So/To pile them back, to cry/Was hard, without lamely admitting how/It had not done so then, and could not now.
I've thought about this Larkin poem a bit lately, as friends and loved ones struggle in relationships. The first time I heard it, those last lines went through me. They felt like a slap in the face.
I was a freshman in college, more romantic and idealistic and judgmental than I realized, convinced that reason and love could save the world--though even then, I would never have been so Pollyanna as to articulate this belief. I was taking a lit survey class called "Love in the Ruins," my election of which now makes me think of this classic moment.
So, OK, maybe I was asking for it, taking a class that should have been titled "Why Love Sucks, or Will Eventually Begin to Suck No Matter What You Do, Because the World Sucks and the World is, Unfortunately, Where We Stupidly Love Each Other." (Texts, for the curious, included Graham Swift's Waterland, Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, the Walker Percy novel the class was named for, and a collage of other gems virtually guaranteed to have romantics reaching for the Prozac and/or hemlock.)
But I digress. The first day of class, the professor entered without much ceremony and read the poem below out loud, breaking my heart and turning me into a lifelong Larkin fan.
Love Songs in Age
She kept her songs, they took so little space,
XXThe covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
XXAnd coloured, by her daughter --
So they had waited, till, in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood
Relearning how each frank submissive chord
XXHad ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
XXThat hidden freshness sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,
The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
XXBroke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
XXTo pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.
For me, no one captures poetry's frequent paradox of pleasure in pain like Larkin.
This sounds vaguely masochistic, but I think it may be closer to schadenfreude -- an emotion I usually think of as a negative, gleeful "Yay, someone is suffering!" sort of thing.
Not so here. There's no gleeful, Dr. Evil-esque chortling over someone's anguish. But poetry regularly asks the reader to take pleasure in the description of someone else's pain.
I'm talking about how occasionally a poem is so beautiful, so truthful, that it is painful--or how it may depict something painful in a way so clear-eyed, unsentimental, and elegant that it is beautiful.
It is, I think, what Bruce Weigl is talking about in the last lines of his brutal poem "The Impossible": Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.
It is a kind of empathy, a moment when you recognize your own thoughts in the words of a stranger ... which is where the pleasure comes from. Because even if the identification is painful, identification always carries a kind of pleasure, a recognition, a sense of feeling less alone.
Encountering such a poem can feel as though a stranger somewhere in time has somehow located a small, wounded piece of your heart, and had the courtesy to return it to you.
Love: "still promising to solve, and satisfy, and set unchangeably in order." Likely it will do none of these things, Larkin seems to say here--and yet because I recognize things I have thought here, I find this heartbreaker strangely, oddly comforting.