The Bronco Strain

Sometimes you find a poem that really surprises you. I knew a bit about the late British poet Donald Davie, and always found him proper, clear, donnish. I had even read his books Articulate Energy and Purity of Diction in English Poetry. He was a bit better known as a scholar than a poet. Mostly I knew him as a critic associated with The Movement, the early 1950s reaction to the neo-romanticism of poets like Dylan Thomas and George Barker.

I liked those Movement poets: Kingsley Amis, Phillip Larkin, Thom Gunn. But I was surprised to find this quiet little gem by Davie in old copy of the Times Literary Supplement (I was throwing out old issues this weekend):

Or, Solitude
A farm boy lost in the snow
Rides his horse, madrone,
Through Iowan snows forever
And is called "Alone".
Because gone from the land
Are the boys who knew it best
Or expressed it, gone
To Boston or Out West,
And the breed of the horse madrone,
With its bronco strain, is strange
To the broken sod of Iowa
That used to be its range.
The transcendental nature
Of poetry, how I need it!
And yet it was for years
What I refused to credit.

I have no idea whether Davie ever set foot in Iowa, but the analogy about the absence of "the boys who knew it best" captures a certain melancholy about my home state (Larkin once wrote the line "home is so sad"). But this poem isn't really about Iowa. Davie is having a conversation with himself. That cry in the last line is a very out of character admission for him. It lets slip the sensuous and even anarchic energy of poetry that cracks through Davie's much-prized cut stone clarity of diction.

Even so, those who don't live in Iowa may find this poem resonating for any number of reasons. We've broken the sod, plowed it into the comprehensible Grant Wood furrows that ring the low hills. We've bred the bronco out of the draught horse, beaten language into spare lucid trimeter, but beneath it all there remains a longing to leave this neat, well-ordered land and its somnolent rationality. Davie! Of all people! Here is the advocate for spareness and restraint in poetry at last giving the Romantics their due, even lifting the title from Wordsworth. Sometimes stuff surprises you.

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