In Memoriam April 2005

Peter Davison (1928-2004)

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THERE IS AN indispensable kind of person who cuts a swath in the world not merely because of his own accomplishments, which may be considerable, but also because of what he has enabled others to accomplish. This kind of person brings energy and direction to a community, and helps define the experience of living in a particular place and time.

The Atlantic lost such a person late last year, with the death of the poet, essayist, teacher, lecturer, editor, and publisher Peter Davison. Peter, who was the poetry editor of this magazine for thirty years, would have been the last to regard himself as indispensable—indeed, the evanescence of indispensability was the sort of irony he relished. (It was Peter, strolling one day through Copp's Hill Burying Ground, in Boston, who introduced me to De Gaulle's famous remark about how the cemeteries are filled with indispensable people.) But for half a century, through force of pen and personality, he was, in his own way, indispensable.

Peter Davison photo Peter settled in Boston in 1955, at the age of twenty-seven. He was lured by a job at Harvard University Press, and quickly went on to a distinguished publishing career at the Atlantic Monthly Press and at Houghton Mifflin. The Boston where Peter took root, he would later recall, was "one of the most exciting milieux for poetry in the history of this country," and his circle in those early years included Robert Lowell and Robert Frost, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur and Donald Hall. It is a world that lives on in verse, and in Peter's 1994 book The Fading Smile, a collection of sharp literary sketches that is also part memoir and part anthology (and, in the bargain, one of the best introductions to how poetry is made and why it matters).

Peter's own poetic instincts would steadily mature, leading to the selection of his The Breaking of the Day as the Yale Series of Younger Poets volume in 1963. For Peter, poetry was both urgent and personal; he would cite his friend Robert Penn Warren, who wrote that poetry "can help us ponder on what Saint Augustine meant when he said that he was a question to himself." Peter's poetry was not the captive of any one "school" or any one style or any one theme. It blended real feeling and real intellect, and it took up the real questions all of us do—about memory, about transience, about the exquisite life of the senses. Opening one of his books was like opening the door to a friend. (A collection of Peter's poetry, read aloud by Peter himself, can be found on The Atlantic's Web site; his "To the Future" appears on page 84 of this issue.)

Peter was intensely serious about the power of language. He detested the retreat of so much modern poetry into the conjuring of fleeting or trivial experience. Where was the engagement with ideas and events that truly matter? Where were poems like Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead"? He also believed, more generally, that public writing had become too much the stuff of nouns, commodified and inert, and not enough the stuff of verbs—and that even the verbs too often consisted of "is" and "was." One day he seized some poor writer's galley proof and with a thick black pen circled every "is"; the result looked like target practice. The verb "to die," Peter once said, has a lot more life packed into it than "to be" ever will. You don't really know what you're trying to say, he would advise, unless you know what the verbs are.

Peter himself was a verb, Anglo-Saxon more than Latinate, usually in the active voice, and decidedly transitive. He spent most of his career in service to the writing of others—he was an editor of great skill and no small commercial instinct. In the kitchen of Peter's Boston home hangs a print presented to him by colleagues at Houghton Mifflin—it displays the spines of some of the best-known books he published during his last decade as an editor (books such as Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton, Robert Coles's The Spiritual Life of Children, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Hidden Life of Dogs). The fruits of Peter's midwifery touch every genre. Consider some of his other authors: Carl Jung, Stanley Kunitz, Frances Fitzgerald, Farley Mowat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George F. Kennan, Agnes de Mille. Peter delivered hundreds of people into careers, and millions of words into print.

Peter was a singer, like his father, and an amateur actor, and his often theatrical sociability served as a glue uniting people of many stripes. His stocks of memorized poetry were immense, and he was prone to honor any encounter, from an august ceremonial occasion to a chance meeting, with a pertinent verse or couplet. I remember him one day hurrying off on some small errand after grandly intoning a few lines from Blake: "Great things are done when men and mountains meet; / This is not done by jostling in the street." Not the usual parting comment. To be around Peter was to have your own poet laureate.

A few days before he died, Peter was up in the third-floor workspace at his home, editing a collection of his essays for publication. He didn't have a good title for it yet, he said, handing over a sheet of paper on which was the table of contents. I looked down the list, remembering a lot of these strong, sensual pieces about poetry and books and travel. One of them had a title that caught the eye: "Ringing True." If it doesn't work for the collection, it can still serve for a life.

Cullen Murphy
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