Wednesday, April 20, 2016

`And Now I Cannot Even Watch the Spring'

Two English poets, both given to reflexively defying expectations, write poems blandly, unpoetically titled “Money.” “Unpoetically” because post-Romantic poets, connoisseurs of their own finest perceptions, are supposed to be above that sort of thing. How positively common and middle-class a subject. One likes money, of course, but tastefully. How else to dress well, drink well and otherwise live like a poet? Money is the other dirty little obsession.

The better-known of the two is Philip Larkin’s “Money,” a late masterpiece, completed in 1973, when Larkin was flush for the first time in his life with the publication of The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. Larkin speaks with faux-naïf immediacy:Clearly money has something to do with life.” The poem skirts light verse, intentionally, until the final stanza, and at that point, a neat reversal turns it into a masterpiece: “It is intensely sad.”

The other “Money” is C.H. Sisson’s, also an early work, one written while Sisson was still working for the Ministry of Labour. Judging by appearances, Sisson’s understanding of money ought to be more sophisticated and tempered than Larkin’s. Money is a serious temptation, like illicit sex, Sisson suggests. If Larkin’s reaction to money is confusion and sadness, Sisson’s is Swiftian revulsion – “bitch business,” “Money the she-devil,” “a screeching tear-sheet,” “fallen udders and sharp bones.” Perhaps poets aren’t that different from the rest of us, only more articulate about the botch we make of life:

“And now I cannot even watch the spring
The itch for subsistence having become responsibility.”

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