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Donald Davidson’s 1927 Critique of the Tate's "Ode"

[Davidson had known Tate as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt; they had been members of the so-called "Fugitive" group that, with John Crowe Ransom, tentatively introduced the principles of modernist poetry to some of the most entrenched environs of the 1920s south. Davidson had completed his own long poem, entitled The Tall Men, a narrative poem in loose iambic pentameter. Langdon Hammer has characterized it as a "rude fantasy of racial power" that is "aligned with the nativist violence and immigration quotas of the mid-1920s," "a polemical attack on the ironized, deracinated, elite dialect of modernism." Tate objected to the poem because it failed, in his words, "as poetry," because it was too overtly polemical. Hammer remarks Tate’s criticism of Davidson’s poem accuses Davidson of trying to do in poetry the kind of work that Tate himself will happily take up later in the prose of the pro-Agrarian and antimodern manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand (1930). This commentary by Davidson is in the form of a letter to Tate.]

… Your poetry, like your criticism, is so astringent that it bites and dissolves what it touches. You have decided that the opposite sort of poetry (say, an expansive poetry) can no longer be written in an age where everything is in a terrible condition. But this attitude does not merely lie behind the poetry; it gets into it, not in the form of poetry but of aesthetics, so that poem after poem of yours becomes aesthetic dissertation as much as poetry. … [W]hen you deal with things themselves, the things become a ruin and crackle like broken shards under your feet. The Confederate dead become a peg on which you hang an argument whose lines, however sonorous and beautiful in a strict proud way, leave me wondering why you wrote a poem on the subject at all, since in effect you say (and I suspect you are speaking partly to me) that no poem can be written on such a subject. …

The poem is beautifully written. … But its beauty is a cold beauty. And where, O Allen Tate, are the dead? You have buried them completely out of sight – with them yourself and me. God help us, I must say. You keep on whittling your art to a finer point, but you are not whittling yourself. What is going to happen if the only poetry you can allow your conscience to approve is a poetry of argument and despair. Fine as such a poetry may be, is it not a Pyrrhic victory?

as cited in Langdon Hammer, "the Burial of the Confederate Dead" (Chapter 4) in Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-faced Modernism (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1993), 82-83.

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