Tuesday, September 23, 2014

`A Loyalty Long Before He Has Any Admiration'

According to the interviewer from The Economist, Larkin’s “Going Going” suggests “everything is getting bleaker, harsher, cruder, faster.” He asks the poet’s old friend Kingsley Amis, “Do you share that vision?” and the novelist replies: 

“Yes. Yes. And I’d also say that most people shared it too—going back a long way. There’s always an ideal happy state from which our present condition is a sad degeneration, and it encompasses things as reasonably important as sexual guilt and so on to the times when the streets were clean…I think I’d rather have instinctive pessimism than its opposite.” [p. 177, Conversations with Kingsley Amis, 2009] 

Americans are said to be optimists, that our country was founded on an implicit faith in new beginnings, second chances. We’re a republic of rejects, defenders of the defenseless, and pessimism is so self-sabotagingly defeatist and spiritually lazy. But optimism, in its softer-headed forms, is so naïve, a reckless denial of reality and, in its own way, spiritually lazy. Where is one to stand on the great optimist/pessimist divide? Why are both types so complacent? And why so defensive? In Orthodoxy (1908), in a chapter devoted to these questions, the self-identified optimist G.K. Chesterton endorses “primal loyalty to life” and dismisses the optimist/pessimist dichotomy as “a deep mistake.” He writes: 

“The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.” 

In other words, we’re born into the world and it remains blithely indifferent to our approval or condemnation. Might as well get used to it. In 1972, Larkin was commissioned to write a poem for inclusion in a government white paper, How Do You Want to Live? A Report on the Human Habitat. Starting with the sanctimonious title, the project seems an unlikely undertaking for Larkin, who bragged that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” He referred to the poem as “thin ranting conventional gruel,” but the setup sounds like a joke, a parody of the blinkered bureaucracy and the cant-averse poet. The government commission censored the poem, originally and rather blandly titled “Prologue,” before publishing it. Removed were “spectacled grins,” “takeover bids” and “Grey area grants.” In a May 1972 letter to Robert Conquest, Larkin writes: 

“Have you seen this commissioned poem I did for the Countess of Dartmouth’s report on the human habitat? It makes my flesh creep. She made me cut out a verse attacking big business—don’t tell anyone. It was a pretty crappy verse, anyway, not that she minded that.” 

“Going, Going” is, at best, second-tier Larkin. The crankiness is merely strident. Most of Larkin’s humor is absent and he comes at his subject too directly. The result is preachiness. Even in his darkest poems, Larkin is a master of indirection. Too head-on, as in the stanza beginning “Of spectacled grins approve,” and he turns into a nag. When Larkin’s speaker in “Going Going” says “Things are tougher than we are, just / As earth will always respond / However we mess it about,” he sounds, on one hand, like a pessimist, acknowledging that things have grown messy. On the other, he’s no climate-change alarmist reveling in Jeremiads. The second-to-last stanza is pretty good, until the final hectoring, Joni Mitchell-esque line: 

“And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.” 

When Larkin published the poem in The High Windows (1974), he restored the original title and the pre-censorship text. The day after completing “Going, Going” he wrote to Monica Jones, “I’ll never be laureate.”

No comments: