Peter Davison: Writing Well is the Best Revenge

Every thirty or forty years a significant shift occurs in poetic sensibility. The change usually takes the form of a generational revolt as young poets reject the dominant style of their elders. Twentieth century American poetry has seen at least three upheavals. The first came shortly before World War I when early Modernists like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and H.D. renounced the softness and sentimentality of late Victorian verse. The second seismic shift came just after mid-century when the Beat and Confessional poets abandoned the decorous impersonality and stylistic formalism of the New Critical aesthetic. The third upheaval is happening right now as various camps of populist poetry attack an increasingly tired and fragmented academic subculture.

Peter Davison’s new study, The Fading Smile, provides a candid, firsthand account of the mid-century poetic revolution. As his lengthy subtitle (Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960) indicates, he views the broader events from one specific time and place. “I chanced, in 1955, into one of the most vital milieux for poetry in the history of the country,” his narrative begins. Focusing on the remarkable concentration of poetry talent in Boston during the next half-decade, Davison examines a dozen influential poets–including Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Donald Hall, and W.S. Merwin. To this notable cast, he adds himself, sometimes as observer, sometimes as participant.

No other event in contemporary American poetry–perhaps no other event in our recent literature–has been so exhaustively chronicled as the shift from academic formalism to free verse and the rise of Confessional poetry. The subject has not only been the intellectual focus of innumerable critical books and articles; its human side has been flamboyantly recounted in celebrated biographies of its major figures like Lowell, Plath, and Sexton. When so much documentation already exists–including the private details of the poets’ sexual, psychological, and medical histories–an informed reader has the right to ask whether Davison’s book adds anything new to this potentially tired topic.

Although he presents his authors individually in successive chapters, he studies them as a group, carefully tracing their relations to one another.Davison’s approach, however, is both novel and illuminating. Although he presents his authors individually in successive chapters, he studies them as a group, carefully tracing their relations to one another. While most of his biographical information is available elsewhere (though not so expertly collated and condensed), no one has ever attempted so knowing and evocative a description of this literary milieu. The Fading Smile is nothing quite as simple as a memoir. Davison’s book is in equal parts literary history, criticism, anthology, and autobiography. The author provides a short biography of each writer he discusses, quotes representative poems, and then overlays his personal reminiscences with a keen eye for significant detail.

In the late 1950’s the Boston poetry scene seemed notably academic, especially in comparison to Beat San Francisco. Viewed from today’s professionalized creative writing world, however, Davison’s crowd appears positively bohemian. Although octogenarian Frost was Boston’s senior poetic eminence, the cerebral and competitive Lowell dominated local literati. His brilliant monologues, manic sexual infatuations, and annual hospitalizations set the feverish tempo of this hard-drinking, jagged-nerved milieu. Aspiring poets craved his approval. At one especially drunken party the young Merwin repeatedly asked Lowell’s opinion of his work. “I think you’re a very very good second-rate poet,” Lowell finally retorted. Boston may have been a stimulating environment for poets, but it was not always a nurturing one.

No young poets were more competitive than the women. Pushed to the margins of literary life, they were aggressively concerned with their critical status. Plath was obsessed with her “rivals,” especially Rich, whom she regarded with resentful envy. Rich in turn was jealous of Sexton. If the suddenly successful Sexton “was going to take up space,” Rich suspected at the time, “I was not going to have that space.” Beautiful, needy, and self-dramatizing, Sexton focused her attention mostly on the men. Half the leading poets in Boston eventually became her lovers, mentors, confidantes, or advisers.

The diverse achievements of Lowell-era Boston suggest that American poetry prospers in those rare moments when academic, bourgeois, and bohemian cultures promiscuously intermingle. Less than half of Davison’s subjects taught during the period he examines. Rich, Sexton, and Kumin were mothers determined that their domestic responsibilities would not cripple their artistic developments. L.E. Sissman worked in advertising. Merwin was a translator and playwright. In general, these poets spent more time on the psychoanalyst’s couch than in front of a classroom. The central institution of The Fading Smile is not so much Harvard or Boston University but the Poets’ Theatre. This small Cambridge group dedicated to reviving verse drama displayed extraordinary energy by producing new plays mostly from young and unestablished poets, including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Edward Gorey, Paul Goodman, as well as Merwin, Hall, and Sexton. Most notably, the Poets’ Theatre premiered The Misanthrope, the first of Wilbur’s now famous translations from Moliere.

Davison is uniquely qualified to chronicle the complex story of The Fading Smile. He is the ultimate literary Boston insider–not only the long-time poetry editor for The Atlantic Monthly but successively a key editor at three of the city’s major publishing houses. The author of nine volumes of poetry, Davison knew all the major characters of his narrative personally. Frost was an old family friend. He met Hall as a fellow Harvard undergraduate. He played the lead in the premiere of Wilbur’s The Misanthrope. Davison and Plath were briefly lovers.

The well-connected Davison, however, brings another qualification to his “group portrait”; the poets themselves generally treated him as an outsider. “During most of my writing life I have felt slightly estranged from my fellow poets,” Davison has commented elsewhere. “Most poets seem to look at me sideways, preferring me, I imagine in the role of editor.” In Davison’s account, one can occasionally feel the psychological sting of that estrangement, but he has used that distance profitably to gain a more disinterested perspective on his own milieu.

Poets tend to write memoirs for one (or both) of two reasons: to claim a place in literary history or to settle old scores. Although The Fading Smile fires a few parting shots at old battlefields, Davison’s account is admirably free of vindictive self-justification. Not that the author is self-effacing or blandly uncritical. The Fading Smile often takes a skeptical perspective on its subjects, and Davison seldom stays off-stage for long. The book, however, takes great care to present a balanced view of its material, and Davison treats his own younger self as critically as its other characters. While insisting on his place among the poets of his generation, he makes no exaggerated claims of self-importance. Whatever grudges he may nurse in private, Davison understands that writing well is the best revenge. . .

Review by Dana Gioia of The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960 by Peter Davison, 334 pp. New York, Knopf.

First published in The Washington Post Book World (August 28, 1994)