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Peter Davison, poetry editor for Atlantic Monthly and a poet himself; at 76

Peter Davison, who for almost half a century was a pillar of the Boston literary and publishing world, thanks to his many years as an editor at the Atlantic Monthly Press and Houghton Mifflin, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and his own 11 volumes of verse, died yesterday in his Back Bay apartment of pancreatic cancer. He was 76.

"Peter was an extraordinary link to The Atlantic's and the country's literary history," Cullen Murphy, the magazine's managing editor, said yesterday. "But he was not some antiquarian -- he was a robustly modern man with aggressive appetites, always on the lookout for new things worth saying and new people to say them."

Mr. Davison was the author of three prose works: "Half Remembered," an autobiography; "One of the Dangerous Trades," a collection of essays on poetry; and "The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-60." This last book was as much memoir as history: Frost had been a mentor to Mr. Davison, Lowell a friend, and Plath briefly a lover.

Mr. Davison belonged to no poetic school. His verse was neither confessional nor formalist. He wrote a poetry of reflection: highly intelligent, deeply informed by nature, indwelling yet constantly alert to the external world. "The corner of the eye / Is where my visions lie," he wrote in his poem "Peripheral Vision."

In his poetry, as in his person, there was a worldliness to Mr. Davison, a responsiveness to life's depth. He wrote in his 1984 poem "The Vanishing Point":

Each moment wishes us to move farther on

into a sequence we can follow at most

to vanishing point. We can see no farther,

though time seems to pause and wait for us at times

and measure us and move along again.

As his fellow poet W.S. Merwin wrote in 2002, "Peter Davison, for years, has pondered with clear insight the perspectives of affection, attachment, loss, and memory, his language spare and his tone classical and deceptively quiet."

Mr. Davison didn't publish his first volume until he was 35. That book, "The Breaking of the Day," was winner of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets award. He never entered academe, preferring to earn his living as an editor.

"Relations between the two halves of my life might better be described as wary than strained," Mr. Davison wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class. "Without publishing I could not make a living nor lead an active life; without poetry I could not survive as an inner man. I love them both as some men I suppose can simultaneously cherish a wife and a mistress."

Among the authors Mr. Davison edited were Ward Just, Farley Mowat, William Least Heat-Moon, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and Robert Coles.

Mr. Davison was born on June 27, 1928, in New York. His father, Edward Davison, was a poet and educator. His mother was Natalie (Weiner) Davison.

Mr. Davison grew up in Boulder, Colo.,where his father taught at the University of Colorado. Through his father, Mr. Davison met such literary giants as Frost, Ford Madox Ford, and Robert Penn Warren. His father's connections also earned him appointment as a US Senate page in 1944.

Graduating from Harvard in 1949 -- "When I finished Harvard I knew more than I knew, if less than I thought," he wrote in "Half Remembered" -- Mr. Davison spent a year at Cambridge University on a Fulbright Scholarship.

A friend of Mr. Davison's father got him a job at the New York publishing firm Harcourt, Brace. Publishing, he wrote, "was one of those arranged marriages that turn out happily."

As the firm's most junior editor, Mr. Davison had responsibility for the firm's "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts. Over the course of three years' reading, he found one submission that got published.

Mr. Davison spent the Korean War stateside, much of it in the 2d Loudspeaker and Leaflet Company, devoted to tactical psychological warfare.

In 1955, Mr. Davison became assistant to the director at Harvard University Press. He joined Atlantic Monthly Press a year later. He spent the next 29 years there, 15 of them as director. He joined Houghton Mifflin in 1985.

It was Mr. Davison's editing that directly inspired his writing poetry. Thanks to his father, he'd long been interested in poetry. And soon after moving to Boston he became an active participant in the Poets' Theatre group in Cambridge. But he'd never written poetry. That changed one July weekend in 1957 when Mr. Davison started reading the manuscript of Stanley Kunitz's "Selected Poems," which had been submitted to Atlantic Monthly Press.

Mr. Davison suddenly found himself writing a series of lines that would form his first published poem, "The Winner." "The uncompromising power of Stanley's poetry had broken the ice of my self-suppression," he wrote in "The Fading Smile."

Mr. Davison, who also lived in Gloucester, spent more than three decades as poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also served as Houghton Mifflin's poetry editor during his time there, with Mr. Davison and an assistant winnowing some 50,000 submissions a year down to approximately 50 poems. He prided himself on replying to each writer within three weeks.

"Being an editor of poetry has been the way in which I could give a crucial part of my time to what I love most, which is the furthering of poetry," Mr. Davison said in a 1997 interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Davison's first wife, Jane (Truslow) Davison, died in 1981. He married Joan E. Goody, a partner of the Boston architecture firm Goody Clancy, in 1984.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Davison leaves a son, Angus, of Belmont; a daughter, Lesley, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; a sister, Lesley Perrin, of New York; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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