The balance of passion and poise is a constant tension in Davis's work - PN Review
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About Dick Davis
Dick Davis, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has been hailed by the TLS as ‘our finest translator of Persian poetry’, and retired in 2012 from the Ohio State University where he was Professor of Persian and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. His award-winning translations from Persian include Vis and Ramin, Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz, and numerous others. He has also translated from Italian. At the time of his recordings for the Poetry Archive, he had published seven collections of poetry with Anvil Press, including Seeing the World (1980), which won the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Award for Poetry, the most recent of those publications being A Trick of Sunlight: Poems 2001-2005. Born in Portsmouth, he read English Literature at Cambridge and subsequently spent eight years in Iran (where he met and married Afkham Darbandi, with whom he translated Attar’s The Conference of Birds for Penguin), before completing a PhD in Medieval Persian Literature at Manchester. His academic career has included teaching posts at the Universities of Tehran, Durham, Newcastle and California. In 2009 he published At Home and Far From Home: Poems on Iran and Persian Culture.
Davis’s work is characterized by its ‘technology’: both its technical proficiency and its fascination with craft and form, particularly linguistic forms, and the possibilities (and limits) of translation. This is encapsulated in ‘Love in Another Language’ which imagines that most unruly of emotions ‘swerve[d]’ by the contingencies of the foreign tongue, ‘the meaning crammed […] with a choked force’. The beauty of the conceit is that the swerving current of this poem feels sure-footed and inevitable: far from chocked. His reading is steady in tone and slightly detached, as though to carefully handle, and not to over-influence, the force of language. Before reading ‘A Translator’s Nightmare’, David admits to being the proprietor of the bad dream in question. The barrage of complaints he receives from poets in this other realm are hilariously and quite graciously re-appropriated (or ‘translated’) into Davis’ gleefully-ironized verse (where the gripes ‘He missed my rhymes’ and ‘He missed my puns I don’t know how many times’ do hit on a pleasing rhyme).
Davis also explores the limit of forms – particularly political boundaries related to matters of exile. ‘In the Gallery’ employs the conceit of the line, variously: the lines in the artwork are ‘as faint as memory’, gesturing to the lines which mark the borders of lands in conflict, the poet’s own lines which end as the speaker reaches the point of spellbound reverie, and those of the aria, ‘O Patria Mia!, the poem’s epigraph. Davis’s perspective is unabashedly that of an aesthete, and yet there is no denying the speakers’ often highly personal involvement, making for what Henry King, reviewing A Trick of Sunlight in PN Review, describes as his ‘balance of passion and poise’. In the vividly dreamed ‘Uxor Vivamus’, the act of chipping away at the shabby plaster on the walls of the newly-weds’ home reveals ‘an ebullient country scene […] dances, festivals, / Processions, muted pastorals’, signifiers of ceremonious, artful exuberances. As the Economist has noted, ‘The cultural diversity of his life is reflected in […] the scope of [the poems’] subject-matter and in their commitment to an ideal of civilised life shared by many other cultures’. And yet Davis’ study of culture is not without its share of cynicism and critique: as with the searing satire of ‘Shopping’ and its commodification of vices (from ‘looney obsessions’ to ‘religious manias’) in a voice of sycophantic devilishness.
His delivery throughout this recording has a steady pitch; drawing out some resonating sibilance in parts, but rarely emphasizing prosodic elements like rhyme or rhythm, enacting, instead, what King calls the verse’s ‘relaxed precision of form’.
Dick Davis’s favourite quotes about poetry:
‘It’s made of clay and it holds water’. – Anonymous (a small child asked by his teacher if he could say what ‘poetry’ is):
‘Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses, force us to have second thoughts, free us from the fetters of self’. – W.H. Auden
‘Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least.’ – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘How many poets have fashioned their best lines out of the struggle to find a rhyme?’ – Marcel Proust
‘A man is a poet if the difficulties inherent in his art provide him with ideas; he is not a poet if they deprive him of ideas.’ – Paul Valéry
This recording was made for the Poetry Archive on 13 March 2015 at Ohio Relay Recording, Columbus, Ohio.