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 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).