Some of us giggle at futility, as when a stranger expends enormous sums of energy, money and time trying to accomplish the ridiculous. We find the spectacle of sports amusing, the waxing of expensive automobiles, hair colored or worn in cornrows or Mohawks, or the careful choice of a toupee. Of course, futility at this point bleeds into pretentiousness, philistinism and pointless extravagance, and we speculate as to where aesthetics ends and ethics begins. We can be terrible, yes, but also quite silly. We are voluptuaries of aridity and vanity.
The aphoristically minded writer above is the poet Kay Ryan in “Specks,” a prose piece she published last year in Poetry. Another symptom of Ryan’s backward wiring is the unpredictability of her tastes. Who else has paired Pessoa and Larkin, two great poets kidnapped by the academy and held for ransom? She adds Frost, Stevie Smith, Dickinson and William Bronk to the mix, and we know we’re in the presence of a rare reading sensibility. From Larkin she reads “Reference Back” (written in 1955, collected in The Whitsun Weddings, 1964). The poet’s mother overhears him playing “Riverside Blues” by King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band (including Armstrong), recorded a year after Larkin’s birth, and she finds the song “pretty.” Part of the pleasure of reading “Reference Back” and most of Larkin’s best poems is seeing what new species of futility life brings him this time and how he learns to live with it, or not. Ryan writes:
“I always want to laugh at the perfection of these setups. We know this desperate stuckness well from his other poems. There could almost be a Chinese character, one single figure that would mean in all its pent-up intensity, `Larkin’s fix.’ He’s always in Larkin’s fix.”
What she writes later about Stevie Smith (much admired by Larkin) applies equally to Larkin and other writers at once desperately human, like their readers, and idiosyncratic:
“The reader of Stevie Smith can never for an instant forget that she is looking through the cock eyes of Stevie Smith. Everything that transpires does so in Stevie Smith’s universe, which is not one’s own. Meaning, none of the sufferings hurt and none of the pronouncements crowd the mind. Instead, they can be entertained; we can examine them as if they were toys although they are not.”
The best writers, those who constitute good reliable company, mingle common humanity with unprecedented oddness. But not too odd, for that would make them too dismal, too arid, too futile.