personal, beleaguered, despairing centrality.”rnAt other times, he denies thernenterprise was “a deliberate aestheticrnmove,” produced instead by “the naturernof the era.” This may well be, of course.rnIn his opening chapter on “The State ofrnthe Art in Boston, 1955,” and in his second,rnmore introspective chapter calledrnsimply “The Narrator, 1955-93,” Davisonrncompellingly evokes the Cold War tensions,rntenuous material prosperity, andrnnascent urban decay that no doubt providedrnthe psychic background uponrnwhich a restless, affluent generationrncould sketch its own frustrations. (Hisrndescriptions of Boston’s decline are especiallyrnapposite.) Though less than fairrnto certain poets, as we shall see, Davison’srnencompassing image of a “fadingrnsmile” suggests for us a recognizablerncountenance of the time.rnAfter these two overview chapters,rnthe book is arranged into essays on individualrnpoets—not, as the subtitle suggests.rnFrost through Plath but RichardrnWilbur through Robert Lowell. Theserntwo represent for Davison the poles betweenrnwhich the other poets of the erarnsteered. In several places Davison capturesrnsome particular nuance or gesturernof a poet, not just describing accuratelyrnbut indeed rendering the scene in somethingrnof his subject’s manner. We seernand hear Frost in the way he “lovedrnwalking home [after a poetry reading]rnthrough the dark streets, talking his wayrndown from the preceding high, talkingrnhis way back to earth again.” Davison’srndiscussions of Plath and Anne Sextonrnare wiser and more telling than the morose,rneven maudlin biographies that continuernto appear, and the chapter on thernlate L.E. Sissman—perhaps the bestrnsection of the book—may bring somernlong-overdue critical attention to thisrnneglected poet.rnUnfortunately, Davison delivers thesernsatisfactions along with so many irritations,rninfelicities of language, and dubiousrncritical pronouncements that a readerrnmay end up dismissing the entirernmemoir. Just a few pages in, Davisonrnrefers to the “English Louis MacNeice,”rna particularly egregious error to readers ofrnmodern Irish poetry. We read that W.S.rnMerwin “acclimatized” (ugh!) himselfrnto Boston, and that when he and Davisonrnmet he “spoke precisely but withrnconfidence on a variety of subjects.”rn(Why precisely but confidently?) Andrnthere is this dud: “Despite their wit andrningenuity, Sissman’s early poems gaspedrnat the deeper emotions, which otherrnHarvard/Radcliffe poets of the time alsornfound difficult to handle, and which therntutelage of the time, as so many poetsrnyoung in the 1940’s, e.g., Maxinc Kumin,rnAdrienne Rich, and I, would laterrnnote, tended to disparage.”rnSince these poets’ activities overlappedrnso much, by the time we arernhalfway through the book we feel as if wernhave attended the same workshop, poetryrnreading, or Poets’ Theatre productionrna dozen times. Davison has so heailvrndocumented the chronicle that in placesrnit hardly resembles a memoir at all. Onrnthe other hand, it remains too subjectivernto be deemed scholarship. Perhaps thernlargest single flaw in The Fading Smile isrnDavison’s assumption that the “turn” inrnAmerican poetry that occurred duringrnthese years was necessarily a welcomernone. When he says that “American poetryrnin the mid-1950’s had taken a sharprnturn toward the European and was duernfor a correction,” we get the sense thatrnhe is applauding rather than assessingrnthe movement’s eventual impact onrncontemporary American verse. Thus,rnearly in the book and apparently withoutrnirony, Davison remarks that the youngerrnpoets “might not have a great deal tornlearn from Frost’s poems themselves”;rnmeanwhile, we cast a glance at Lowell’srnor Plath’s literary descendants and sighrn”More’s the pity.”rnNo poet Davison covers fares worsernin this respect than RichardrnWilbur, whose verbal brilliance and ]5ersonalrnequanimity Davison finds difficultrnto reconcile with an era that became asrnidentifiable for poets’ breakdowns, abortions,rnand suicides as for their poetic accomplishments.rnIndeed, Davison presentsrnWilbur as little more than a strawrnman for those who would argue in favorrnof raw confessionalism in poetry. Davison’srntone ranges from the softly patronizingrnto the blatantly envious. Evenrnwhen characterizing the Confessionalrnschool in essentially negative terms, hernseems to chide Wilbur for having an alternativernpoetic stance: “Wilburrnshunned the high-profile self-expressionrnto convey… the inner states of other persons,rnother actors, and to avoid both thernprivate and the aesthetic dangers of selfrevelation.”rnOf course, Davison never explains whyrnpoems featuring “other persons, otherrnactors” cannot be expressive of the poet.rn(If not of the poet, then of whom?)rnMoreover, this “avoiding danger” complaintrnmerely borrows from the famousrnput-down of Wilbur’s early work by RandallrnJarrell, whose comparison of Wilburrnto a football running back who “settlesrnfor six or eight yards” indicates only thatrnJarrell understood sports even less thanrnhe did Wilbur.rnOver and over we hear Davison’s resentment:rnWilbur has been “extremelyrnfortunate with fellowships”; his awardsrnand honors have been “lucky for his poetry”rnbecause they have occasionally relievedrnhim from what Davison deems anrnalready “enviable teaching schedule.”rnEven worse, Wilbur has always “lived atrna sanitary distance” from his academicrnwork. (Compare this to Merwin’s “waryrndistance” from classrooms or PhiliprnBooth’s “cautious distance” from Wellesley.)rnWilbur’s great sin in the 1950’s, itrnseems, was his independence from thernkind of workshoppery and poetic commiserationrnthat marked literary Boston.rnWilbur’s work did “not take a sharp turn,rnas Lowell’s and other poets’ did”; he hadrnthe temerity to keep “at arm’s lengthrnfrom the younger poets,” to “protect”rnor “insulate himself from the poetryrnworid.” Wilbur says he found the Poets’rnTheatre—so hallowed in Davison’srnmemory—”amusing but not engrossing”;rnlong before that, at Amherst, hernopted not to take the college’s onlyrncreative writing course. “I never thoughtrnI was missing anything,” Wilbur admits.rnAnd he probably was not.rnIf Wilbur is guilty of not needing hisrnBoston compatriots (Davison included)rnto confirm his talent or revise his drafts,rnthen Davison himself may have—albeitrnunwittingly—hit on the flaw at the corernof our current poetry, so much of whichrnderives from the university writing programsrnthat are the legacy of the poeticrnera Davison memorializes here. Thernproblem, of course, is that such a communityrncannot be manufactured or programmedrn—much less staffed andrntenured. Late 1950’s Boston was a vortexrnof American poetry, as Davison ablyrndemonstrates, one that was important,rnexciting, and frenetic, but also accidentalrnand brief. As Adrienne Rich says of Harvard’srnJohn L. Sweeney toward the end ofrnthis book, “He knew in some way thatrngood poets come from everywhere.”rnDavison knows this, too, just as hernshould know how often the greatest talentsrnwill keep “at arm’s length” (and further)rnfrom what he admits is the “acidicrnturmoil of literary life.” – crnJANUARY 1995/27rnrnrn