Saturday, February 13, 2010

`Like an Enormous Yes'

The essay’s title is irresistible: “Philip Larkin and Happiness.” To the credit of its author, Rachel Wetzsteon, it’s more than a cheap joke, though she recognizes some will find the pairing “a juxtaposition so improbable as to be laugh-out-loud funny.” I’ve never thought of Larkin, man or poet, as desperately unhappy. He scorned some of life’s conventional palliatives, such as family and faith, but that’s hardly the same as misery, and his feelings about both were nuanced. He was a realist about some of the things many prefer to candify. He drank too much and juggled women but hints of self-pity are rare in his poems, novels and non-fiction. Think of his tribute to the great soprano saxophonist and clarinetist, “For Sidney Bechet”:

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

I knew Wetzsteon as the translator of three poems included in Montale in English (edited by Harry Thomas, Handsel Books, 2004). Her adaptation of “Di un natale metropolitano,” Montale’s poem about London, is especially good:

“Mistletoe, a city of snapshots taped to
plaster, blue bottles and a fire’s
fitful sparks the only glimmers
of warmth in your new lodgings.
For you, this season without wreaths,
I would manhandle a city, conjure
a drizzle, then soften it to snow,
paint lampposts deep reds and greens
and so install around your room some
snatches of the festive. But starting
and ending here, these wishes are slipshod:
they never seem to settle on a picture that
touches you at all. Storms, ramshackle
gifts fly freely, but the setting’s
the same: you dine upon sausage and frost.”

Even knowing only Wetzsteon’s Montale translations, this note at the end of her essay on the author of “Aubade” was shocking:

“Editor's Note: I asked Rachel for this piece last year, and I am terribly sorry that it was not published before she passed away at the end of 2009. She did, however, approve this final copy. We hope you enjoy it.”


Gary Baldridge said...

You've packed a world of good stuff in this entry today. Your writing keeps me exploring, keeps me reaching out.

Sarah said...

I've enjoyed her poetry, so was very sorry to hear that Rachel killed herself. There was a quite moving piece in the Boston Globe by a friend you might like to read.

Thanks for the link to her essay, which I'm now off to read.