The Reaches of Stringency: On Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin is known and admired for his “poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations”—these words are Donald Davie’s—but his best work is often both narrower and more troubling than these terms suggest, as it concerns something like the unpronounceable loss of what we were never going to have, or a complicated refusal of what was not quite on offer. The logic of the wonderful “Poetry of Departures,” for example, suggests that any tale of escape from drab reality will be both overblown and alluring, because “We all hate home/And having to be there.” So why not leave: because the tales are phony? They are, but that is not the real obstacle. No, the tales themselves help us to “stay/Sober and industrious”; more subtly, escape itself is all about home and what’s wrong with it, a reverse framing of what we can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else. “But I’d go today,” the poem ends,
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
“Reprehensibly perfect” is itself perfect, a miming of criticism that is also a form of self-congratulation. So too are those careful, mock-hesitant line breaks at “if” and “a life.” Behind the poem we intuit a Philip Larkin who has just these feelings, or at least wouldn’t disavow them, and another Larkin who is broaching them, performing them, fully aware of the poem’s crisscrossing insights and illusions, watching the man who is so anxious not to be fooled caught in the business of fooling himself.
This is amazing writing, and comparable to what happens in Larkin’s seemingly open celebrations of failure, like the low-key short poem “As Bad as a Mile”:
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
Archie Burnett, in his notes to the new Complete Poems, reminds us of the proverb “A miss is as good as a mile,” and perhaps less helpfully recalls “the forbidden fruit, long supposed to have been an apple,” that caused such trouble in Eden. The interest of the poem lies in the imitation ineptness of the title—in the proverb “as good as” already means “as bad as”—and the self-pitying thought of the speaker, rewinding the film of his missed throw, finding in it all too easy an emblem. But the poem measures the self-pity even as it embraces it. The poise and ease of the rhymes and line divisions, the recurring “and…and” formulation, the art of the whole thing, suggest a triumphant shot into the basket, no sort of failure at all. Is the poem a joke on the speaker then? Certainly, but its attraction lies in the fact that we can’t know what else it is. What if, in your case or my case, the allegory should express a simple, unironical truth? Missing the basket with the apple core is not important, but it’s also not so different from the rest of your (or my) efforts in life—our marriages, say, or our jobs.
Larkin doesn’t always maintain such poise. Sometimes the elegance is no match for the gloom; sometimes the effect of ordinariness is too thoroughly achieved or just not an effect at all. Larkin is a good critic of his work, in spite of a habit of what looks like excessive deprecation (“very thin”; “a bit muddy in the middle”; “pretty thin, in fact pretty bad”). “There is something about each one I like,” he remarks of an early set of poems, “though few I like in entirety.” Of The North Ship (1946), he says, “Some of the poems don’t displease me: others do.”
But the chief effect of reading this new large Complete Poems is of range rather than hits and misses. “You/Contract my heart by looking out of date” is a long way from “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the famous first line of “This Be the Verse”; and there are fine sweeping shifts of tone even within a single poem, as in “Sad Steps,” which opens with “Groping back to bed after a piss” and arrives at “High and preposterous and separate,” and “O wolves of memory!”
In the early poems we can see Larkin looking for himself and finding Yeats (the following three samples are from 1940, 1943–44 and 1945, respectively):
There are moments like music, minutes
Untroubled as notes that hang
Motionless, invisible on air:
What have these years brought
But flakes of life?
The cry I would hear
Is not in the wind,
Is not of birds,
Nor the dry sound
Sadness can strike
Off the fruitful air.
But what of this quite different tone, also found in poems from the same period and a little later (these three samples are from 1942, 1943–44 and 1949, respectively):
So we, convicted by the sundial’s ban
Of the connived-at sin of being born,
Must by this order pack to travel light
Without the map that always comes too late.
I lie and wait for morning, and the birds,
The first steps going down the unswept streets,
Voices of girls with scarves around their heads.
No one gives you a thought, as day by day
You drag your feet, clay-thick with misery…
So year by year your tense unfinished faces
Sink further from the light. No one pretends
To want to help you now.
There is a touch of Auden in the clever off-rhyming couplets of the first example—the whole poem is written in this form—but they are from Larkin’s pre-Yeats days, and the second quotation in this set sounds unmistakably like the Larkin (or one of the Larkins) we know. He himself wrote of the “definite quality, precise,” of the lines: “a life is rapped: it rings.” The third instance, taken from a poem called “Neurotics,” looks toward “The Old Fools” and other poems where Larkin shows not so much compassion for others as anger at its near-universal absence.
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