Paul Ricoeur notes that it is the natural rhythm of poetry historically to wing between periods of high experimentation--imaginative wordplay relatively disengaged from actual experience--and the subordination of language for language’s sake to an authentic, or authentically imagined, interpretation of the world outside ourselves. Inasmuch as literary theory of the past thirty years has an ongoing influence on American poetics, it would seem to favor the first kind, and to my mind the poetry of Chad Davidson offers a counter-rhythm somewhere between the two.
Perhaps rhythm is the appropriate metaphor here since Chad was a professional musician when he took his first poetry class from me over a decade ago, later studying with such exceptional poet/teachers as Bruce Bond and Ruth Stone. Certainly poetry is a kind of play to him--serious play, as W. C. Fields said, was serious business. But play or work, one of the most pleasant kinds of amazement is to see a student poet move--rapidly, in this case--out of the divided worlds of pure experience and pure thought (Chad was also a mathematics major at the time) into the body/mind world of poetry, ultimately to achieve such grace and articulateness as to make it seem as if it were a world of his own devising (well, perhaps with only the ghost of Wallace Stevens disappearing over the horizon).
Both the spirit of play and the fact of ingenuity can be suggested from merely a small sampling of his titles: "The Taxidermist’s Wife," "To My Left Ear Canal, Deformed at Birth," "Cleopatra’s Bra," "The Contents of Abraham Lincoln’s Pockets," "All the Ashtrays in Rome," "The Kama Sutra’s Banished Illustrator." Someone once said that at the very least a writer--any writer, poet or otherwise--must be interesting, and conceptually, verbally, and in his surprising yet fluid syntactical shifts, Chad is never not interesting, and never short on wordplay, even if it involves that runt of the litter, the pun. From "Cleopatra’s Bra":
It is one thing to uphold one’s passions,
another to retain them. That thin seam
between impassioned and fashion: it could be
anyone’s intimacy, just a rigid form
of governing . . .
What use is Virgil to those who want a wonder
bra? Keeping abreast of fashion in Rome
must have weighed on Dido, Cleopatra.
Favoring the open tercet but ranging far and deep from classical free verse to Hopkins’ curtal sonnet, Chad is as adventurous formally as he is verbally and might be described, with some humor but absolutely no deprecation intended, as a low formalist (to borrow a term that I believe Robert Pinsky, in a casual moment, invented). But Chad is always metrical, though often in a boldly improvisatory fashion. Fully employing his musician’s ear in an earlier virtuoso piece entitled "The Clavier to Peter Quince," he shifts from tercets to tetrameter couplets to pentameter quatrains in alternating rhyme and concludes with heroic couplets. Like Keats in "The Eve of St. Agnes," it’s something of a technical display, but what a display, not only forgivable but desirable in a poet of Chad’s formidable skills and developing style.
In much of his most recent work, he demonstrates a maturity of craft and imagination that I believe will eventually prove him to be one of the most accomplished poets of his generation. In "The Last Decade of the Fifteenth Century," when "everything seemed possible because everything would end," he beautifully orchestrates a concise and ironic elegy to waning aesthetic energies and "the inevitable departure of time / from the very hands that created it." And although in the fine sonnet "Cockroaches: Ars Poetica" the language is somewhat more subdued than usual, it serves all the better this witty, terse commentary on creatures whose "hidden grace" is "endless procreation" and serves to subvert notions of life’s brevity and art’s longevity.
It has always seemed to me that the one quality indispensable in a poet beginning to reveal clearly the awesome distances of his full potential is that "astonishment" in the very fact and mystery of being that Heidegger located in Hölderlin, Rilke, and Trakl. Roethke says somewhere in Straw for the Fire that the poet’s first obligation is "to live in a perpetual astonishment," and this is what I now find in the work of Chad Davidson. From the spiritual explorations of "Prayer in Fever," where "sickness is clarity" and the "body / questions why it must consume itself," to one of his most successful poems, "Consolation Miracle," where moonshine "swell[s] in goat bladders" and "the slender / throats of coke bottles," the little miracle of poetry happens in stanza after stanza, announcing the arrival of a poet of abundant gifts and of considerable astonishment.