publishers, New York; assistant to the director, Harvard University Press, 1955–56; associate editor, 1956–59, executive editor, 1959–64, director, 1964–79, and senior editor, 1979–85, Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston; consulting editor, Houghton Mifflin publishers, Boston, 1985–98. Member of advisory board, National Translation Center, 1965–68. Since 1972 poetry editor, Atlantic Monthly, Boston. Awards : Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1963; American Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; Academy of American Poets award, 1981, 1985; New England Booksellers award, 1995. Address : 70 River Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02108, U.S.A.
The City and the Island. New York, Atheneum, 1966.
Pretending to Be Asleep. New York, Atheneum, 1970.
Dark Houses. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halty Ferguson, 1971.
Walking the Boundaries: Poems 1957–1974. New York, Atheneum, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1974.
A Voice in the Mountain. New York, Atheneum, 1977.
Barn Fever and Other Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1981; London, Secker and Warburg, 1982.
Praying Wrong: New and Selected Poems 1957–1984. New York, Atheneum, 1984; London, Secker and Warburg, 1985.
The Great Ledge. New York, Knopf, 1989.
The Poems of Peter Davison, 1957–1995. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Breathing Room: New Poems. New York, Knopf, 2000.
Recording: Paradise as a Garden, Watershed.
Half Remembered: A Personal History. New York, Harper, 1973; London, Heinemann, 1974; revised edition, Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1991.
The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, 1955–1960. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Editor, Hello Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman, Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.
Editor, The World of Farley Mowat: A Selection from His Works. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and Boston, Little Brown, 1980.*
Critical Studies: Foreword by Dudley Fitts to The Breaking of the Day and Other Poems, 1964; Three Contemporary Poets of New England by Guy Rotella, Boston, Twayne, 1983; "Studying Interior Architecture by Keyhole: Four Poets" by Reg Saner, in Denver Quarterly, 20(1), summer 1985.
Peter Davison comments:
Between 1950 and 1998 I worked as an editor, reading other people's manuscripts, encouraging other people's muses, discouraging those—both prose and poetry—that seemed to be unsuited to a partnership between us, helping bring texts into publishable condition, attempting to make the delicate compromise between publishing books of some degree of excellence and books sufficiently profitable to keep me employed and to keep their authors published. Editing came to me before poetry did, by a few years, yet I was raised in an atmosphere that positively reeked of poetry, a fragrance as strong as that of my father's cigars. I have never been able, despite years of interior struggle, fully to separate the processes of editing and poetry, though the conduct of each craft differs profoundly from the other and emerges from entirely different regions of the soul. Yet such are the perils of appearances, I have by and large been seen as a poet by editors and as an editor by poets …
To the extent that we give ourselves to poetry, we give up the safety of trades, we deny ourselves economic value in order to claim a value of another, and, we believe, higher, kind. That may be the most dangerous claim of all, for to give yourself to poetry you have to bet your life on it, as Frost used to say. He, in turn, in his most profound poem, "Directive," referred us to St. Mark, who quotes Jesus as saying, again and again, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear," and then, "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it …"
Not a dangerous trade? The hell you say.* * *
Most of Peter Davison's poetry has an even, gemlike quality that typifies intelligent academic verse. Davison's work, generously laden with mythical allusions, is often rhymed and carefully metered. At its best the poetry illuminates a moment or an observation from the poet's life without straining toward an undeserved depth. In "Lunch at the Coq D'Or," for example, Davison portrays a fancy restaurant where "each noon at table tycoons crow / And flap their wings around each other's shoulders." He is waiting for an associate, Purdy, who eventually "is seated with his alibis":
I know my man. Purdy's a hard-nosed man.
Another round for us. It's good to work
With such a man. "Purdy," I hear myself,
"It's good to work with you." I raise
My arm, feathery in the dimlight, and extend
Until the end of it brushes his padded shoulder.
"Purdy, how are you? How you doodle do?"
Here Davison has included himself among the blamed by repeating the feather-wing imagery of the tycoons and then his own arm of luncheon goodwill. The humor of his concluding line emphasizes the nonsense encountered in daily business intercourse.
Too often Davison lacks this detachment and becomes merely a clever man with a pen, rhyming when he should be working his guts in ink. His position is sometimes ambiguous. Surely "Conviction Means Loss of License" deals with a serious subject, but Davison seems only to consider the fatal car crash of three brothers an opportunity to exercise his wit. Worse, he preaches in the sardonic manner of a radar cop:
For they were faithful to the plan
That nature must make way for man
And fed their faith in this great cause
By putting speed above the laws
Designed to neither help nor hurt.
Inertia rendered them inert.
In other poems Davison seems too pat, for example, in "Intacta," where he tells the familiar story of a seemingly virginal but actually permissive girl, and in "Winter Fear," which ends with the lines "The weather tells of famine and defeat, / Of lying leaves and how we were betrayed / By spring. But winter never yet has won." How, after all, does he know that the girl of "Intacta" is loose? Although it is true that winter "never yet has won," neither has any season (or condition of mind, the poem suggests to me) triumphed over winter. In short, Davison refuses to confess his own possible guilt or confusion.
These comments are perhaps unfairly negative, for there is much to admire in the body of Davison's work. "The Breaking of the Day," the title poem of his first collection, is a perfect refutation of the criticisms I levy against the least successful of his poems. Here the poet takes the risk of baring himself to the reader, acknowledging his doubts: "I shall never know myself / Enough to know what things I half believe / And, half believing, only half deny." In a poem such as this the fusion of craft and insight is fully realized, and Davison proves himself the poet of skill his reputation holds him to be.
Dark Houses is a seven-part retrospective in verse on the life of his father, the poet Edward Davison, whose presence is fully documented in the son's Half Remembered: A Personal History, an autobiography. Dark Houses is a very good poem, crafted with a precision less and less evident among contemporary poets:
And now his thirsty body
Is part of the land at last, land of his children,
Where the grey ungiving stone can always stand
For fathers, thrusting up above the fields
Not ever his own, though dearer than the land
That gave him birth but never knew his name.