Saturday, August 09, 2014

`So Permanent and Blank and True'

Many times each day on campus we hear the sound of ambulances transporting the sick and injured to the adjoining Texas Medical Center. Helicopters, too. The supply of trauma and suffering is bottomless: the TMC is the largest medical center in the world (twenty-one hospitals, three medical schools, et al.). We dwell near the human epicenter of hurt, palliation, treatment, cure and death. “All streets in time are visited,” Philip Larkin reminds us in “Ambulances” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964). We ignore the rude sirens and think about dinner or tonight’s movie or love, and no one will blame us because no one will know. We, the bystanders, “sense the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do, / And for a second get it whole, / So permanent and blank and true.” 

In “The Pleasure Principle” (Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, 1983), written in 1957, Larkin outlines what he calls a “basic tripartite structure” to the writing of a poem. It starts “when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it.” That is, he must “construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time.” And third comes “the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Stated clinically: stimulus: response: secondary stimulus. “Setting off the device” might refer to detonating a bomb. In summary, says Larkin, poetry is “a skilled re-creation of emotion in other people, and…conversely, a bad poem is one that never succeeds in doing this.” The reader of a successful poem is “someone who must understand and enjoy the finished product.” 

Do we enjoy “Ambulances?” Do we enjoy being reminded of “the solving emptiness?” Not if a poem must be uplifting, comforting or palliative. But if it is an artful arrangement of words, and if the words recreate the poet’s understanding of an event, and if that event is resonant with shared human experience, readers will be moved and perhaps changed and will reflect on their life and assumptions. For grownups, there is subtle and sometimes lasting pleasure in such things; seldom in children. 

Philip Larkin was born on this date, Aug. 9, in 1922. 

[ADDENDUM: Yvor Winters writes in his foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947): “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience. Words are primarily conceptual, but through use and because human experience is not purely conceptual, they have acquired connotations of feeling. The poet makes his statement in such a way as to employ both concept and connotation as efficiently as possible. The good poem is good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience…and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of that experience.”]

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

Somehow I don't find those definitions satisfying. Perhaps they are too rational for somebody who thinks a poem should retain a share of mystery.

Good post, all the same.