Friday, August 9, 2013

Happy Birthday Philip Larkin - Born August 9, 1922

I don't have a favorite poet ... I have several favorite poets. Still, if someone asks me who my favorite poet is, I usually say, just for the sake of convenience, "An English guy named Philip Larkin." His poems amaze me; the images he draws, the situations and emotions he depicts, the anythings he chooses to wrap in words, are precise, accurate, and always original.

He had a thirty-years-plus career as a librarian, most notably at Hull University in Yorkshire; his friends wondered why he would wish to go to such a non-hip location. He made the library there one of the best in all of England, a destination.

He wasn't especially nice; he seems to have turned into a grumpy old man at somewhere around the age of sixteen. He was snide. He was arrogant. He was dour. He was a racist. He loved pornography, especially if it involved spanking. He was a misogynist. He had lengthy affairs with three different women -- simultaneously for a good bit of the time, with preciously small regard for their feelings, and, despite each of their wishes, would not promise faithfulness to any one of them. Add, therefore, along with racist and misogynist, that he was a solipsist. 

But, yes, a marvelous poet. Indeed, he was offered the Poet Laureateship in 1984, but, because he had long ceased writing poems, turned it down; he felt it would be a sort of cheating; further, it is believed that he was not feeling well and expected to be dead sooner than later. (It could be said that this was pretty much a life-long stance since he was a hypochondriac.)  If, when the Laureateship was offered, he did really believe that he was not to last much longer, he was, as it turned out, at last correct. He died on December 2, 1985. 

Some twenty years after his death, the Poetry Book Society in England conducted a survey in which members were asked to name the person whom they considered to be the nation's "best-loved" poet. The winner: Philip Larkin. 

(When did I run across Larkin? In the mid-sixties a friend in Michigan, despite a sort of dyslexia that made it almost impossible for him to read easily, got -- through friendship -- a job as a publisher's representative. He didn't last long at the job, but long enough to slip me a few brand-spanking-new hardback books, one of which was Larkin's third volume of poetry, The Whitsun Weddings.)

Of Larkin's lengthy poems, the last, a contemplation on death, was written seven years before his own death:


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. 
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. 
In time the curtain-edges will grow light. 
Till then I see what's really always there: 
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, 
Making all thought impossible but how 
And where and when I shall myself die. 
Arid interrogation: yet the dread 
Of dying, and being dead, 
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. 
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse 
- The good not done, the love not given, time 
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because 
An only life can take so long to climb 
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never; 
But at the total emptiness for ever, 
The sure extinction that we travel to 
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, 
Not to be anywhere, 
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true. 

This is a special way of being afraid 
No trick dispels. Religion used to try, 
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade 
Created to pretend we never die, 
And specious stuff that says No rational being 
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing 
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound, 
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, 
Nothing to love or link with, 
The anasthetic from which none come round. 

And so it stays just on the edge of vision, 
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill 
That slows each impulse down to indecision. 
Most things may never happen: this one will, 
And realisation of it rages out 
In furnace-fear when we are caught without 
People or drink. Courage is no good: 
It means not scaring others. Being brave 
Lets no one off the grave. 
Death is no different whined at than withstood. 

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape. 
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know, 
Have always known, know that we can't escape, 
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go. 
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring 
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring 
Intricate rented world begins to rouse. 
The sky is white as clay, with no sun. 
Work has to be done. 
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Statue of Larkin at Hull University

1 comment:

  1. G...Philip Larkin...oh what a joy to open your blog and see THE statue...This poem 'Trees' I've memorised...I love 'saying' it in my head as I walk along...
    The trees are coming into leaf
    Like something almost being said;
    The recent buds relax and spread,
    Their greenness is a kind of grief.

    and this one I all out adore adore adore (I can say those top two lines over and over...if you say them aloud something wondrous happens..the words fill me to my brim..and overflow!:

    The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
    Spawning snow and pink roses against it
    Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
    World is suddener than we fancy it.

    World is crazier and more of it than we think,
    Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
    A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
    The drunkenness of things being various.

    And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
    Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
    On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
    There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

    Is it that they are born again
    And we grow old? No, they die too,
    Their yearly trick of looking new
    Is written down in rings of grain.

    Yet still the unresting castles thresh
    In fullgrown thickness every May.
    Last year is dead, they seem to say,
    Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.