Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Garden of the Greats: Philip Larken

            Autumn once more. I walk in the marshes, thinking of Philip Larkin. A superbly intense poetic practice that wrings a multi-leveled precision from every line, every word. A life's work of dense, virtuosic, deeply thought out, brief lyrics. A laser technique applied within an intentionally narrow range.
            His dates are 1922 to 1985, but don't look to his poems to find out what Larkin thought of World War II. Or the Cold War. On the evidence of his poems Philip Larkin did not think about the Cold War. Or about his exemption from military service in the early forties (poor vision) when the mere continued existence of his country was in doubt. If it ever bothered him, he didn't write about it.
            His topics were the universals, or a particular set of them. According to biographer Jame Booth -- "Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love" (2014) -- he chose an artistic path while still a young: to live the common life and "write out of his own life." Not as a novelist, recreating a time and a place, telling an engaging story, but as a scientist of the heart, examining the heart and the psyche's deepest emotions. "The novel is about other people," Larkin wrote in a letter. "Poetry is about yourself."
            A poem is an emotion, he replied once when asked to provide his own definition,presented in as compact and compelling a way as can be done.
            I love this definition, though I know my own approach to poetry is nothing like it and I could not approach Larkin's standard if I tried. I'm not a perfectionist. I think Larkin was.
            Just as interesting is Booth's big-picture summary of his poetic career. Larkin had two major subjects, Booth writes, that divide his career neatly between younger and older periods. The younger Larkin's subject was marriage: why, that is, this well-worn two-by-two passage through adulthood remained for him the path not taken. He liked women; he wanted sex. He either chose for the reasons best expressed in some of his own 'younger' period poems to stay apart from the ordinary condition of breeding adults; or was simply incapable of entering it.
            I am inclined to think that Larkin concluded that only the more radical solitude of the unmarried state would enable him, or maybe force him, to write his best, most deeply felt work. (Though he never exalted the 'exceptional' state of the artist the way some of the aesthetes or a significant poet like Rilke, say, did.) The other explanation is that he suffered from some sense of a disqualifying, exiling wound. This is the poet, after all, famous for writing "They fuck you, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do."
            As Booth's book shows, Larkin was particularly loyal to both his parents. The care and attention he showed his widowed mother through frequent visits and an endless string of chatty, attentive letters puts most other sons to shame, especially since being with Mum appears to have been more obligation than pleasure. It was an obligation he paid with good grace. His relationship to his father, a prince in the realm of accountants, not poets (and an admirer of Hitler), involved an eccentric sense of duplication. Larkin told people that he would die in his sixty-third year, because his father had.
            And then, astonishingly, he did die in the same year; and of the same disease.
            Hence, the single, obsessive theme of the second half of Larkin's poetic career: death. English poetry, it sometimes seems to me, is all about time. However good things are, we can't escape the final sorrow of our condition. However poorly things may be going, we always know they will end. 
            It's not a rationalist turn of mind to see life this way, at least in Larkin's case. It's a deeply emotional one. He's outraged that death is always in the rear-view mirror.
            The "early" poems included by editor Anthony Thwaite in "Philip Larkin: Collected Poems" exude a certain formal feeling, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson, the betrayal of a young man with an anxious mind being hard on himself. In these poems he's a face in a crowd, but not part of it. He's the recording angel, or perhaps the surgeon, exposing its inner workings, the hard logic of human life.
            Later, when he comes into his own suffering, the distance from the crowd is not a pose, and his voice is wholly convincing, often indulging in a black humor funnier than Beckett.
            No bohemian, never a radical, rebel or outwardly nonconformist, Larkin seeks a profession after graduation and plays the game of life by the ordinary rules. A librarian, he rises in the profession, becomes the boss. He likes "the old England" in a time of change, but is forced to be part of the changes, overseeing the construction of a new library for a growing University in a backward province, Hull, famously described as "on the road to nowhere in particular." He liked it, Booth writes, for that reason.
            But he refuses the essential conventional commitment, marriage, and the daily invovlement with another human being it entals. He sought sex, but sex was difficult because it tended to draw you into intimacy, and then into commitment, and commitment drew you to marriage. A lifelong bachelor, he liked pornography. He was a hit with his friends' wives. He was a different 'Philip' to everyone who knew him, complaining about one friend to another.
            Courteous, respectful, hard-working, a good boss, middle-class. He rode his bicycle and visited old churches long after everyone else drove a car. When, after a biking accident, he learned how to drive, the loss of this form of regular exercise may have cost him his only way of keeping healthy. He liked to drink.
            On certain subjects, the subjects he put his stamp on -- the inevitability of disappointment, for example: nothing ever really lives up to our hopes and expectations, does it? -- it's hard for me to believe that anyone has ever written anything as good.
For instance, "Next, Please":

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothng balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
            When still not thirty, he wrote the poem above and some others that define the existential questions of the human conditon, as Larkin saw it. On the necessity of 'forsaking all others' in the married state, he wrote the scathingly ironical (and hypothetical) "To My Wife," summing up in 14 matchless lines how a universe of choice sinks to a singularity. An excerpt:

Matchless Potential! but unlimited
Only so long as I elected nothing...
No future now. I and you now, alone.

So for your face I have exchanged all faces...
Now you become my boredom and my failure,
Another way of suffering...

            Larkin's personal solution, as he said himself, was no solution at all. A boredom of solitude rather than with 'my wife'; alcohol, pornography, and a complex of relationships enduring long enough (and sometimes overlapping) that it's hard to call them affairs. Relationships, as we would say today.
            And he did produce the poems.
            The age-old, widely shared dissatisfaction with our human inability to appreciate the present (until it's past) shows up again in his rigorously honest poems. In "The March Past," a sudden, brief procession of music and flags takes the spectator out of himself, but when, as the poem says, the "music drooped" all that remained was

... a blind
Astonishing remorse for things now eneded
That of themselves were rich and splendid
(But unsupported broke, and were not mended)...

            And then, the final recourse, the choice of his life's true path, he addresses in "Best Society."
... Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

            And what he is, at base, despite all the poems and all the days, and all the choices and all the regrets, is a being always looking over his shoulder for the approach of that "black-sailed" ship "towing at her back/ A huge and birdless silence."