Saturday, October 11, 2014

`We Shall See Them Face to Face'

“What I should like to do is to write different kinds of poems that might be by different people. Someone once said that the great thing is not to be different from other people but to be different from yourself. That’s why I’ve chosen to read now a poem that isn’t especially like me, or like what I fancy I’m supposed to be like.” 

That’s Philip Larkin sounding like Fernando Pessoa on BBC Radio 3 in 1972, introducing his reading of “The Explosion.” It’s a provocative choice, un-Larkinesque, and in a Downbeat-style blindfold test, listeners might easily fail to identify the poem’s author. It was written in 1969-70 and collected in High Windows (1974). A poem written in unrhymed trochaic tetrameter, Longfellow’s meter in The Song of Hiawatha, it seems tailor-made for comic effects:  “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.” But Larkin’s tone is not comic. See Archie Burnett’s richly detailed notes in The Complete Poems (2012). 

Larkin wrote to Monica Jones the day after completing the poem that he was moved to write it after hearing a ballad, “The Trimdon Grange Explosion,” written by Thomas “Tommy” Armstrong. The song commemorates the mining disaster at Trimdon, near Durham, on Feb. 15, 1882. Seventy-four men and boys were killed, the youngest just twelve years old. Larkin heard the song on an LP issued in 1962, The Collier’s Rant: Mining Songs of the Northumberland-Durham Coalfield. (Go here and here to hear the song performed.)  In his 1993 life of the poet, Andrew Motion reports Larkin and his mother watched a television documentary about the mining industry at Christmas in 1969. In his sixth stanza, Larkin quotes and revises lines from the final stanza of Armstrong’s ballad, and acknowledges the borrowing with italics: 

The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face—” 

Burnett notes the scriptural echo in the stanza’s third line. Despite its technical wizardry, “The Explosion” is disappointing. The portraits of the miners are admirably terse (“So they passed in beards and moleskins, / Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter”) and recall scenes from The Road to Wigan Pier. It’s the nest of lark’s eggs, gently returned to the safety of the grass, that I find sentimentally unconvincing, as though Larkin were idealizing miners in the Worker’s Paradise of the Soviet Union. Yes, eggs are fragile, like human lives, but the setup won’t support the sentiment – an odd miscalculation in mature Larkin. What interests me most is the quote from the BBC broadcast at the top. The “I,” so pandemic in poetry today, hobbles the art. The one-to-one correspondence of speaker and poet is killing the writing and reading of good verse. The best poets reach after otherness, inhabit other beings.  You can only admire a poet, especially one so late in his career with a reliably fine-tuned voice (“Larkinesque”), who strives to imaginatively reach beyond self. The wonderful American poet A.E. Stalling gives “The Explosion” a more sympathetic reading: 

“Many of us are moved by events in the news (`tragedies’ as that tragic chorus the media labels all catastrophes willy-nilly), but it can be hard to respond with authentic poetry, rather than exploiting it and congratulating ourselves on our rare sensitivity. This poem shows it can be done.  In this case, perhaps, there is something about the form itself, so un-typically Larkin in many ways, more impersonal and bard-like, making of these anonymous fathers and brothers epic heroes, translated into timelessness, that enables him to speak for those who were silenced.”

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