Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Somewhere becoming rain |
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Somewhere becoming rain

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin, edited by Anthony Thwaite, Faber

At first glance, the publication in the United States of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems looks like a long shot. While he lived, Larkin never crossed the Atlantic. Unlike some other British poets, he was genuinely indifferent to his American reputation. His bailiwick was England. Larkin was so English that he didn’t even care much about Britain, and he rarely mentioned it. Even within England, he travelled little. He spent most of his adult life at the University of Hull, as its chief librarian. A trip to London was an event. When he was there, he resolutely declined to promote his reputation. He guarded it but would permit no hype.

Though Larkin’s diffidence was partly a pose, his reticence was authentic. At no point did he announce that he had built a better mousetrap. The world had to prove it by beating a path to his door. The process took time, but was inexorable, and by now, only three years after his death, at the age of sixty-three, it has reached a kind of apotheosis. On the British best-seller lists, Larkin’s Collected Poems was up there for months at a stretch, along with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In Larkin’s case, this extraordinary level of attention was reached without either general relativity’s having to be reconciled with quantum mechanics or the Ayatollah Khomeini’s being required to pronounce anathema. The evidence suggests that Larkin’s poetry, from a standing start, gets to everyone capable of being got to. One’s tender concern that it should survive the perilous journey across the sea is therefore perhaps misplaced. A mission like this might have no more need of a fighter escort than pollen on the wind.

The size of the volume is misleading. Its meticulous editor, Anthony Thwaite — himself a poet of high reputation — has included poems that Larkin finished but did not publish, and poems that he did not even finish. Though tactfully carried out, this editorial inclusiveness is not beyond cavil. What was elliptically concentrated has become more fully understandable, but whether Larkin benefits from being more fully understood is a poser. Eugenio Montale, in many ways a comparable figure, was, it might be recalled, properly afraid of what he called ‘too much light’.

During his lifetime, Larkin published only three mature collections of verse, and they were all as thin as blades. The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974) combined to a thickness barely half that of the Collected Poems. Larkin also published, in 1966, a new edition of his early, immature collection, The North Ship, which had first come out in 1945. He took care, by supplying the reissue with a deprecatory introduction, to keep it clearly separate from the poems that he regarded as being written in his own voice.

The voice was unmistakable. It made misery beautiful. One of Larkin’s few even halfway carefree poems is ‘For Sydney Bechet’, from The Whitsun Weddings. Yet the impact that Larkin said Bechet made on him was exactly the impact that Larkin made on readers coming to him for the first time:

On me your voice falls as they say love should, Like an enormous yes.

What made the paradox delicious was the scrupulousness of its expression. There could be no doubt that Larkin’s outlook on life added up to an enormous no, but pessimism had been given a saving grace. Larkin described an England changing in ways he didn’t like. He described himself ageing in ways he didn’t like. The Empire had shrunk to a few islands, his personal history to a set of missed opportunities. Yet his desperate position, which ought logically to have been a licence for incoherence, was expressed with such linguistic fastidiousness on the one hand, and such lyrical enchantment on the other, that the question arose of whether he had not at least partly cultivated that view in order to get those results. Larkin once told an interviewer, ‘Deprivation for me is what daffodils were for Wordsworth.’

In the three essential volumes, the balanced triad of Larkin’s achievement, all the poems are poised vibrantly in the force field of tension between his profound personal hopelessness and the assured command of their carrying out. Perfectly designed, tightly integrated, making the feeling of falling apart fit together, they release, from their compressed but always strictly parsable syntax, sudden phrases of ravishing beauty, as the river in Dante’s Paradise suggests by giving off sparks that light is what it is made of.

These irresistible fragments are everyone’s way into Larkin’s work. They are the first satisfaction his poetry offers. There are other and deeper satisfactions, but it was his quotability that gave Larkin the biggest cultural impact on the British reading public since Auden — and over a greater social range. Lines by Larkin are the common property of everyone in Britain who reads seriously at all — a state of affairs which has not obtained since the time of Tennyson. Phrases, whole lines, and sometimes whole stanzas can be heard at the dinner-table.

There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps...

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...

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains...

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain...

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling...

Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand, and further off
A white steamer stuck in the afternoon...

Later, the square is empty: a big sky
Drains down the estuary like the bed
Of a gold river...

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see...

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Drawn in by the subtle gravity beam of such bewitchment, the reader becomes involved for the rest of his life in Larkin’s doomed but unfailingly dignified struggle to reconcile the golden light in the high windows with the endlessness it comes from. Larkin’s sense of inadequacy, his fear of death are in every poem. His poems could not be more personal. But, equally, they could not be more universal. Seeing the world as the hungry and thirsty see food and drink, he describes it for the benefit of those who are at home in it, their senses dulled by satiation. The reader asks: How can a man who feels like this bear to live at all?

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.

But the reader gets an answer: There are duties that annul nihilism, satisfactions beyond dissatisfaction, and, above all, the miracle of continuity. Larkin’s own question about what life is worth if we have to lose it he answers with the contrary question, about what life would amount to if it didn’t go on without us. Awkward at the seaside, ordinary people know better in their bones than the poet among his books:

The white steamer has gone. Like breathed-on glass
The sunlight has turned milky. If the worst
Of flawless weather is our falling short,
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

Just as Larkin’s resolutely prosaic organization of a poem is its passport to the poetic, so his insight into himself is his window on the world. He is the least solipsistic of artists. Unfortunately, this fact has now become less clear. Too much light has been shed. Of the poems previously unpublished in book form, a few are among his greatest achievements, many more one would not now want to be without, and all are good to have. But all the poems he didn’t publish have been put in chronological order of composition along with those he did publish, instead of being given a separate section of their own. There is plenty of editorial apparatus to tell you how the original slim volumes were made up, but the strategic economy of their initial design has been lost.

All three of the original volumes start and end with the clean, dramatic decisiveness of a curtain going up and coming down again. The cast is not loitering in the auditorium beforehand. Nor is it to be found hanging out in the car park afterwards. The Less Deceived starts with ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, which laments a lost love but with no confessions of the poet’s personal inadequacy. It ends with ‘At Grass’, which is not about him but about horses: a bugle call at sunset.

Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

Similarly, The Whitsun Weddings starts and ends without a mention of the author. The first poem, ‘Here’, is an induction into ‘the surprise of a large town’ that sounds as if it might be Hull. No one who sounds as if he might be Larkin puts in an appearance. Instead, other people do, whose ‘removed lives/ Loneliness clarifies’. The last poem in the book, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, is an elegy written in a church crypt which is as sonorous as Gray’s written in a churchyard, and no more petulant: that things pass is a fact made majestic, if not welcome.

As for High Windows, the last collection published while he was alive, it may contain, in ‘The Building’, his single most terror-stricken — and, indeed, terrifying — personal outcry against the intractable fact of death, but it begins and ends with the author well in the background. ‘To the Sea’, the opening poem, the one in which the white steamer so transfixingly gets stuck in the afternoon, is his most thoroughgoing celebration of the element that he said he would incorporate into his religion if he only had one: water. ‘The Explosion’ closes the book with a heroic vision of dead coal miners which could be called a hymn to immortality if it did not come from a pen that devoted so much effort to pointing out that mortality really does mean what it says.

These two poems, ‘To the Sea’ and ‘The Explosion’, which in High Windows are separated by the whole length of a short but weighty book, can be taken together as a case in point, because, as the chronological arrangement of the Collected Poems now reveals, they were written together, or almost. The first is dated October, 1969, and the second is dated January 5, 1970. Between them in High Windows come poems dated anything from five years earlier to three years later. This is only one instance, unusually striking but typical rather than exceptional, of how Larkin moved poems around through compositional time so that they would make in emotional space the kind of sense he wanted, and not another kind. Though there were poems he left out of The Less Deceived, and put into The Whitsun Weddings, it would be overbold to assume that any poem, no matter how fully achieved, that he wrote before High Windows but did not publish in it would have found a context later — or even earlier if he had been less cautious. Anthony Thwaite goes some way towards assuming exactly that — or, at any rate, suggesting it — when he says that Larkin had been stung by early refusals and had later on repressed excellent poems even when his friends urged him to publish them. Some of these poems, as we now see, were indeed excellent, but if a man is so careful to arrange his works in a certain order it is probably wiser to assume that when he subtracts something he is adding to the arrangement.

Towards the end of his life, in the years after High Windows, Larkin famously dried up. Poems came seldom. Some of those that did come equalled his best, and ‘Aubade’ was among his greatest. Larkin thought highly enough of it himself to send it out in pamphlet form to his friends and acquaintances, and they were quickly on the telephone to one another quoting phrases and lines from it. Soon it was stanzas, and in London there is at least one illustrious playwright who won’t go home from a dinner party before he has found an excuse to recite the whole thing.

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 anaesthetic from which none come round...

Had Larkin lived longer, there would eventually have had to be one more slim volume, even if slimmer than slim. But that any of the earlier suppressed poems would have gone into it seems very unlikely. The better they are, the better must have been his reasons for holding them back. Admittedly, the fact that he did not destroy them is some evidence that he was not averse to their being published after his death. As a seasoned campaigner for the preservation of British holograph manuscripts — he operated on the principle that papers bought by American universities were lost to civilization — he obviously thought that his own archive should be kept safe. But the question of how the suppressed poems should be published has now been answered: some other way than this. Arguments for how good they are miss the point, because it is not their weakness that is inimical to his total effect; it is their strength. There are hemistiches as riveting as anything he ever made public.

Dead leaves desert in thousands...

He wrote that in 1953 and sat on it for more than thirty years. What other poet would not have got it into print somehow? The two first lines of a short poem called ‘Pigeons’, written in 1957, are a paradigm distillation of his characteristic urban pastoralism:

On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west...

Even more remarkable, there were whole big poems so close to being fully realized that to call them unfinished sounds like effrontery. Not only would Larkin never let a flawed poem through for the sake of its strong phrasing; he would sideline a strong poem because of a single flaw. But ‘Letter to a Friend about Girls’, written in 1959, has nothing frail about it except his final indecision about whether Horatio is writing to Hamlet or Hamlet to Horatio. The writer complains that the addressee gets all the best girls without having to think about it, while he, the writer, gets, if any, only the ones he doesn’t really want, and that after a long struggle.

After comparing lives with you for years
I see how I’ve been losing: all the while
I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours...

A brilliantly witty extended conceit, full of the scatalogical moral observation that Larkin and his friend Kingsley Amis jointly brought back from conversation into the literature from which it had been banished, the poem has already become incorporated into the Larkin canon that people quote to one another. So have parts of ‘The Dance’, which would probably have been his longest single poem if he had ever finished it. The story of an awkward, put-upon, recognizably Larkin-like lonely man failing to get together with a beautiful woman even though she seems to be welcoming his attentions, the poem could logically have been completed only by becoming a third novel to set beside Jill and A Girl in Winter. (Actually, the novel had already been written, by Kingsley Amis, and was called Lucky Jim.)

But there might have been a better reason for abandoning the poem. Like the Horatio poem and many of the other poems that were held back, ‘The Dance’ is decisive about what Larkin otherwise preferred to leave indeterminate. ‘Love Again’, written in 1979, at the beginning of the arid last phase in which the poems that came to him seem more like bouts of fever than like showers of rain, states the theme with painful clarity.

Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery...

What hurts, though, isn’t the vocabulary. When Larkin speaks of ‘Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt’, he isn’t speaking with untypical bluntness: though unfalteringly well judged, his tonal range always leaves room for foul language — shock effects are among his favourites. The pain at this point comes from the fact that it is so obviously Larkin talking. This time, the voice isn’t coming through a persona: it’s the man himself, only at his least complex, and therefore least individual. In his oeuvre, as selected and arranged by himself, there is a dialogue going on, a balancing of forces between perfection of the life and of the work — a classic conflict for which Larkin offers us a resolution second in its richness only to the later poems of Yeats. In much of the previously suppressed poetry, the dialogue collapses into a monologue. The man who has, at least in part, chosen his despair, or who, at any rate, strives to convince himself that he has, is usurped by the man who has no choice. The second man might well be thought of as the real man, but one of the effects of Larkin’s work is to make us realize that beyond the supposed bedrock reality of individual happiness or unhappiness there is a social reality of creative fulfilment, or, failing that, of public duties faithfully carried out.

Larkin, in his unchecked personal despair, is a sacrificial goat with the sexual outlook of a stud bull. He thinks, and sometimes speaks, like a Robert Crumb character who has never recovered from being beaten up by a girl in the third grade. The best guess, and the least patronizing as well, is that Larkin held these poems back because he thought them self-indulgent — too private to be proportionate. One of the consolations that Larkin’s work offers us is that we can be unhappy without giving in, without letting our wish to be off the hook (‘Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs’) wipe out our lives (‘the million-petalled flower/ Of being here’). The ordering of the individual volumes was clearly meant to preserve this balance, which the inclusion of even a few more of the suppressed poems would have tipped.

In the Collected Poems, that hard-fought-for poise is quite gone. Larkin now speaks a good deal less for us all, and a good deal more for himself, than was his plain wish. That the self, the sad, dithering personal condition from which all his triumphantly assured work sprang, is now more comprehensively on view is not really a full compensation, except, perhaps, to those who aren’t comfortable with an idol unless its head is made from the same clay as its feet.

On the other hand, to be given, in whatever order, all these marvellous poems that were for so long unseen is a bonus for which only a dolt would be ungrateful. Schnabel said that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas were music better than could be played. Larkin’s best poems are poetry better than can be said, but sayability they sumptuously offer. Larkin demands to be read aloud. His big, intricately formed stanzas, often bridging from one to the next, defeat the single breath but always invite it. As you read, the ideal human voice speaks in your head. It isn’t his: as his gramophone records prove, he sounded like someone who expects to be interrupted. It isn’t yours, either. It’s ours. Larkin had the gift of reuniting poetry at its most artful with ordinary speech at its most unstudied — at its least literary. Though a scholar to the roots, he was not being perverse when he posed as a simple man. He thought that art should be self-sufficient. He was disturbed by the way literary studies had crowded out literature. But none of this means that he was simplistic. Though superficially a reactionary crusader against modernism, a sort of latter-day, one-man Council of Trent, he knew exactly when to leave something unexplained.

The process of explaining him will be hard to stop now that this book is available. It is still, however, a tremendous book, and, finally, despite all the candour it apparently offers, the mystery will be preserved for any reader acute enough to sense the depth under the clarity. Pushkin said that everything was on his agenda, even the disasters. Larkin knew about himself. In private hours of anguish, he commiserated with himself. But he was an artist, and that meant he was everyone; and what made him a genius was the effort and resource he brought to bear in order to meet his superior responsibility.

Larkin went to hell, but not in a handcart. From his desolation he built masterpieces, and he was increasingly disinclined to settle for anything less. About twenty years ago in Britain, it became fashionable to say that all the poetic excitement was in America. Though things look less that way now, there is no need to be just as silly in the opposite direction. The English-speaking world is a unity. Britain and the United States might have difficulty absorbing each other’s poetry, but most people have difficulty with poetry anyway. In Britain, Larkin shortened the distance between the people and poetry by doing nothing for his career and everything to compose artefacts that would have an independent, memorable life apart from himself. There is no inherent reason that the American reader, or any other English-speaking reader, should not be able to appreciate the results.

Art, if it knows how to wait, wins out. Larkin had patience. For him, poetry was a life sentence. He set happiness aside to make room for it. And if it turns out that he had no control over where his misery came from, doesn’t that mean that he had even more control than we thought over where it went to? Art is no less real for being artifice. The moment of truth must be prepared for. ‘Nothing to love or link with,’ wrote Larkin when he was fifty-five. ‘Nothing to catch or claim,’ he wrote when he was twenty-four, in a poem that only now sees the light. It was as if the death he feared to the end he had embraced at the start, just so as to raise the stakes.

(New Yorker, 17 July, 1989)