Tuesday, March 31, 2015

`Sudden Sincerities'

The Australian-born poet Peter Porter (1929-2010), long a resident of England, published “Going to Parties” in Philip Larkin at Sixty (ed. Anthony Thwaite, 1982), and dedicated the poem to Larkin. He included it in Fast Forward, a collection published in 1984, one year before Larkin’s death. In the poem’s final line, Porter states what might stand as Larkin’s less-than-inspirational poetic credo: “To make art of a life we didn’t choose.” Among his other honorary titles, Larkin is the poet of circumscribed lives, crabbed circumstances, made so not by politics, race, gender or class but by the unavoidable drabness and mordancy of much of our life. When Faber and Faber let the novels of Barbara Pym go out of print, Larkin wrote the publisher a generous letter of protest:  

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.” 

Another self-revealing passage. I’m unable to identify the original source, but Porter is widely quoted as calling Hull, Larkin’s home for his final thirty years, “the most poetic city in England.” It’s a Larkin-esque thing to say, of course, in at least two senses. Stevie Smith, a poet much admired by Larkin, was born there. Douglas Dunn and Andrew Motion, among others, taught at the University of Hull, where Larkin was librarian. It was also the childhood home of Andrew Marvell, born on this date, March 31, in 1621, in nearby Winestead-in-Holderness. He attended grammar school in Hull and later returned to represent the city as a Member of Parliament. In his 1979 lecture “The Changing Face of Andrew Marvell” (Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982, 1983), Larkin quotes the well-known and perhaps inadvertently comic fifth stanza of “The Garden,” including its conclusion: “Stumbling on melons as I pass, / Ensnar’d with flowers, I fall on grass.” Larkin’s mock-gloss is priceless: 

“…the paradisal lushness of the garden is made so overwhelming, with a hint of menace in the independently acting fruit, and a touch of the ludicrous in the Hulot-like figure of the speaker (conked on the head with apples, hit in the face by a bunch of grapes, and finally sprawling full length over a melon), that the reader cannot be blamed for seeking an interpretation over and above the poem’s face value: that it is the Garden of Eden, for instance, replete with Apple and Fall, or that Marvell is really saying, What a life of sin and temptation I lead!” 

Larkin goes on to accuse Marvell (and, by implication, his customary Modernist bêtes noires) of “an excess in the poem of manner over matter.” He says: “The quality of Marvell’s verse is such that the reader cannot believe that it relates only to a garden; or a pastoral conceit about a girl and her pet; there must be something else, and the reader—the academic reader—is determined to find it.” While sympathizing with the modern reading of Marvell as a “poet of enigma, of concealed meaning, of alternative explanation,” he writes, generously: 

“What still compels attention to Marvell's work is the ease with which he manages the fundamental paradox of verse--the conflict of natural word usage with metre and rhyme--and marries it either to hallucinatory images within his own unique conventions or to sudden sincerities that are as convincing in our age as in his.” 

Surely this is another entry in Larkin’s self-composed epitaph. No one so deftly balances nuances of irony and “sudden sincerity.”

1 comment:

Henry said...

Another poetic native of Hull: Brian Higgins. A former rugby player and mathematician who spent his last years writing three poetry collections and scrounging off friends like David Wright, John Heath-Stubbs and C.H. Sisson, he was elegised by all three after dying before his time.