Saturday, September 05, 2015

`It Brought Us This Far'

“Promising myself to read only what I needed, I read on and on for hours, even rereading those poems which I have known almost by heart since the week they were first published.”

The distinctive mark of a dedicated reader may be not the number of books he has read or even their quality, but rather the helplessness, after a lifetime of reading, with which he still surrenders himself to the pull of the good book he happens to be reading today. He hasn’t burned out, grown jaded or too sophisticated to enjoy himself. Like a kid, he’s still tempted to read under the covers with a flashlight, or stay up too late during the workweek and wake up stupid and achy in the morning. The reader writing above is a famously dying man, Clive James, speaking of The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, the grand edition edited by Archie Burnett and published in 2012. The essay quoted is a three-pager, “Always Philip Larkin,” included in Latest Readings (Yale University Press, 2015). Like most of the other pieces, it’s written in an ave-atque-vale spirit addressed to both readers and the books he has read. In 2010 he was diagnosed with emphysema, kidney failure and leukemia, and has since published four or five books. That is when, James says in his introduction, he “wondered whether it was worth reading anything both new and substantial, or even rereading something substantial that I already knew about.” He answers yes and yes.

James’ books, in poetry and prose, tempt a reader to fill a commonplace book with nuggets. He writes at once tightly and expansively, and moves a reader to share the good stuff with the nearest set of ears. James is an aphorist, usually without sounding portentous:

“The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.”

“Finally you get to the age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it.”

“. . . culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity, and sometimes you will find things out from fans and buffs [even bloggers] that you won’t from a tenured professor.”
Of his rereading of Joseph Conrad: “Time felt precious and I would have preferred to spend less of it with him, but he wouldn’t let me go.”

“[The books he read] . . . are not a necropolis. They are an arcadian pavilion with an infinite set of glittering, mirrored doorways to the unknown: which seems dark to us only because we will not be in it. We won’t be taking our knowledge any further, but it brought us this far.”

And those are just from the six-page introduction. James is nearly always generous and grateful in his judgments. He is more of a celebrator than a scourge. It’s good to know he only recently read the entirety of Boswell’s Life of Johnson for the first time and discovered the work of a great American poet, Edgar Bowers. The immanence of death is no reason to cease discovering new things or reject old ones.  Here is James’ close to the Larkin piece:

“The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, in the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty. That being said, his unique thematic originality should be remarked: no other great modern poet, not even Yeats, was so successful at making his own personality the subject, and this despite the fact that his personality was something that he would really rather not have been stuck with. He would rather have been Sidney Bechet.”

1 comment:

mike zim said...

I just read "Latest Readings", and thank you for the recommendation.

Moving on now to James' "The Land of Shadows".