Thursday, August 07, 2014

`Where Can We Live But Days?'

At least two of my friends are dying. This shouldn’t be a surprise. In the glib undergraduate sense, we’re all dying, but that’s not what I mean. The actuaries and their tables have their way with us and our friends and loved ones. However independent we fancy ourselves, and regardless of days spent on the treadmill, we conform to their grim equations. Actuaries only turn from mathematicians into poets when they speak of “force of mortality.” It’s coming, guaranteed. There’s no running, unless your entire life is a protracted running away. Your inimitable and unprecedented flame is soon to be snuffed. A real poet (and a better poet than he was a novelist) asks: “Who will do it again? That's it: no one; / imitators and descendants aren’t the same.” There’s sadness here, and comedy in our presumption.

Philip Larkin, famously unmarried and childless, has had many imitators and no descendants. With Donne and L.E. Sissman, he is the poet laureate not of death, exactly, but of the coloration death lends to life, its narrowing.
“What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
“Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.”
Larkin doesn’t answer the second question, and the first is answered the way we would answer a child. He wrote “Days” – has there ever been a blander title for a good poem? -- in 1953, age thirty-one, and collected it in The Whitsun Weddings in 1964, twenty-one years before his death. The final four lines are funny (it’s the “long coats”), as Larkin is almost always funny, but not contemptuous or mocking. At least religion and medicine hurry to our assistance. The speaker, as at the end of “Mr Bleaney,” is saying: “I don’t know.”

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