Saturday, August 9, 2008

Happy Birthday, You Miserable Old Coot

Had he lived, today would be Philip Larkin's 86th birthday.

He died of cancer in 1985, accomplishing the fate he'd been gesturing toward throughout his entire body of work. It's the same fate that awaits all of us, but in Larkin's poetry, death is a constant companion -- a vicious pet dog he feeds and grooms, all the while knowing that it will one day eat him.

In his marvelous Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt wrote of Larkin, "When he is being savage about the poor, the old, the uncultured, we can be sure that by the end of the poem they will have been understood and celebrated, the savagery having been redirected at himself, his attitude, his circumstances." The cynicism and morbid tone that wash through his works are never patronizing; Larkin is in this thing with us.

My first encounter with Larkin was like that of many, I suspect: A boyfriend quoted "This Be the Verse" to me when I was in high school. I now know it by heart, but its pleasures are more suited to recitation in bars. After years of reading Larkin, I've come to see the best example I know of a phenomenon common to great art, what you might call ecstatic masochism. His endings are so perfect they make you shiver with anguish. They snap shut like bear traps, delighting you even as they describe something deeply sad or painful. They force you to enjoy your own suffering; it seems so exactly right.

In "An Arundel Tomb," Larkin describes the tomb of a lordly couple. A sculptor has carved an image of them in the stone, and the image depicts the earl wearing one armored glove. In that armored hand, he holds the other glove, while his bare hand holds that of his wife. Time has passed, the writing on the tomb has faded, but this image of the couple holding hands remains; those visiting now remember that gesture. I've heard the last line of this poem -- "What will survive of us is love" -- quoted in eulogies to comfort the grieving.

It reminds me of '87, when love-addled high school Romeos were calling radio stations to dedicate R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" to their girlfriends. Transfixed by the pounding drums and the title, they managed to miss the line where Stipe describes his love object as "a simple prop to occupy my time."

In the full context of stanza, the line is not a comfort:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

What's fascinating to me (and I think Larkin may have been clever enough to plan on this): The strong declaration and meter of that closing line drives it into memory. Because of that, the way this poem is often recalled and quoted echoes the phenomenon described in it: Just as visitors to the Arundel cemetery remember not the facts of the lives of the earl and countess, but the way they're holding hands, readers don't recall how the whole of the poem builds to undercut and negate that last line. Over time, this poem has become the Arundel tomb.

We don't like to think ourselves as lonely, bitchy, selfish creatures headed for the dirt. Bless Larkin for reminding us -- in a way that somehow always seems comforting.


sam of the ten thousand things said...

Larkins' High Windows is one of my favorite collections. Especially like the poem that closes the work - "The Explosion". The image of the unbroken eggs to end book is such a powerful move.

M. C. Allan said...

I agree, Sam. I was just re-reading that one this morning and wondering if there was a particular mining incident that inspired it.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

The poem grew out of his watching a documentary on mining and his reading the works of DH Lawrence.

Anonymous said...

I first heard Larkin at a Yo Momma contest in Jersey City.

The former champion said to me, "Yo momma so sad, she make P. Larkin sound like a party in my pants."

Needless to say, he was no longer the former champion after that line.

I wandered home, all the way to Cleveland, and ate some potato salad. The high carb kind. This was the beginning of my "fat" years. Larkin... what a jerk.

~Anon 3

Anonymous said...

interesting look at arundel tomb, carrie. people seem to have a need to look to writers for nuggets of wisdom to live by. and, as you point out, they have no reluctance to take lines out of context.
the most famous instance of this i can think of is "to thine own self be true." many readers seem to think this is the advice that shakespeare is imparting to the world. but it comes from the most foolish character in the play, Polonius, who was probably spouting the platitudes of the day.
his speech is full of useless certainties in contrast to Hamlet's brilliant confusion.
we might go on to say that 'to be or not to be' is often glibly translated as 'to act or not to act.' and they are not really the same thing, are they?
-- anon in tp

M. C. Allan said...

Thanks, Sam. Larkin wrote so many of my favorite endings, and it's good to know the source for this one. I wonder if the documentary had the egg image in it.

Anon3: The image of Philip Larkin participating in a "Yo Momma" contest will amuse me for weeks.

Anon in TP: Too true about the Polonious speech. What I've always liked about that bit is the way he tells Laertes to be true to himself directly after plowing through a great many directives about etiquette and social mores instructing him to do the opposite.

Anonymous said...

hi carrie
a moderately interesting interview with plumly on keats today.

Anonymous said...

can we include a video of a chair falling apart as long as it reassembles?

M. C. Allan said...

Stanley Plumly does indeed have an impressive head of hair. I'm struck by its silvery lushness every time I run into him. thanks for passing on the link, Anonnymoose.