Peter Davison

1928–2004

Poet and editor Peter Davison was born in New York in 1928 and grew up in Boulder, Colorado. The son of a poet and professor, Davison was raised in a literary milieu: Ford Madox Ford, Robert Penn Warren, and Robert Frost all visited the Davison household. After graduating from Harvard, Davison spent a year studying in Cambridge, England. He returned to Boston to work at Harcourt Brace and later Harvard University Press. The long-time editor and director of the Atlantic Monthly, Davison’s career as an editor put him in touch with the poets and writers who shaped the literary landscape of America in the mid-century. His memoir, The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, 1955-1960, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath (1994) is a cultural snapshot of the late 1950s poetry scene in Boston, where Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, W. S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and other well-known poets then lived. Davison’s friendships with these poets shaped his own poetry, which is frequently compared to that of his mentor, Robert Frost. Like Frost, Davison’s poems employ a natural voice and speak of common concerns. Washington Post Book World reviewer Vernon Young explained that Davison writes “a poetry of reminiscence and conservation” on such timeless subjects as youth, aging, and women. “Davison writes in what I suppose might be called the middle register of diction,” Young acknowledged. “[His poems] are about illumination and endurance and sufferance, and the rhetoric that animates them is far from being merely conventional.” Civilized and urbane, Davison’s early work won praise for its sensitive treatment of such New England themes as rural life, work, and family. His first book The Breaking of the Day and Other Poems (1964) won the Yale Younger Poets Prize.
 
Davison’s later work was collected in The Poems of Peter Davison (1995) and Breathing Room (2000). Davison’s last collection, Breathing Room, inaugurated a nonce form of 25 lines in seven tercets and a closing quatrain. Reviewing the volume for the Atlantic Monthly, David Barber noted the effect of “the versification channeling the pitch and reach of introspection in cadences that seem to compose themselves—the analogy is inescapable—as naturally as breathing.” Speaking of the form’s allowance of quick moves in perception and line, Barber commented that “one may come away persuaded that an insistence on cutting to the quick of articulate emotion is what gives this body of poetry its steadfast pulse.”
 
Peter Davison died in 2004. In tributes and memorials, friends and colleagues attested to his intelligence, generosity, and perceptive work as an editor, as well as his poetic achievements. Writing in the Atlantic, Cullen Murphy described Davison’s poetry: “It blended real feeling and real intellect, and it took up the real questions all of us do—about memory, about transience, about the exquisite life of the senses. Opening one of his books was like opening the door to a friend.”
 
Speaking of his own career, Davison once told Contemporary Authors: “I must be one of the few poets of my generation who has never either taken or given a creative writing class, but I cannot suggest what to make of that fact. I have seldom found my editorial career in conflict with my writing except at UNFATHOMABLE depths. Poetry for me is not work but pleasure, not a career but a second life—a play within a play.”
 


Career

Poet, editor, and lecturer. Harcourt, Brace, and Co. (publishers), New York City, editorial assistant, 1950-51, assistant editor, 1953-55; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, assistant to director, 1955-56; Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, MA, associate editor, 1956-59, executive editor, 1959-64, director, 1964-79, senior editor, 1979-85; consulting editor at Houghton Mifflin Co. (publishers), Boston, MA, beginning 1985; poetry editor, Atlantic Monthly, beginning 1972. Member of literature panel, National Endowment for the Arts, 1980-83.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • The Breaking of the Day and Other Poems, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1964.
  • The City and the Island, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Pretending to Be Asleep, Atheneum, 1970.
  • Dark Houses (1870-1898), Halty Ferguson (Cambridge, MA), 1971.
  • Walking the Boundaries: Poems, 1957-1974, Atheneum, 1974.
  • A Voice in the Mountain, Atheneum, 1977.
  • Barn Fever and Other Poems, Atheneum, 1981.
  • Praying Wrong: New and Selected Poems, 1957-1984, Atheneum, 1984.
  • The Great Ledge, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Collected Poems, Knopf, 1994.
  • The Poems of Peter Davison, 1957-1995, Knopf, 1995.
  • Breathing Room: New Poems, Knopf, 2000.

MEMOIR

  • Half Remembered: A Personal History (autobiography), Harper, 1973, revised edition, Story Line Press, 1991.
  • The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, 1955-1960, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, Knopf, 1994.
LITERARY CRITICISM
  • One of the Dangerous Trades: Essays on the Work and Workings of Poetry, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1991.
  • George Orwell: A Literary Life, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1996.

EDITOR

  • (Editor) L. E. Sissman, Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L. E. Sissman, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1978.
  • (Editor) The World of Farley Mowat: A Selection from His Work, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1980.
  • (Editor) The Book Encompassed: Studies in Twentieth-Century Bibliography, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • (Editor) King Richard III, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Work included in numerous anthologies, including A Controversy of Poets, Doubleday/Anchor, 1965, Twentieth Century Poetry: American and British, McGraw, 1970, Understanding Poetry, Harcourt, 1976, A Green Place: Modern Poems, Delacorte, 1982, Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, Random House, The New Yorker Book of Poetry, and several volumes of Borestone Mountain Poetry Awards and The Best American Poetry. Contributor of poems and critical essays to Encounter, Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Atlantic, New Yorker, Hudson Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and other publications.

 



Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 4, Gale, 1986.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 28, Gale, 1984.
  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press, 1996.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980.
  • Rotella, Guy, Three Contemporary Poets of New England: Meredith, Booth, and Davison, Twayne, 1983.

PERIODICALS

  • America, July 18-25, 1981, pp. 36-37.
  • Atlantic, May, 1970.
  • Booklist, August 19, 1994, p. 2015.
  • Boston Sunday Globe, December 30, 1984, pp. A12, A14.
  • Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1970.
  • Chronicles of Culture, August, 1985, p. 28.
  • Contemporary Literature, winter, 1968.
  • Detroit News, March 3, 1985.
  • Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1994, p. 897.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 28, 1994, p. 3.
  • New York Times Book Review, December 11, 1966; September 13, 1981, pp. 14, 32; January 27, 1985, pp. 18-19; November 20, 1994, p. 3.
  • Parnassus, spring-summer, 1975, pp. 75-89.
  • Poetry, August, 1982, pp. 293-305.
  • Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1984, p. 49.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1978, pp. 762-68; summer, 1985, p. 98.
  • Washington Post Book World, May 3, 1981, p. 8.

OBITUARIES:

ONLINE

  • Boston Globe Online, http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ (January 4, 2005).
  • New York Times Online, http://www.nytimes.com/ (January 3, 2005).

PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Tribune, December 31, 2004, section 1, p. 9.
  • Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2005, p. B15.
  • New York Times, January 1, 2005, p. A12.

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LIFE SPAN 1928–2004

Biography

Poet and editor Peter Davison was born in New York in 1928 and grew up in Boulder, Colorado. The son of a poet and professor, Davison was raised in a literary milieu: Ford Madox Ford, Robert Penn Warren, and Robert Frost all visited the Davison household. After graduating from Harvard, Davison spent a year studying in Cambridge, England. He returned to Boston to work at Harcourt Brace and later Harvard University Press. The . . .

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