Selected Poems [H.L. Davis]
H.L. Davis brings humans and nature together in his poems, believing that from one we can understand something of the other. Davis writes the natural world with the knowledge of an ecologist, and the sensibility of an artist who knows his trees, winds and birds, but also has an ear for rhythm, and for making his words move and sing. Thomas Hornsby Ferril said, “He enjoyed pipe-organ analogy in poetry: vowels, the open sounds, bumping up against the consonants or steps. These events within the line are common in his poems and poetic passages in his novels.” Davis won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for his novel, Honey in the Horn.
The full text of H.L. Davis’s Selected Poems is stored at Albertson Library at Boise State University, and can be downloaded here. You may also purchase a copy of the book.
We rode hard, and brought the cattle from brushy springs,
From heavy dying thickets, leaves wet as snow;
From high places, white-grassed and dry in the wind;
Draws where the quaken-asps were yellow and white,
And the leaves spun and spun like money spinning.
We poured them on to the trail, and rode for town.
Men in the fields leaned forward in the wind,
Stood in the stubble and watched the cattle passing.
The wind bowed all, the stubble shook like a shirt.
We threw the reins by the yellow and black fields, and rode,
And came, riding together, into the town
Which is by the gray bridge, where the alders are,
The white-barked alder trees dropping big leaves
Yellow and black, into the cold black water.
Children, little cold boys, watched after us—
The freezing wind flapped their clothes like windmill paddles.
Down the flat frosty road we crowded the herd:
High stepped the horses for us, proud riders in autumn.
Copyright © 1978 by Elizabeth T. Hobson
Beset by illness, nearing the end of his life, H. L. Davis wrote a number of polemics wide-ranging in verse form, among them "Stock-Taking," January 7, 1959, an inventory of his poetic intent and disapproval of fashionable trends poets were favoring. Whether "Stock-Taking" is a poem or essay, or a mingling of both, is beside the point. It does illuminate the workings of his mind.
I'd go beyond "Stock-Taking" to try to nail down the vital essence of his poetry involving man with external nature. Nature is never decorative, never stage setting. I can open his poems at random and find luminous transfusions of life into nature and nature into life recalling primitive metamorphosis. The entire environment is animate but you'll look in vain for pathetic fallacy. His knowledge alone of the flowers, the trees, the birds, the beasts, the winds and waters, sets Davis apart as a superb ecologist unique in modern letters and, more significant, as a naturalist of transitoriness, that overpowering mood of whences and whithers without which, in all times and places, poetic effort falls short of enchanting truth.
Through these intermingled energies Davis brings into stereoscopic reality the agonies, passions, follies, tragicomedies, hopes and frustrations of life with such low incandescence you hardly know it's happening.
I'll venture no farther in this direction. Under no circumstances would I undertake critical explication of any poem in this book. How he railed against explication by "intellectualoids," as he called them, merchandising each other's reputations by "stud-book" ratings of poets-proclaiming why this or that poet was better or worse than somebody else.
I respect his attitudes toward ratings and respect my own conviction of how high he stands and will stand in American letters and of his influence on other writers. Prior to Davis, Western literature was still devitalized by inbred romanticism-a lingering echo of the Romantic Movement in Europe.
He loved the frontier and shifted with it as a frontiersman of the human spirit. The frontier might be the Tennessee of his great-grandmother, the frontier of his native Oregon, it might be Mexico. The frontier was always where he happened to be-people groping into tomorrows they couldn't be sure of but with pride and self-reliance.
Davis was a lone man, inexplicable in so many ways. At a time anything he wrote could have been sold profitably to prestigious publications he would write column after column for nothing in The Rocky Mountain Herald, Denver's obscure little weekly published by Helen, my wife.
His variety was astonishing. He could recite poetry in six foreign languages including Greek and Latin and would branch out into medieval Mohammedan philosophy as easily as if he were throwing a diamond hitch on a pack saddle.
And what a musician! I thought he was pulling my leg when he told me how many songs he knew by heart-hundreds of them-but I soon learned it was plain fact.
One evening at our cabin at Brookside, when my mandolin bogged down on the "Elysian Fields" ballet in Gluck's "Orpheus," his guitar went right ahead with both melody and accompaniment.
His repertoire included the classic composers and he particularly enjoyed "cutting loose," as he put it, on Pergolesi, Boccherini and Vivaldi, and sometimes he'd come up with obscure Basque and Nigerian tunes.
He enjoyed pipe-organ analogy in poetry: vowels, the open sounds, bumping up against the consonants or stops. These events within the line are common in his poems and poetic passages in his novels.
In conclusion, I'd wander far afield were I to suggest that H. L. Davis was a famous American author nobody ever heard of, truly a ridiculous idea, but I cannot forbear mentioning some sad and absurd happenings of his last days.
On October 17,1960, Bettie, his wife, called me in Denver from San Antonio, saying they were snarled up in red tape at the Border. The Davises had been living in Oaxaca, Mexico, and had decided to return to this country, but the immigration bureaucrats were not about to admit any illegal aliens.
Who was Harold Lenoir Davis? Did anybody know anything about him? Had he been born in the United States? I dutifully filled out State Department form DSP-lO in Denver and gave my solemn oath that there really was such a person as Harold Lenoir Davis, born in Oregon, etc., etc.
I produced evidence that he was a famous American author [Davis won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for his novel, Honey in the Horn] and sent the form to Bettie, air mail, special delivery, October 18. This was his 64th birthday. My letter included some "happy birthday" nonsense. He suffered a heart attack on his birthday and did not recover.
Read the poems. Read them aloud over and over. They tell you who H. L. Davis was and is. If you are sensitive and deserving, they'll tell you a good deal about who you are.
Thomas Hornsby Ferri!