Sunday, March 06, 2016

`The Sky Grows Dark with Invitation Cards'

When readers indict Philip Larkin on charges of being gloomy and grim, “a real downer,” as one reader recently noted, or the “Bard of Boo Hoo,” in the words of another, I’ve noted that “Wants” often serves as Exhibit A. It is early Larkin, beyond the cusp of juvenilia but not yet his most assured work, and was written in 1950 and collected in The Less Deceived (1955):
“Beyond all this, the wish to be alone
However the sky grows dark with invitation cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

“Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites
The costly aversion of the eyes from death---
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.”
In his recent biography of Larkin, James Booth refers to the poem’s “extravagant weariness,” in which I take the operative word to be “extravagant.” Booth tells us the poet was, typically, juggling relationships. He had met Monica Jones in 1947 and they became lovers the year in which he wrote “Wants.” Larkin was, Booth says, “intent on securing an escape from his entanglements.” He was no swooning romantic but for a man who “wish[ed] to be alone,” he sure spent a lot of time in the company of women. To read his poems with reasonable comprehension, we ought to remember that Larkin was an amusing fellow with a gift for humor that ranged from bawdy to rarefied wit. To say “the sky grows dark with invitation cards” is not the same as saying “Please don’t invite me to another dinner party.” Many writers and would-be writers are compulsively social animals. They enjoy the attention and frivolity (not to mention the sexual opportunities). And yet, writing is a solitary activity. That was just fine with Larkin. For others, it is an occupational irritant to be overcome.
Larkin was not a readily understood binary personality – happy or sad, grateful or resentful (few of us are after infancy, I suspect). Every aspect of his sensibility was mixed, not tidy. He is the most self-conscious of poets. He makes fun of himself in damning ways while simultaneously speaking in all sincerity. This makes some people uncomfortable. Do I take the sixth and tenth lines of Larkin’s poem – “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs” – as a literal and accurate description of Larkin, humanity or reality? No, but it’s true sometimes, and honest readers know it’s true.  

1 comment:

zmkc said...

There is an unusually sweet tempered Larkin poem over at Nigeness, posted yesterday I think - it might prove useful in countering those who say he's "a downer"