READERS OF POEMS (most of whom, these days, are other poets) seem to have short patience and shorter memories. I have more than once been told that Peter Davison's poetry is "bland," that it doesn't "renew the language," that its concerns are insufficiently urgent. I have had to remind these readers that among the poems of Davison they have failed to recall or have never seen are some of the most telling dramatizations of intersexual hostility to have appeared in recent American poetry; that Davison wrote the shrewdest poetic appraisal of John Berryman's suicide and its implications that I can remember; and that such a poem as "Easter Island," in which those dread statues tell us in effect that we'd be better off not knowing the secret of their origin, is not the work of a poet who can fairly be described as bland! Davison writes in what I suppose might be called the middle register of diction. For many readers this is enough for them to disregard what he is saying.
Few poets are in the same country, so to speak, at 55 (let's say) as they were at 30. It may well be that in some cases they were more exciting at 30. But excitement is not the only attribute of poetic language and, as the man said, there is a time to dance (even if on knives) and a time to mourn, or to sit back and think. And we can't all rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
Davison, himself, in "Paradise as a Garden," a poem in his new collection Barn Fever (Atheneum, $10; paperback, $5.95), declares: "Whatever persists within, forever fresh,/ is the indelible border of imagination." What persists, in all the poems of Barn Fever, is everything Davison remembers, either regrettng or cherishing, which he can at the moment concert into a poetry of reminiscence and conservation. These are poems that sum up, sometimes tartly, his views on women, on growing up (in Colorado), on slowing down; they are about illumination and endurance and sufferance, and the rhetoric that animates them is far from being merely conventional (whatever the convention in today's poetry is presumed to be). On the subject of the constrained life (in "II Se Sauve") he captures a superb image of a deceived falcon "becoming accustomed to jesses, gantlets, darkness,/gobbets of dead meat,/rations of light and fight./The falcon, no angel./chooses to submit." From there, he sustains the metaphor into these concluding lines: To accept the minimum security of life, wings must fall from the shoulders. Among shadows and sentences you remember when you could have made a break for it. when, if you had had the wings of an angel, you could have got out of here, uplifted, saved yourself.
Of several poems about resignations and the "ebb-tide of emotion," the most measured are perhaps those under the rubric, "Mixed Blessings." From one of these, "Householder," I'd like to quote nine exemplary lines. This unfever has its blessings: the bleaching out of anger. A sensibility confined to the predictable. Indoor plants, domesticated animals. No wild birds, no wild weather. An implacable appetite for things as they are. A nice gratitude. for the unresisted passage of time.
One way to "renew the language" is to use it precisely!
Given the appropriate moment, Peter Davison would agree with the Canadian poet, Margaret Atwood: "The civilized world is a zoo,/not a jungle, stay in your cage." Actually, this admonition is given to her "faulty heart" in one of two gnawing poems on that subject. More often, she sees the civilized world as a jungle and her Two-Headed Poems (Simon and Schuster, $10.95) would be poems of anger if she had not tempered her blade by plunging it into cold water at the prescribed hour, as they once did in Toledo. While her impenitent lines constitute more than a season, they are in essence a poetry for "November, the empty month"; a poetry of extinction, that probability we try to refute "with the smells of cooking earth" and "the comfort of windfall pears," and "the risen bread says/this is where/we live/brave statement."
Atwood makes many brave statements. She has no hope for our retrograde times but she has invested in continuity and that is enough to inspire poetry that remembers fire like the burnt child, is a constantly haunted witness to our moral deforestation. "Before the burn, this was a forest./Now it is something else. . . . you give thanks as after a disaster you were not part of, though any burn might have been your skin: despite these liquid petals against smoked rock, after a burn your hands are never the same. ("Burned Space")
This is her way of repeating the older question, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?c Her poems are "two-headed" by virtue of her recognition that the force with which we have structured the world for ourselves is the force by which we shall perish. "This year we are making nothing but elegies: Do what you are good at,/our parents always told us,/make what you know." What we know, all of us in our darkest hours, is that we live in a world in which, once again, violence is endemic; in which the public life, where not lethal, is fatuous and in which the private life is devastated from within by lovelessness, from without by Caliban. This burden is the premise of Atwood's inconsolable verse, which she enhances with a gift for taking metaphor (without which the poetry of thought is mundane or bloodlessly abstract). She has many poems about mother and daughter that glow with a manic intensity of affection: the most incandescent, "A Red Shirt." Red is not for children, she has been told, for it is the color of passion or of anger or of, in some countries, death and ritual sacrifice. "Dancing in red shoes will kill you." Nonetheless, she reminds herself, "red is our color by birth/right, the color of intense joy/& spilled pain that joins us/to each other."
Further consolation she will not permit herself, placing no trust in long-term answers: that nature remains unchanged, that the young at large will avenge us, that tomorrow one kind of politics will vitiate all others. "In this dark/space of the year, the earth/turns again toward the sun, or/ we would like to hope so." Never praise the day before the evening. Within the domain of moral indignation, Atwood is as fierce and as indelicate as Adrienne Rich; she is a better thinker; for her, evil has no gender. One might deduce, after brooding on her acrid-sorrowful verse that because man is seldom given more than one virtue at a time, our society may have a chance at love, since it has acquired so little wisdom.
In the poetry of A.R. Ammons, for all its grave cleverness, focused observation and articulate discriminations of the elemental, I miss the note of intimate possession which I find in Davison as well as the ruthless inferences conveyed by Margaret Atwood when she addresses the rural scene. I see no reason for initially agreeing with Harold Bloom, simply because publishers have made him headmaster among pedagogues who adorn book jackets, that certain poems in A Coast of Trees (Norton, $12.95) are "likely to assume a permanent place in the Ammonsian (and American) canon." Who is the keeper of the keys? And does not the oracular judgment lock poems into a ready hierarchy? I feel the less content because one of the poems designated is "Swells," which proceeds in this fashion. The very longest swell in the ocean, I suspect, carries the deepest memory, the information of actions summarized (surface peaks and dibbles and local sharp slopes of windstorms) with a summary of the summaries and under other summaries a deeper summary: well, maybe deeper, longer for length here is the same as deep time: so that the longest swell swells least;. . .
Etcetera. That is what Bloom means by "the central Whitmanian tradition" and Ammons' "crucial place in that panoply." Panoply, forsooth! The passage I have quoted is accurate, to be sure; even witty; but in persistence, cool. It is not the best from Ammons I could cite but it is characteristic of Ammons' incessant habit of whimsically translating events and objects in nature into their mathematical and linguistic correlatives -- lines of force, cadences of logic. His early practice of converting the lie of the land, intrinsically sensuous, into rituals of process, was an original method, accommodating to our passion for technics; by now it has become a risky mannerism, a species of rehetoric that too often leaches from his poems the emotion he is ostensibly expressing. I find him durable when he is not where Bloom says he is: i.e., transforming Walt Whitman into preciosity. He is at his best when he leaves himself (as antagonist) out of a poem, relinquishes the pathetic fallacy and works close in, as he describes a bluejay in winter, "the clarified bush's only ornament"; the strategy of moths in a southwester; a spider in a storm window angling for "addled" flies; the meander of a brook; the perennial death in red leaves.
Before closing with Bloom on Ammons, read Peter Davison's lyric on how the trees go into his woodpile ("Perfect Fire") or, if you want the American wilderness inhabited by a deerslayer's consciousness, read David Wagoner. Ammons is a lucid geographer with an attentive ear for country music, but he is not without eminent rivals in American verse.