Monday, July 14, 2014

`A Type of Great Grumble-Book'

I’ve kept a diary of the classic and banal sort twice, briefly each time. At fifteen, I challenged myself to write a poem a day, a punchy little joke-like couplet or some other exercise in form. This was the spring of 1968, annus horribilis, and the diary petered out around the time of Dr. King’s murder, certainly before Robert Kennedy’s. It was vaguely inspired, I remember, by Robert Lowell. Again in the early nineties, during a period of self-induced suffering, I wrote each night immediately before going to sleep, in a small brown spiral notebook, recording my troubles in purposely detailed and self-indulgent form. The intent was therapeutic and hermetically private. I threw it away when things improved. Otherwise, I’ve kept bookish commonplace books, lists of volumes read and lusted after, a record probably truer to my life than a catalog of mere events. 

In honor of the fortieth anniversary of its publication, I’ve been reading High Windows with some devotion. It’s the last book of poems Larkin published in his lifetime, though he lived another eleven years and had at least one more great poem in him. One of the very good minor poems in High Windows is “Forget What Did.” We learn from Archie Burnett’s notes in The Complete Poems (2011) that Larkin wrote a first draft of the poem in 1952 and didn’t complete it to his satisfaction for more than nineteen years. In a July 23, 1952, letter to Patsy Strang, Larkin says, “I am trying to write a little unrhyming poem about giving up a diary”:  

Stopping the diary
Was a stun to memory,
Was a blank starting,

“One no longer cicatrized
By such words, such actions
As bleakened waking.

“I wanted them over.
Hurried to burial
And looked back on

“Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the windows
of an opaque childhood.

“And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

“Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come.
And when the birds go.”

In the final stanza, Larkin might be referring to Thoreau’s journal, acceptable because more often than not it’s about the natural and human worlds, not about Thoreau. In a 1981 interview collected in Further Requirements (2002), Larkin says the poem is about “getting away from the miseries of life,” and adds: “It’s about a time when I stopped keeping a diary because I couldn’t bear to record what was going on. I kept a diary for a long time , more as a type of great grumble-book than anything else. It’s stopped now.” 

Burnett identifies the source of the title as Susan Coolidge’s 1872 novel What Katy Did, in which “Dorry keeps a journal written with subliterate grammar and spelling. Several entries record `Forgit what did’ until, on 1 April, he writes `Have dissided not to kepe a jurnal enny more.’” For reasons both literary and emotional, Larkin apparently concurred. On his deathbed, Larkin asked that his diaries be destroyed.

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