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You must remember this

March 7, 2011

Tradition as the Poem’s Inner Form in the Lyrics of Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson’s essay “Poetry as Tradition” asserts for poetic form—distinguishing it from that of prose fiction, for instance—a special independence from the medium of the printed page. Poetic form carries the promise of a certain permanence, providing a radiant locus of human meaning capable of surviving the collapse or decay of other cultural forms. But this independence comes with a corollary dependence. If the poem “can always reduce the book to its true function as an instrument of convenience” (258), dispelling with the appearance of its livelier, more palpable reality the illusion of its reliance on paper and ink, this is because it depends on a far more deeply and strangely impressionable medium: “the lips of men, … their voices, … their memories, … their hearts” (258). The poem (somewhat like the blessed of Dante’s Paradise, who yearn for their resurrected flesh), Davidson implies, exists in and for the moment of its embodiment. The poem only speaks to and in the being of a person; its form is the figure drawn on human ground, marking it as precious and the only vehicle of what is precious. This is why the genuine utterance of a poem can be a unique and unrepeatable event, and why committing a poem to memory, more than merely the transfer of information, can often be transformative—realizing or revealing new potentialities both in the person reading and the poem itself. Indeed, one is tempted to say that in paradoxical proportion to how undeceivedly a poem acknowledges as its proper medium the most mortal of things—the concentered mind and shaping memory, the voice’s accent, and ultimately the incommunicablility of another person—will its chance at a genuine immortality increase. This immortality will not be that of the voiceless ciphers of impersonal record, but that of a quiet mirror possessed of sufficient purity and amplitude of angle to capture and embrace both the motes of the passing hour and underlying cares of a life. Behind the idea of the poem’s independence from the page, then, rests Davidson’s more central concern of the poem as an instance of tradition—as a living form for what can be passed from generation to generation, or (first of all) from person to person. Poetry’s “metre, rhyme, and other formal elements” writes Davidson “ally poetry with memory; they are the marks of poetry that not only derives from tradition but is tradition” (258), which is to say: by their availability to the memory such formal elements mark a poetry that exists in and for the moment of handing itself over to another. Beyond what we typically classify as formal elements, though, this paper will look at two of Davidson’s lyrics to show how this gesture of tradition, of handing itself over, shapes the inner form of the poem as well.

Many of Davidson’s poems take such a moment of tradition, whether realized, attempted, or desired, as their dramatic situation: “Aunt Maria and the Gourds,” “Randall, My Son” (41), “Sanctuary” (42), “Lee in the Mountains” (34), for instance, in which spiritual parents weigh their own inheritance and address their heirs. There are parallel poems by Ransom and Tate: “Antique Harvesters” (26), the profoundly frustrated “Aeneas at Washington” (65) and “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” (67) All of these poems are haunted by a reality that resists direct communication: an “all” that “cannot be said,” a “word” that “cannot be told,” a “knowledge carried to the heart,” a thought “stuck in the mire” of Washington DC of what “we built [Troy] for;” an understanding hidden in secrets that are told “not often” and “only from a father to a son,” or in “old tales [that] are like prayers,” hidden in mysterious figures—“the proud lady of the heart of fire, the look of snow,” the “green altars” of war-drenched mountains, “an old horn’s husky music,” “the last enchanted white deer”—and in rituals that to the “scornful beholder” are “nothing”: “The hound, the horns, the lank mares streaming by / … / And the fox, lovely ritualist, in flight / Offering his unearthly ghost to quarry; / And the fields, themselves to harry.” One way or another, the insistence on a central reality that cannot be spelled out casts a weight of trust and hope, or frustrated longing, upon the receptivity of the reader. The burden of Davidson’s “Sanctuary” is “You must remember this. … /… / Remember this. … / … // You must remember this, and mark it well.” “Remember this,” okay, but what is this?

In “Utterance,” Davidson suggests a likeness between entertaining the frustrating yet tantalizing inadequacy of speech to what it wants to say and the wager involved in getting to know another person. The speaker or “I” of this poem is a personified “utterance” who is rather self-conscious of “his” own inadequacy: “I am not what my lips explain, / And more devotedly inclined / Than these dry sentences reveal / That break like crude shards from my mind.” This utterance wants us to draw our attention away from what we might take to be its characteristic, definitive features—“what my lips explain,” what “these dry sentences reveal”—and attempt to surmise its underlying posture, the more devoted inclination of its mute “mind.” With brilliant and humorous self-reference to its futile gestures of hyperbole, the utterance complains: “What way is there of gesturing / The cruelly impounded thought? / It comes, it pierces me like steel, / It flames and I can utter naught.” The gestures of speech will be misleading unless they are recognized as in themselves beside the point, and taken as the epiphenomena of an essentially wordless and informing disposition.

Ultimately, the utterance’s is a shy and twinkling irony that retreats from trying to communicate an identity can only be encountered, and draws back from explaining what must be embodied in order to truly appear: its “soul,” “Its changeful self, the wistful me.” The poem ends with a coy and winning appeal that makes its whimsy glimmer with possibility and promise: “And am I worth the guess you make? / Oh fact so digged in circumstance! / It surely is not known to me, / And you must take my Self on chance.” The implication of the utterance’s appeal to “you” to “take my Self on chance” is that speech ultimately shares itself, not by means of measurable communication, but by creating the occasion for some common inference by two or more individuals of a shared reality—by making, through something like its whole posture or tone, an implicit center of experience and understanding palpable and present.

A poem like “Utterance” may seem to have more in common with the lively irony and wit of Marvell’s “Dialogue of Body and Soul” or Frost’s “Iota Subscript” than the sonorous, meditative, and earnest voice of Davidson’s more memorable lyrics. But it can be taken as a cipher for the paradoxical moment of tradition, the figurative act which hands something over to another (as opposed to directly communicating it), with which all Davidson’s poems are concerned. We can see this figurative action fully realized in the lyric “Randall, My Son,” whose title and refrain evoke a musical ballad-tradition, and whose rich vocality hovers between the formal fluidity of song and the intense personal address which is made within its dramatic situation.

In this poem a mother of fateful stature addresses a son who is returning late from the cold “glitter of the world that draws [his] eyes” and “beckons [him] from [her.]” And while the poem’s world is realized with a texture that is rich and fine—“the vine fingering the latch, / … through the rain … the poplar bough / Thresh[ing] at the blinds … // … the lamp burning low”—we are aware from the beginning that every detail carries symbolic implication. The speaker herself, bereft and comfortless guardian of a collapsing house, but unbowed, capable of maternal care and rebuke, and commanding awe with an authority not to be ignored, is surely herself the figure of the undeniable yet riddling claims of a beloved traditional order in an alien world at odds with it.

The poem begins with the mother’s call that brings her son across the threshold into her domain. His late coming has startled her from a lonely revery in which the encroached-upon, crumbling boundaries of her household bring home to her her undeceived bereavement. While capable of making understated details of her realm evoke this abandonment with the dignity and control, she also lets her call to Randall echo in the depth of her aloneness: “old and troubled overmuch, / [I] called in the deep night, but there was none / To comfort me or answer, Randall, my son.” This lonely call in the “deep night” should be set beside her careful preparation of a room of welcome within the space that she still quietly guards and disposes: “But mount the stair and lay you down till morn, / The bed is made—the lamp is burning low / Within the changeless room where you where born.” There is a calm intensity of aloneness that makes possible the preparation a place where another can truly rest and dwell, if only temporarily. This is an ordered, formed space in contrast to the barren and cold glittering world of “the mistress that beckons you from me,” as well as to the wilderness to which the garden-plants threaten to revert.

The care and welcome indicated by such a space gives special weight to the deliberate perplexity of the mother’s reproach and to her resistance to the future: “I am unreconciled to what I know, / And I am old with questions never done.” Faced with the insurmountable, inevitable collapse of a literal and sacred order of life—a defeat with which to be reconciled is to be a betrayer—one must find a way to somehow retain and persist in this order, if not literally, then analogically: as a figurative order that holds the promise of some future redemption, of a grace “brooding within the certitude of time” whose specific literal, historical terms cannot be foreseen. To transmit such a promise is the purpose of the poem, and it is this that makes it, at least in hope, an instance of tradition.

This painful but essentially hopeful necessity of transforming of a literal into a symbolic order shapes the riddle of the final lines, in which the poem enacts the fundamental gesture of handing itself over to another:

Take, what I leave, your own land unforgotten;

Hear, what I hear in a far chase new begun

An old horn’s husky music, Randall, my son.

Finally, then, we should recognize in the poem’s symbolic speaker a dual reality. She is Rachel “weeping for her children, for they are no more,” inconsolable, for her loss is irrevocably real. She is also Hestia, Vesta, the household-goddess entrusting the hearth-coals of a fallen city to an heir who will venture to carry the promise of a renewed future under the aspect of a riddle and a prayer. She is, finally, the poem itself, addressing, welcoming, rebuking, and commissioning a community of future readers whose flaws and infidelities and virtues (however unforeseen in their particulars) will need such a voice to guide and uplift them.

The irreducibly figurative speech that is poetry asks us to “remember this”: it hands over to us its promising but non-self-explicating weight to carry in our musing memory. In a fuller sense of “remember,” it asks to undertake the adventure which allows the figures of poetry to begin to find literal and embodied reality in the transformation of our lives. And (if we may be permitted to take it in this way) in the word’s fullest sense, the figures of poetry instill in us a sense of the strange promised grace bound up in what I know no other name for than “the resurrection of the body.”

Davidson, Donald. “Poetry as Tradition.” The Southern Critics: an Anthology. Ed. Glenn C. Arbery. Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2010. 241-59.

Ransom, John Crowe, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate. The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective. Ed. William Pratt. Nashville: J.S. Sanders, 1991.

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