A Life's Work

Remembering Peter Davison

The Atlantic's December 1972 issue featured a regal Van Dyck portrait of a certain Marchesa Balbi on the cover, and a notable addition to the masthead: Peter Davison, newly installed as poetry editor. It was a good month for master strokes.

From the archives:

In Memoriam
Peter Davison (1928-2004). By Cullen Murphy

Peter Davison in The Atlantic Monthly
A partial collection of Peter Davison's essays, reviews, travelogues, and poems.

The man of parts whom editor Robert Manning had tapped for the post was no stranger to the Atlantic guild. Following a stint at Harvard University Press that brought him to Boston, Peter had joined the staff of the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1956, then housed in the same offices as the magazine, and succeeded Seymour Lawrence as its editorial director in 1964. Over the previous decade he had also established himself as a poet of stature, winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first collection of poems, The Breaking of the Day, and publishing two other well-regarded volumes, The City and the Island (1966) and Pretending To Be Asleep (1970). Who better indeed to preside over the islands of verse in the Atlantic's expanses of prose?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Emily Dickinson (Un)discovered
In 1891, shortly after the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's poetry, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled his correspondence with the reclusive poet and reproduced many of her letters and early poems.

And so began an editorial stewardship—literary lion though Peter was, such were his egalitarian convictions that one shrinks from calling it a reign—the likes of which won't soon be seen again. Only Howard Moss's three-plus decades editing poetry for The New Yorker comes to mind as another comparable tenure in recent history, either in terms of staying power or services rendered to American poetry. Surely not since Thomas Wentworth Higginson puzzled gamely over the stanzas of a faithful reader from Amherst named Emily Dickinson has an Atlantic editor devoted so much honorable toil to the art.

Over those thirty years Peter did more than help grace The Atlantic with a sense of continuity. He provided a center of gravity. Eminent Bostonian though he was, there was nothing of the grandee about him: to know Peter in his element was to partake of his way of filling a room with the life of his mind and a twinkling bonhomie. His was the not exactly enviable task of winnowing out the three dozen or so poems that would annually appear in the Atlantic's pages from the thousands that pour across the transom—a chore that might, in less capable hands, have smacked of Grub Street drudgery but which Peter embraced with industrious solicitude and abounding gusto.

Peter's position as poetry editor was never his full-time occupation, but nobody who entered into a correspondence with him could harbor a doubt that he gave the work the full measure of his powers. A letter from the desk of Peter Davison, even when it wasn't bearing the glad tidings that a poem had won him over, could be like manna in the desert—fortifying rations of tonic advice and moral encouragement for the long haul. Tart he might be on occasion, particularly when faced with lines he felt were succumbing too easily to period mannerisms or verbal anemia, but far more often his missives were leavened with the waggish high spirits that made him the most buoyant of conversationalists, and he was never so avid as when bestowing praise on something well done. In person or in print, Peter made his presence felt with all the worldly aplomb of one who believes in language as an ultimate force for good, and an infinite source of relish.

What also set Peter apart was his due diligence. He brought an exacting standard of professionalism to the selecting and editing of poetry that was rare when he started out and even harder to come by today: accustomed to waiting for small eternities to hear word on submissions elsewhere, poets were routinely flabbergasted to discover that The Atlantic typically responded in two or three weeks, all year round. Peter made certain too that the poems he accepted for publication were vetted as stringently as anything else in the magazine; like Ezra Pound (only with a good deal more horse sense), he believed that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.

All literary editors have their soft spots and blind spots, and Peter never pretended it could be otherwise. Even so, the ecumenical range of his enthusiasms knew fewer hard and fast boundaries than most. On Peter's watch, there was no house style of Atlantic poetry, no categorical imperatives governing permissible forms or themes or aesthetic creeds. He was as receptive to puckish light verse and waspish satire as he was to elegaic odes and native woodnotes wild, and capable of savoring hardbitten demotic lingo no less than the lapidary eloquence of a formal lyric. Novelty for its own sake or displays of technical prowess that lacked the pulse of true feeling carried little sway with him: he reserved his warmest admiration for language that answered to Auden's description of memorable poetry as "the clear expression of mixed feelings" or lived up to Frost's dictum that a poem offer its readers "a momentary stay against confusion."

Peter didn't cotton to the notion that a poetry editor ought to go about his business like some high magistrate of taste, much less a missionary bent on winning converts. All the same, he understood that his long tenure brought with it certain ambassadorial obligations from time to time. What was it like to contend with all those unsolicited poems? How did he choose one over another? What was the current state of American poetry from where he sat? Peter's preferred method of holding court was reciting from memory poems he adored, (the quantity of lines he had by heart was prodigious), but when the occasion demanded, he could take on the mantle of the elder statesman with a flourish. Here is a typically pithy snippet from a talk on contemporary poetry he delivered at Baylor University in 1998:

The great reward of sitting where I do week after week is to get a sense of where and how poets are trying to push the frontier of poetry.... What I find newest now is often very old—a jingle, a rhythm, a turn, a trope that could perhaps remind me of John Skelton or "Sir Patrick Spens." At other times I'm deeply attracted to a poem which acts out a little game, or one which shows an intellectual force moving through the rhythms of a poem to produce some combination of ideas that could not be arrived at any other way. The harshest punishment of sitting where I do is to find how many poets are governed by the tyranny of fashion and convention. The fashion of the present indicative tyrannizes over contemporary American poetry more cruelly than the heroic couplet did in the age of Pope.

One on one with younger writers and neophytes of all ages, Peter had a lighter touch. He knew the difference between doling out good counsels and playing Polonious. "Poets are peculiar plants, and nobody knows much about what makes them germinate," he quipped in a 1966 Atlantic review, but from seasoned experience he knew more than most and could be uncommonly attentive to the cultivation of talent. Long accustomed to pleas from apprentices to be informed what exactly constituted an "Atlantic poem," he sat down a few years ago and conjured up a three-page editorial credo, "Advice to Young Poets." How many poets young or old, one wonders, ever hear back from an editor in the form of enlightening words like these?

When I read poems it's the sound I listen for first: what does this poem make me hear, what sort of freshness of experience has invigorated its sound, what emotions or music ruffle its surface, what passions have made it sing? Our magazine contains substance of many kinds, but our poetry must ring with the truth of genuine emotion, whether it be mirth or anger, melancholy or lassitude, indignation or love.

There was another kind of recurrent query Peter wouldn't brush aside either, as many another harried editor quite pardonably might: Why on earth did The Atlantic publish so much of that infernal modern poetry? What had almost always worked the letter-writer into a lather was coming across a clutch of poems from recent issues that failed to rhyme or scan in the grand old manner of a Longfellow or Tennyson. Such rants and laments met with no condescension from Peter's quarter; instead, the offended party might receive by return post an exhortation to consider how poetic form works through other means than chiming stanzas, say as in Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the King James Psalms, or perhaps an enclosed copy of "Time, Please," the trenchant short essay Peter had written for The Atlantic in the late eighties on "the fashionable dominance of the present tense":

Many casual readers of today's poetry misunderstand their own discomfort at what they are reading and complain only of the absence of rhyme and meter. What really underlies their dissatisfaction, I think, is that so many contemporary poets lack conviction, and their weakness shows in their language. They have lost some degree of belief in the validity of poetic utterance and consequently tend to mute their own voices.

Peter's own conviction in the essential value of poetic utterance never wavered. He fretted as much as anyone about the strained relations between poetry and the public, but he would have been the last editor to subscribe to the jaded commonplace that the common reader had gone the way of the mammoth, leaving poets no recourse but to natter among themselves. "Poetry cannot help making a connection between a poet and others," he wrote in his 1991 essay collection One of the Dangerous Trades, "sometimes when they are alone with it in a room, reading it; sometimes when they are together with it in a room, listening. Poetry brings us together, it allies us in the knowledge of loneliness, of joy, of loss, of pain, of tenderness."

If that bedrock faith in the necessity and responsibility of poetry was one of Peter's great attributes as an editor, it may have been his greatest strength as a poet. In selecting The Breaking of the Day for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1963, Dudley Fitts wrote, "one is impressed by the range and depth of these poems, and by the generous human candor that speaks in them." In the poetry composed over the next forty years, Peter's sensibility grew deeper in its meditative expression and richer in the worldly variety of all that it surveyed without ever losing that intimate human element at its core. Throughout his body of work, collected in The Poems of Peter Davison (1995) and his last volume, Breathing Room (2000), the tenor of voice remains sure and clear and true, at times approaching a classical gravitas and at every turn profoundly humane.

Peter's two acknowledged masters were Frost and Hardy: from Frost, whom he knew well as a young writer, he took to heart the enterprise of breathing new life into colloquial American speech; from Hardy, a sly way of mixing toughminded irony with a tender regard for mortal longings. He wrote in an array of forms on a host of subjects, yet what anchors all his finest poems is their authenticity of thinking and feeling that makes no concessions to mere artifice or borrowed sentiment. With his keen grasp of history and his affinity for the natural world, he ought certainly to go down as one of the truly vital lyric poets of the New England surround, most particularly his own patch of turf hard by the salt marshes of Gloucester where he kept a dacha, the setting of many of his later poems.

Peter belonged to an august generation of American poets, born in the late twenties, who had transformed the climate of contemporary poetry's range and ambition by the sixties. His place in their company should be secure. Upon retiring from the book business in 1998 after forty-eight years, he began work on the fluent autumnal poems that would eventually constellate into Breathing Room, several of which first appeared in The Atlantic. Most are cast in a supple nonce form he devised for himself—seven staggered tercets and a closing quatrain—in an effort to forge a more perfect union between the breath and the line. In the foreword to what would prove to be his valedictory collection, he set down a moving reflection that can be read as both a personal testament and an ars poetica:

If we learn techniques for understanding poetry, no harm is done; but there can be no substitute for learning poetry itself. We need to meet the art on its own ground; we need to hold poetry in the ear, by the hand, in the head. The more poetry I contain in my head, the more of poetry I may comprehend, for I will find myself breathing in the very impulse. When I've learned a poem by heart (lovely phrase), I shall have read it completely, with all I can bring to it, and I shall own something that will be mine in bankruptcy, in prison, or on my deathbed. My challenge as a poet is to write poems well enough so that other people will desire to learn them—so as to entertain themselves under every circumstance.

You did, Peter, you did.