A Tribute to Eric Davis, April 22, 2023
- "Stentor," by Eric Davis
- Jennifer Borman '81, Head of School
- Catherine Brewster, Faculty
- Michael Sailsman ’06
- Brent Whelan P’01 ’03 ’07, Former Faculty
- Ben Orlin ’05
- Abigail Miller ’01
- Hamish Linklater ’94
- Joe Linitz ’83
- Julian (Foster) Lampert '94
- Bill Wharton P’06, Former Head of School
- Jane Litter Ruoff ’77
- Kate Bluestein P’90, Former Faculty
- Sarah Kolitz ’97
- Polly Chatfield P’71 ’79, Former Faculty
- Ivan Kreilkamp ’86
- Ted Braun, Former Faculty
- "Searsmont, Maine," by Eric Davis
"Stentor," by Eric Davis
My dog is a mousy creature.
His name is Stentor.
Today I have decided to make an end of him.
How to do it is still a problem.
Stentor is low of stature and much resembles
a battered sneaker
whose fellow might have been lost
in a boating accident years ago.
I am ashamed of Stentor.
When we go to the park, I call him loudly and often
so all may hear his ridiculous name.
He does not run forward eagerly.
His hairless tail no longer wags.
He is largely silent.
Stentor is not good at meeting other dogs.
Even at home he is often found under
The kitchen sink like an old Brillo pad.
The smallest things upset him.
A frying onion will cause him to whimper.
Whenever I turn the TV on, he trots away.
Plants wither and die in my little house
thanks to Stentor’s prodigious farting.
In the dead of night
I hear the clicking of Stentor’s claws
as he wends his way from room to room.
Arlene never liked Stentor.
Frank says that Stentor is holding me back.
I caught myself thinking, Perhaps he will wander off.
But Stentor viewed with indifference the door to the street
that was left wide open, as never before.
Nor did a bounding ball in rush-hour traffic
succeed in catching Stentor’s eye.
In a dream, I grappled with Stentor.
His breath scorched my ear.
His strength was crushing.
I could put a plastic bag over his head.
I could rent a pit bull.
I could set a trap at the foot of the stairs.
I could reason with Stentor, but nothing would come of it.
I heard him barking experimentally one day in the upstairs bathroom.
I have never beaten Stentor, though he knows I might.
Note: In Homer’s Iliad, Stentor is a Greek army herald whose voice “is as powerful as fifty voices of other men.”
Jennifer Borman '81, Head of School
On behalf of all of us at Commonwealth as well as Judith Siporin, John, Theo and Sam Davis and their families, it is my pleasure to welcome you all to this tribute. It is such a gift to be among so many of us whose lives were enriched by our time with Eric Davis. Thank you so much for coming, in many cases from a great distance.
I’m Jennifer Borman, Head of School, joined today by two former Commonwealth Heads, Bill Wharton and Judith Keenan. To put Eric’s forty-one-year tenure at Commonwealth in perspective, he worked with five of Commonwealth’s six Heads over the course of his time here.
In addition to serving as Head, I am also a Commonwealth alumna. I arrived here as an enthusiastic and inept ninth grader in 1977 when Eric Davis was beginning his sixth year as a Commonwealth English teacher. It is a testament to his vivid presence and very specific essence that I remember him so crisply after all this time.
Eric remained at Commonwealth until 2013, teaching, advising, composing, cajoling, consoling, and always connecting.
Though Commonwealth—and of course the world—changed in dramatic ways over the course of Eric’s time here, some things have not changed. Then, as now, we delight in words. Then, as now, we take pleasure in each other’s company and attend to each other’s thoughts. And then, as now, our faculty remain the beating heart of Commonwealth.
As we all know, a great English teacher will change your life. Sometimes that’s apparent in the moment, but more often we see and reap those gifts as we move through time. Today, we gather as alumni/ae, colleagues, family and friends to remember and to celebrate Eric’s gifts to us.
Today’s tribute will be moderated by another spectacular English teacher, Catherine Brewster, whom I’m proud to call my colleague. Our program was shaped by Judith’s artful care and with Eric’s three children, all of whom are Commonwealth graduates.
Catherine Brewster, Faculty
(After Jennifer Borman's welcome) Thank you, Jennifer. You met Eric when he was a young teacher, which is what I was when I came to Commonwealth a generation later, in 2000. Now some of my own past students have children of their own. I’m one of many people whose lives have been richer because of Eric. Some of you in the room today don’t know me and many of you don’t know each other, but you knew Mr. Davis. He persuaded you that what you thought about James Joyce or African folktales mattered, and he also believed that playing baseball in the snow at Hancock was good for you. Maybe you remember how he deployed his eyebrows if you took yourself too seriously in class. Maybe you noticed that even though he campaigned against phrases that made what he called “a heavy clunking sound,” at the same time could hear the music in everyday speech.
I've been looking forward to this event for a long time, and eventually I realized that was because I was thinking of it as a chance to see Eric again. We at least have a chance to hear his voice.
Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts and words and for being here this afternoon.
Michael Sailsman ’06
Brent Whelan P’01 ’03 ’07, Former Faculty
Ben Orlin ’05
Abigail Miller ’01
…he taught me how to start writing without knowing, without a nice tidy argument or conclusion, just getting as far as I could…'No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.' I like knowing things, but he made me more comfortable with not knowing things, more open to mystery and beauty and, well, everything.
So here is something I remember: how he would get out of his chair and use his whole body in our class, showing us what it meant to move like a crab when we read Hamlet or to kneel at a well-curb when we read Frost. I bet he could have just explained, but that impish humor got our attention! And I remember the poems and novels and plays we read together in 1999 better than what I did last week or read last night.
Hamish Linklater ’94
Joe Linitz ’83
In 1983, at the bottom of my paper on Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day, Mr. Davis wrote, “This was a pleasure to read.” I hope writing that comment gave him as much pleasure as I felt upon reading it—and have felt when giving my own students the same message in turn, with Mr. Davis’s shining example in mind.
I have saved that handwritten paper, as well as my English 12 exams from forty years ago, because of Mr. Davis’s inspiring comments. Those documents have survived several moves and every attempt I have made to clean up my home office, long after I finally brought myself to throw away my old Commonwealth report cards.
In my final exam, on E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, Mr. Davis gave the same exacting attention to my writing as he taught us to give to a literary text: “This is a first-rate piece of critical writing, one which continually lights up unforeseen angles of vision in the smallest details. It’s a real piece of thinking conducted in the language of the passage—which you speak almost like a native.” Then he wrote: “I learned a lot from it (Thanks!).” At that time, the idea that my teacher would learn from me was a revelation. Now, having taught English for many years, I know that such learning is one of the biggest rewards of teaching. I like to tell my own students I have learned from their work whenever I can, which I find happens more and more often.
His exam comments end with an exhortation: “Don’t let this talent of yours rust in you unused, dear Joe!” I read that comment recently to my sixteen-year-old son Charlie, and he asked whether I had followed Mr. Davis’s advice. I said I sure hoped I had done so.
Mr. Davis’s comments reflect his attentive eye and ear, his gracious and heartfelt guidance, and especially, his excitement about learning from the students he taught so generously and with such dedication.
Julian (Foster) Lampert '94
Bill Wharton P’06, Former Head of School
There is an image in an ancient Upanishad of the human spirit as two birds in the tree of life. One simply watches the proceedings, detached, while the other pecks at the sweet fruit. Eric was like the first, a spectator observing from the sidelines, but he was also like the second one who throws itself fully into the game, savoring its pleasures.
Most every photograph of Eric that has been shared since last summer reminds me of what it felt like to be seen by him or to observe people and places with him. Beneath his bushy brows, through those shining eyes, Eric watched, noticed, and responded to students, colleagues, and events like few others. And because he saw so much, sitting, as it were, on the sidelines, he could—as a writer, teacher, and colleague—be fully in the game.
His ability to observe, simply, patiently, and generously, made him a great teacher. As a candidate for a teaching job in the winter of 1985, I watched him conduct a discussion with seniors of just four lines from Paradise Lost and came away in awe of his skill as a reader both of the text and the students. There was no script or lesson plan against which he measured the course of conversation but only clean, clear attention to the words and to the expression of each particular contribution. He showed throughout a gentle amusement as the students puzzled through the language and offered, tentatively or confidently, their various nuggets.
I understood more of his method when I heard Eric’s account of a freshman class he took at Williams College. He told of learning something simple and profound when a professor projected an image of a bronze horse on the screen and asked the students what they saw. Eric described his bewilderment, accentuated, I suspect, by his sense of being a public school kid among a crowd of prep-school know-it-alls. But then he saw everyone else struggling. Attempts at scholarly inference and hypothesis were proffered and fell flat. Finally someone simply commented on the shape of the tail, others spoke of other details, and the class let go of their conjectures and theories, and just described the thing, simply, as it appeared. He realized what it meant to see the thing and not a theory of the thing.
That gift for seeing just what was there, like the horse’s tail, made him a great advisor and colleague. Eric was endlessly patient, listening for what was unique about each student’s story—paying more attention to the particulars than to any judgment or diagnosis he or others might formulate. He was naturally sympathetic to the student or advisee who did not quite fit in or did not move confidently through their world. He understood and really enjoyed the maverick and misfit—that is, most adolescents—sharing with them a healthy skepticism of individual or institutional pretense.
But he loved Commonwealth, and when I stepped into the Head’s office in 2000, still a junior faculty member with only fifteen years there, I was grateful for his kind support. Eric was glad, I suspect, to have a known and somewhat trusted character in the position, and he made clear on numerous occasions his readiness to stand by me as I learned the role. Quietly, with a nod, a raise of those eyebrows, or, more demonstratively, an approving jab of the index finger, he signaled the moments when I was on the right track. I always felt that his counsel and advice came from the same clear, generous space as his lively gaze. Whenever I found myself with Eric I felt the invitation to look at things a little differently, more openly, and then the school...and the world...became more interesting, delightful places. They became new.
While Eric could be the wise, quiet observer of life, he also relished being on stage, and when he did he often took aim at the established order with zany abandon, sowing chaos. His students saw this at times in class. But most notable—and public—among these topsy-turvy performances were the faculty skits at Hancock, our all-school weekend trips in the country. The skits’ titles signaled their spirit: The Fatal Gazogene (before my time), and, in the later ’80s, a spoof in which James Bond met Hancock plumbing, Octopotty.
In 1989, Eric and I had spent a year collaborating as college advisors, carefully shepherding nervous seniors through a process that, even then, concealed its often arbitrary workings behind a veil of prestige and pretense. That fall we gleefully composed together a new skit, The College Interview, for the Hancock talent show. It was an absurd Freudian nightmare. I played a bespectacled, book-toting nerd named Wilfred Dirt, and he was the admissions officer from hell. He deflected my professions of love for Greek word roots with intimidating inquisition, bullying me into revealing my deepest fears and probing my darkest dreams. Under relentless interrogation, I told him the one about a shark that grabbed my leg (“And what then, Mr. Dirt?). The shark, I cried, turned into mommy, and in the end, I collapsed in a heap, sobbing. He shouted in triumph “You’re in! Take him away, boys!” Amid gales of laughter, two hulking lads came in and dragged me offstage to college, while the twelfth-grade girls in the front row looked fairly stunned. For them the next three days were their days off for college visits and their interviews.
Eric was also fully in the game on the baseball diamond at Hancock. He had a deep and lifelong passion for the sport—watching it, talking about it, and playing. Part of his love, no doubt, was baseball’s alteration of vigorous participation with waiting and watching. While awaiting our turn at the plate on the diamond (or what passed for a diamond in a roughly mown, mogul-filled pasture at the Merrill farm), we enjoyed sharing such observations as the way a student’s or teacher’s character was revealed in their swing or their throw.
Or perhaps he was drawn by the game’s metrical form, the unfolding of high drama within the frame of a diamond and the rhythm of innings. For the games gave us stories, which gained stature in the telling: the way David Hodgkins’s towering blasts came close to hitting the barn (quite a feat), or a new student showed off a slingshot arm, catching someone trying to stretch a single to a double. We savored the simple arc of a fly ball and the loping run of an outfielder on his way to snag it. And then there were the casualties that made their way into Hancock lore: a nose broken by a flying bat, an arm fractured by the collision of student and history teacher at first base, and this Headmaster’s bloody lip and damaged tooth occasioned by a student’s sharp one-hopper to the pitcher’s mouth. At Eric’s discussions of baseball during morning activities—an exercise as much about storytelling as baseball—these tales took their place alongside Carleton Fisk’s game 6 blast in '75, the poetry of Pedro Martinez’s pitching, or Curt Schilling’s bloody sock.
And Eric could play. And playing with him and watching him play was a joy. When he pitched and fielded the motion was graceful, unhurried, fluid, easy, and natural. Eric’s swing was like olive oil—flowing, without hitch, and regularly producing sharp line drives and soaring flies to the gaps.
Eric wrote as he hit, smoothly, with grace and precision. And the two talents often melded: In his brilliant letters of recommendation, a student of especially distinctive talent as a writer or scholar was “major league.” So Tom Stoppard’s connection of writing to the marvel of hitting the ball just right in The Real Thing is especially apt (with a minor adjustment to suit the American game),
A bat is for hitting balls with. If you get it right, the ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout...What we're trying to do is to write bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a knock, it might...travel.
Whether in the field of play or watching from the sidelines—wherever he was—Eric kept his eye on the ball. Eric got so much right, and the turnout here today makes clear that as a teacher, colleague, and friend, he gave words, ideas, and his students and colleagues a little knock, and we all have traveled so much further for having known him.
Jane Litter Ruoff ’77
Eric Davis, “Mr. Davis,” is my hero and was the biggest influence in my young life. I joined Commonwealth as a ninth grader in 1973, the start of Eric’s second year of teaching, but already he personified Commonwealth and was a strong, natural presence in the everyday life of the school. As a self-conscious, awkward fourteen-year-old, I found an adult who got me and joined me in the wonderful, joyful, playful space between reader and book. Eric’s permissive but disciplined style, his openness and lack of pretension, his sheer joy in language, allowed me to join him as an equal in a timeless and ageless literary conversation. What a gift to feel so deeply respected by an adult and to learn that what I have to say matters, to feel encouraged to unleash my own creative power and passions, and to put my voice out there and have a trustworthy adult applaud my efforts. How amazing that this charming, charismatic, and popular teacher actually got a kick out of me! Eric allowed me to feel the exhilaration of holding the reins. Through him, I felt that I could find a home in the world.
I used to think that my choice to become a psychologist was somehow a turning away from the path I trod with Eric, a betrayal of my younger self and my connection with literature and my wonderful teacher. I recently mentioned to Judith that I had received a letter from Eric while I was in college admonishing me, “don’t neglect your gifts,” after I had written him about my psychology classes. Judith expressed surprise and told me that he actually was very much interested in psychology; her response was a reminder to me that my “Mr. Davis” was a very young man in the formative stages of a long career at Commonwealth, new to fatherhood, a recent graduate student—someone who, like me, continued to mature, develop and refine himself over time. His lifelong influence on me is actually derived from just a snippet of time in his own life. It is no surprise to me now that Eric came to an interest in the discipline of psychology. Actually, every day in my work I draw from what I experienced with Eric. Kohut’s “empathic immersion,” so important between therapist and client, is exactly what Eric offered. His fine attunement as a reader—to the text, to the voice, tone, and nuance of the language, phrase by phrase—is a form of deep, empathic listening, and I honed that discipline under his tutelage. Fine readers, teachers, and therapists alike join in that spell that occurs when one transcends oneself and joins a deeper and more universal experience. Eric provided a door to that experience.
Relationships were central to Eric’s teaching: relationship to the text, to the life of the mind and imagination, and relationships with the adolescents he taught. I recently streamed the video of Eric’s retirement speech; he did not talk about literature or even much about the art of teaching. Rather, he recalled with such love and humor the most nuanced interactions with individual students. Eric had a wonderful knack for elevating adolescent tensions, conflicts and questioning to heroic struggles on par with the dilemmas of characters in great works of literature. He celebrated quirks, extended love, and welcomed all to the table.
My everyday memories of Eric in the ’70’s are a flood of fragments—a little green Datsun, a long grey coat, a British pronunciation of “rather.” He loved baseball, hated Joni Mitchell, had beautiful young children, and rode a retro no-speed bike (way ahead of his time). He had a gentle throat-clearing habit, which I can still hear in my mind like he is in the next room. The boys in my class called him “Doc” with great affection. I see him sitting at a table at the foot of the stairs in the front hall with a red chamois shirt, legs crossed, duck boots, welcoming us “kiddos” with a detached fondness. We all borrowed his phrase “hats off” to express our admiration and laud another’s accomplishments.
How can it be that Eric is gone, that I am now thirty years older than my influential young teacher, that my own children are approaching the age he was then? The first poem we read with him in ninth grade was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ "Spring and Fall": “To a Young Child/Margaret are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?....It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.” How could the two of us possibly know then that one day I would be quoting those very lines at his memorial, my own on the way in the glimpse-able future. I want to talk to him or write to him again and know I can count on the response I always receive, no matter how much time has passed. My heart is full of grief for Eric, for his youth and for my own. I remember once telling him I worried about death and he looked very perplexed and said, “Oh, that is a long, long way off.” Well, here we are.
But, true to Eric’s legacy, in my mind and in my heart, the hayloft is piled high and dusty at Hancock, scattered with rumpled sleeping bags, Mr. Merrill’s bell still rings, the four square ball smacks the pavement by the front door while the smokers look on. It is 1973, the
year of the energy crisis; Mr. Davis is in room 2A in his coat and we sit shivering in ours. His sharp ha! of delight cuts through the air at an unexpected insight. Time collapses and I am filled with gratitude for what was, what is, what will be, all alive in the life of the mind, the eye of the imagination, and the loving engagement with the people around us. “Hats off” to you, Eric!
Kate Bluestein P’90, Former Faculty
On a warm spring day in 1976, Eric changed the direction of my life. I was being considered for a job at Commonwealth. I was teaching college then and felt unsure about shifting to secondary school. I visited Commonwealth on the last day of classes for the year and was invited to sit in on an eleventh-grade English class. A tall, lanky guy was leading a discussion of The Great Gatsby. It was in the biology lab, of all places, and the room smelled faintly of chemicals. Eric asked a student to read the novel’s opening passage aloud. Then, silence. Finally, in a quietly conversational way, he asked what it was like to go back to that, after having read the whole novel. A lively and thoughtful discussion ensued, with almost every student taking part, while Eric stood back, like Prospero, offering only an occasional observation or question. I had never seen such a loosely structured class, nor such easy comradery between students and teacher. Eric trusted that the students didn’t need guard rails to have a good discussion. I was hooked. I started teaching at Commonwealth that fall. And I never stopped learning from Eric.
Eric’s way with words was as deft as his way with silence. He relished language. He could turn any writing task, however mundane, into a little drama. As his son Sam wrote, “Even the most onerous, bean-counting tasks became a field for play. When he administered AP exams, he marked off-limits areas of the school with hand-written signs that read 'HALT' in enormous letters, as though he was marking off a World War Two minefield.” On one student’s unfinished in-class writing, he wrote “like a man standing by a dusty fence post in an eternal afternoon, I await your answer to question 4.” His words of highest praise for a piece of writing—whether a student’s essay or a colleague’s recommendation letter—were often culinary: “pithy,” “tasty,” and, my favorite, “toothsome.” He would toss off arresting impromptu remarks. When a trustee commented on the long tenure of many faculty members, Eric commented, “We cling like barnacles.” He was witty but always cordial. One year we shared a small office. After about a month, Eric inquired courteously, “Has anyone ever told you that you sigh a lot?” Had I posed the question, it would have been an exasperated, “Would you stop sighing?”
Eric’s talk was unpretentious. At the opening faculty meeting each year, Charles Merrill had a bone-chilling tradition of going around the long table, calling on each teacher to talk about what they had done with their summer. Year after year, this exercise struck terror in most of us. We would usually describe a scholarly or artistic endeavor, trying not to sound shallow or lazy. Eric had no such worry. He would describe a simple experience, like picking blackberries with Judith in Maine, and perform a dazzling verbal ballet with it. We became lost in a tangle of thorny branches, heard the thud of berries dropping into the pail, and savored the tang of the sun-warmed fruit. We FELT Eric’s summer.
At faculty meetings later in the years, I was moved by how Eric’s words, and his generous spirit, often accomplished a different and more significant influence on his listeners. After hearing his frustrated colleagues debate asking an unresponsive, disengaged student to withdraw from the school, Eric would remind them that they did not, in fact, know everything there was to know about this student. We had no idea what might be going on in this kid’s life. He would sometimes cite a redeeming quality, and he would argue for giving the girl or boy a second chance. He spoke up for tolerance and patience, and usually won the day.
On a comic note, Eric’s verbal inventiveness led to the infamous Hancock game called “Gab.” Eric would devise a list of absurd topics, like “The Robin from Hell,” or “Let’s Abolish Stress Management,” or “Look, Ma! No Hands!” and write them on individual slips of paper. Then he would wander around the grounds, beating loudly on a battered metal pitcher and shouting, “Time for Gab!” Students and teachers would gather around a former concrete swimming pool, long since drained. Each brave participant in turn would pull a slip of paper from the pitcher, read and think about it for a few seconds, then speak nonstop for two minutes on the topic. Eric’s absurd prompts would elicit voices nothing like the student’s own, but instead wild streams of association, punctuated by Samuel Beckett-like bemused restatements of the prompt (to buy time) and a sort of desperate flamboyance.
I often turned to Eric as kind of a kid-expert. Once I was grousing to him about the students’ everlasting preoccupation with rock music, and in particular their fierce allegiance to one band and deep antipathy to another. Eric looked at me with amusement. “You don’t get it,” he said. “The distinctions and differences between one performer or band and another are as important to these guys as theological distinctions were to Christian sects in the Middle Ages. They define a kid’s identify.” He had a deep and lasting influence on his students and kept in touch with them long after they graduated. Judith says he kept their letters in neat files, one for each correspondent, in a cabinet in his study.
Before we each came to Commonwealth, Eric and I had studied with Reuben Brower and Anne Ferry, editors of the anthology many of you will remember, called Beginning with Poems. So, we had a shared background after all. As we started working together, Eric became a dear friend. We raised our children in tandem. His daughter Theo (whom he called Rosie) and my daughter Jen were the same age (in fact, we discovered that they were born two weeks apart at the same hospital). Along with John, Theo’s older brother, they were grubby little faculty brats at the original, grubby Hancock. Once, when Jen was in about the fifth grade, Eric and Judith surprised her with the present of a first edition of Lytton Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria which they had come across in a used bookstore. (They knew Jen was obsessed with Queen Victoria.) It was inscribed, “For the perusal and delectation of Jenny Bluestein, from a literary gentleman of her acquaintance.” Eventually, I taught both John and Theo, and Eric taught Jen. (I never got the chance to teach Sam.) It could have been awkward, but it somehow wasn’t. I was at Judith and Eric’s wedding, and they were at Jen’s. I will never forget the comforting sight of Judith and Eric at my father’s funeral.
In a poem of Eric’s called “2012: A Memorial Service in Concord Massachusetts,” the speaker describes unexpectedly encountering an old friend, with vaguely romantic associations, whom he suddenly realizes is ill with cancer. He feels, “it seemed a rare gift to have such a friend.”
Dear Eric, it feels a rare gift to have had you as a friend.
Sarah Kolitz ’97
Mr. Davis cared about us, his students, in a way that was never narrow, not restricted to the page or the confines of a class. When in my time at Commonwealth I spoke with him about my struggles, he treated them as just as important, whether or not they had anything to do with my studies. He cared about the selves we brought to class each day, that we spoke from when we talked about novels or poems or African folk tales. That seemed what mattered to him: our entire selves and the endeavor of equipping us with tools to draw richness from the world.
It is only fitting that the effects of his teaching should be so wide ranging and lifelong for those of us who learned from him.
I was lucky to be in Mr. Davis’ English class twice and to take Intellectual History with him. What I learned in those classes helped to form my view of the world. I remember learning about those thinkers, like Coleridge, seeking the unifying of many into one—and being surprised by the familiarity of the enterprise, that we were doing the same.
I learned from him it’s okay to be ornery sometimes…and he showed us that even the irritation of the moment could be transformed into a marvelous verbal invention—like that poem containing his ire over the magnolia tree that was downed by the wind in the spring one year. His teaching style was full of the unexpected. Suddenly he might say. “Satan is biting my neck!” That kept the classroom so very alive. I learned what fun it is to Talk! about a poem or a story or what Keats has to say or what a fellow human being has on their mind. I saw that when I was able to approach all of this with an openness and generosity of spirit, I’d find connections. Between ideas or people, between myself and the world around. His classes made me see the world differently.
A word from him always set the right priority. “…try not to be either too elated or too cast down,” he told me as I nervously awaited the results of my college transfer applications—“institutions of higher learning…at best…are conveniences for chancing to meet two or three or four truly kindred souls….” Also, those pages of advice he wrote for going on to college, that I believe are shared on the website, I am saving to give to my children when they reach that age in a decade and a half, because I have never heard better advice, for college or for life.
After my time at Commonwealth, we stayed connected. We would meet up at the Biscuit in Somerville, where we would sit out back with our baked goods and talk about poems and life events, and the little hopeful hopping birds all around would steal our crumbs. I spoke with him about challenges in my life and my hopes for the next phase (some of which have been realized, with my delightful offspring who you may or may not see over here)—he told me how much fun it was raising kids; he recommended it. Now with my five-year-old and one-year-old, I understand how true that is. It was always so clear how proud he was of his own kids.
I learned from his poems. He produced chapbooks, which I was thrilled to receive in the mail here and there. There are lines of his that I think of as I encounter long-standing challenges in my life (for instance: “and so it was that the idea of ever coming to any kind of conclusion at all was lost in the granularity of lesser affairs”). He had a way of phrasing things that stays in my mind, even after many years (as I discovered in writing this, when I couldn’t find some of his notes but realized I had them firmly in memory).
I learned that I could write down my own poems, arrange them onto the page even, shockingly, possibly share them—at least put them into the world. It had not occurred to me at all to try that—and even if it had I don’t think I‘d have dared—without his encouragement and his example. And so it is that he helped me maintain a thread in my life from which I have drawn so much delight and satisfaction, that has grown and stayed with me over the last twenty-six years. It turned out to be important to me, and he knew to encourage me.
By believing in us, he enabled so many of us to see our talents and trust our voices.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I wrote to Mr. Davis, or spoke with him at length, or sent him a poem I wanted him to read, I felt like I was engaging with life, with the real thing, in a way that I in doing most things was not. That I had rightly in my sights the stuff of life—that here was something that mattered.
As you can see here—if you take my experience, Mr. Davis’ effect on my life, and multiply that out by all of us, and all the students and colleagues he had in life and in his many years at Commonwealth—well then, if you look at all of us, at our community—here he is forever.
As I navigate challenges in my life, I hear him: keep moving, just keep moving. I remember the ways he encouraged us to engage, to make like a dog and bark, to see how fun it is to Talk!—to engage with literature and with each other with curiosity and openness and compassion.
I thought it would be nice to hear his voice—from a letter he wrote, on May Day 1999:
It’s a lovely day—Saturday morn. The roar of lives inaudible in this quiet room. The only riot is of white and pink in the blossoming cherry-tree out there; this must be the bomb-burst, the pandemonium—silent, white, myriad, bursting—in the mind of God, which mind I take to be this existence of which we are such tiny and aspiring pinprick-parts.
Let you find some sort of maypole around which to dance today, and let me do the same, and if the others wish to dance we will let them, no?
Yours in green and white, MISTER Davis.
Thank you, Eric, for everything—and thank you all for joining together in this.
Polly Chatfield P’71 ’79, Former Faculty
Eric was sui generis. When he retired, I wrote a piece about him for CM, incorporating many of the wonderful tributes sent in by his former students and colleagues. It began with a quotation from Hopkins’s sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire”:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying what I do is me, for that I came.
Eric was quintessentially himself, a blessing to his colleagues and his students. To know who you are and not have little corners of yourself to hide from others is an enormous gift, one that makes you easy to be with and open to the needs of any who come to you. It is a gift that often comes through pain, but having come, it makes you a gift to others. To me Eric embodied the giving of gifts—joy, deep thought, seriousness, wild hilarity, immense sympathy. His wide-ranging empathy made him open to all kinds of different ways of being, all kinds of different ways of telling a story. It made him find beautiful little things and pass them on—as he did to me once, in a little aside, “Did I know the Hopkins poem “Moonrise”? “Moonrise”? I did not; how had I missed it in a corpus I loved so much, among all those glorious and despairing sonnets? Well, it was in an appendix, among Fragments and Unfinished Verses.
It has been precious to me ever since, And I can think of no better way of honoring Eric than to pass it on as a gift to all of you here gathered in his memory. Close your eyes—go into the dark of your imagination.
Moonrise, June 15, 1879
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white
and walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-
nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning, but
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of
dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled
him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought,
presented so easily,
Parted me leaf from leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid
Ivan Kreilkamp ’86
First of all, I want to say how honored I am to have been asked to speak. I know that I and the other speakers are representing the many, many hundreds of former students and advisees of Mr. Davis’s to whom he meant so much. So I’m really humbled by the honor of being here now.
I’m going to begin with what will probably seem like a strange digression, so bear with me for a minute.
ChatGPT, the artificial-intelligence chatbot, launched this past November, and by January, it had 100 million monthly active users. It can, according to Wikipedia, write and debug computer programs; compose music, fairy tales, and student essays; answer test questions; simulate an entire chat room; and write poetry and song lyrics.
A recent essay in The Atlantic warned that, “Our relationship to the written word is fundamentally changing.” ChatGPT and other similar AI apps “have brought something like auto-complete to the entirety of the Internet. It is easy now to imagine a setup wherein machines could prompt other machines to put out text ad infinitum, flooding the Internet with synthetic text devoid of human agency or intent: gray goo, but for the written word….We may quickly find ourselves facing a textpocalypse, where machine-written language becomes the norm and human-written prose the exception.”
Okay, to return to the topic at hand. We lost Eric Davis in July 2022; ChatGPT was born a few months later. Coincidence? Surely, yes, but here’s my claim: if one wanted to think of the closest thing to the absolute and total opposite of ChatGPT, and its churn of machine-written, automatic, unoriginal language, one could do worse than to suggest…Eric Davis.
To me, and I suspect to most of his students, Mr Davis embodied a set of values—regarding language and the written word, but also life and experience more broadly—antithetical to everything represented by ChatGPT’s grey goo of inhuman “synthetic text.”
In 2011, Eric offered this advice about college in a letter to graduating seniors: “Talk! Argue with the teacher, with other kids—make them argue back. Ask questions. Provoke. Make friends with kids who sound interesting. If you don't like what's happening, make something else happen instead.”
Eric was both a student and a master of language in its most human and humane forms. Language as intelligence; as communication; as insight; as wisdom; as comfort and reassurance; as argument; as creativity; as wit and irony and surprise and provocation.
And sometimes language just as sound, or even as noise, or nonsense. This is from a collection of “Eric Davis quotes of the week:” Mr. Davis, after the students in his class were apologetic about making their points: “Does a dog apologize before making noise? No, it barks. Think like a dog and bark.”
One of the proudest accomplishments of my youth was winning the Hancock Gab contest as a dark-horse freshman contestant in the fall of 1982. I still remember that my prompt phrases were “where angels fear to tread” and “sticky wickets,” and I strongly suspect that Mr. Davis may have put both of those into the hat. This is from a handwritten list of Mr. Davis Gab topics I found on the school’s website: “Overcome your fear of snails”; “Look, ma! No hands!” “Five Steps to Better Lounging”; “My oak tree complex”; “the Rise of Barking”; “Flying Blind.”
Trained by Eric and Judith as a close reader, I see a lot to dig into here: a dialectic of anxiety or fear, on the one hand, and of exhilarating freedom, on the other. Eric taught us that to use language is, in a sense, always to be flying blind. And that while we need to learn from others—that’s why we are students—we also must learn to move beyond simply following instructions or prompts, if we hope to take possession of our own complex language—of what we might really want to say. Look, Ma! No hands.
Eric, who was a teacher and a scholar of Shakespeare and James Joyce and Wole Soyinka, of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, taught us that language is powerful; it makes things happen—often very unexpected things. It embodies human agency, even as it always communicates things not anticipated or intended by its speakers. It conveys meaning, but also emotion, which might be in tension with one another, and it doesn’t simply convey things; it also acts in the world. It is performative. It can startle and amaze. It can be beautiful and also ugly. Above all, it is human.
A class with Mr. Davis was an exhilarating encounter with language and ideas as living things, as slippery, multifarious, shape-shifting. He took us seriously as intellectuals and users of language, and he helped us grapple with literature and philosophy as powerful tools for understanding and making sense, and nonsense, of the world.
In preparation for today, I went back through some high school-era diaries—something I don’t necessarily recommend. I found this from February 1985: “We had a funny Intellectual History class. We’re reading Freud’s “The Wolf Man” and were discussing that…and there was that odd exhilaration that comes with talking about things which usually aren’t discussed. Like when Nick said, ‘Well, all that’s really horrible! I mean, it doesn’t make me too psyched about sex and everything.’ But Mr Davis said, “Oh, it’ll be fine. Things work themselves out. That force is powerful.”
Another piece of Mr Davis advice from that 2011 letter to graduates: “KEEP YOUR BULLSHIT METER IN GOOD WORKING ORDER. In the next few years, you'll be urged again and again to identify yourself with various ideologies, attitudes, fashions, careers. Be this, join us, talk this way, scorn those other jerks. When you hear this kind of thing, think twice. Find a slot and fit into it if it really fits you, but remember that you also carry within you the power to desire, to imagine, to breathe life into things you create yourself. It's not just artists that invent things, you know. Ideas, armies, families, conversations, sea-coast towns, all need a creative energy flowing into them if they are to fully exist.”
Wow. Eric was himself an accomplished poet, of course. But part of what’s so wonderful about his point here is that he’s saying that you don’t actually have to be a poet, or to write poetry, to tap into the powers of human creativity that flow through language. Just by talking and thinking, and bringing both curiosity and skepticism to experience, and to other people and their language and self-expressions, you can turn any life into something like poetry. It's not just artists that invent things.
One final piece of Mr Davis advice to the graduating seniors: “FIND GREAT TEACHERS. They will be stars you come to steer by. Great teachers have something distinct to impart, and therefore may be thorny or enigmatic. Don't ask to be made comfortable, ask to be taught.”
Thank you, Mr. Davis, for giving us a star to steer by, for both comforting and discomforting us, and for teaching us.
Ted Braun, Former Faculty
For two years in the early '80s, right after I got out of college, I was a Dodge Fellow in English here at Commonwealth. I’d come to the school to teach and learn to teach, and I got to know Eric quite well, in the classroom and out. We became good friends. After I left Boston, we stayed in touch. At Christmas, instead of a card, he’d often send along a poem he’d written.
And after he retired, collections of them. I became a devoted reader, eager to talk with him about what I’d noticed and why I was so moved by his words. He was a good listener. Conversations with Eric were notable for the quiet spaces in which he allowed you to roam. But the poems themselves are chockablock full—crowded with observations about the fabric of daily life, evocative of the great range of language and poetry he’d read, loved, and absorbed, and especially alert to surprise. Again and again, the most memorable part of one of his poem’s hinges on an unexpected metaphor or some utterly unpredictable occurrence.
Even though the action of Eric’s poems often unfolds in seemingly ordinary domestic settings, I find they course across a great plain of human experience. You see it in the black comedy of Stentor’s owner plotting his dog’s demise or, in the poem I’m about to read, the otherworldly disruption of a couple’s idyllic vacation on a lake in Maine. His poems manage to be both little and big all at once. Whether in a short quatrain or a long narrative poem he evokes the playful, earthy, loving, heady, bawdy, and disorienting, almost surreal dimensions of life. It’s that last—the sense of being shaken loose from the familiar into someplace strange that makes them
special to me. When Eric and I talked about this quality of his work he was pleased to find that I’d responded to it, as though it was indeed something he’d been after.
The power of the unexpected is to get us to experience life anew. To fire untapped neural pathways, to see with fresh eyes. And our capacity to surprise one another is, I think, one of the defining and most cherished parts of our shared humanity. It’s awful to know Eric’s not here anymore. That I won’t ever have a chance to read a new poem or talk with him again. But I pick up a book of his poetry and his spirit is there, concentrated and strong. And, with a jolt of gentle surprise, he gets me to behold the world anew. Leaving me unsettled, but freshly alive to what’s right before my eyes, and to the possibility of what’s yet to come.
"Searsmont, Maine," by Eric Davis
A summer cabin
the two of us reading quietly in the lamplight.
When we raise our eyes
the dark of the pond is there as it always is.
It asks for nothing
our minds sink away again.
This is what we came for.
Later, one of us lingers to turn out the lights.
Beyond our windows the darkness has changed.
The pond itself has disappeared and instead
a huge black shape has moved in upon us
—our windows recede, they count for nothing
our weatherworn dock is entirely gone...
nor is this all, for tonight without warning
without a word or a breath of air The Big Dipper
has come down to earth,
the whole of it, hanging low
to the long black mass of the mountain
its white lights enormous out there in the dark.
In the bushes around the house other stars
are moving fitfully, the way fireflies move
but these too have lost all sense of proportion,
they fill our windows with flashes and dashes
with loops and peels.
Not a sound is made.
Do they know we are here
do they even notice
The silence feels like a mockery.
Across the pond in the first light of dawn
two loons drift quietly toward one another
as they are about to meet one turns aside
the other drifts past it
as if out of nowhere a third one appears.
Visit Commonwealth's Flickr page to view the full photo album of the event and reception.