Sunday, April 24, 2016

`Under Cover of Delectable Wordcraft'

On this date, April 24, in 1954, Philip Larkin completed a poem he published only in 1973, in A Keepsake for a New Library, a small-circulation dedicatory volume for the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. Otherwise, “Continuing to Live” remained unpublished until 1988, three years after Larkin’s death, when Anthony Thwaite included it in Collected Poems.  Larkin deemed it “mediocre.” It is perhaps, less flamboyantly despairing than Larkin’s best, but technically it’s elegant and some of us will find it amusing. Here is Beckett (in Proust, 1930): “Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits.” Here is Larkin: Continuing to live — that is, repeat / A habit formed to get necessaries —.”

No blogger writes or thinks better than Bill Vallicella at The Maverick Philosopher. Last year, Bill read “Continuing to Live” and concluded Larkin was “a very good poet indeed,” adding, “And like most good poets, he knows enough not to send a poem on a prose errand, to borrow an apt phrase from John Ciardi. So one will look in vain for a clearly stated philosophical thesis packaged poetically.” At least we can get that out of the way. I know from my sons’ experience that teachers still assign poems, usually lousy ones, for their students to “interpret,” as though poetry were a species of cryptography. The assumption seems to be that a poem is a wordy nuisance that requires boiling down to its essence, its “meaning.” Pleasure is not only optional, it is discouraged. Bill tempers his admiration of Larkin’s poem:

“This philosopher asks: what’s the ultimate good of suggesting momentous theses with nary an attempt at justification? Of smuggling them into our minds under cover of delectable wordcraft? Poetry is a delightful adjunct to a civilized life, but philosophy rules. It would be very foolish, however, to try to convince any poet of this unless he were also a philosopher.”

We’re back to Plato. Some of our worst poets and some entire schools of poetry have tried practicing philosophy in verse. The result is predictably tiresome. No poet is obliged to provide his axioms, though axioms might be turned into poetry in the right hands. Philosophy rules? Sorry, Bill. Tell that to Horace and Shakespeare, and their readers. Thanks to Archie Burnett, editor of The Complete Poems (2012), we know Larkin completed “Continuing to Live” on April 24, 1954, the same day he began writing one of his masterpieces, “Church Going,” completed the following July. Burnett’s edition is full of such connections, and is essential to serious readers of Larkin. Burnett, for instance, traces the phrase in line seventeen of “Continuing to Live,” “the green evening,” to Book II of “Endymion”: “And like a new-born spirit did he pass / Through the green evening quiet in the sun.” This information is pleasing to know and quite useless.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I'm sure the most excellent Maverick would say I have no choice in choosing the election of poetry over philosophy. I taught poetry to school kids for 30 years, and only made sideways glances at philosophy.

Early on, I resisted poetry because of philosophy. Once I read enough of it, I realized there was something else going on.

I am always uneasy about the complaint of "interpreting" poetry. Archie Burnett is surely in that business, and James Booth, and the Balokowsky-like Motion.

Agreed, that taking a poem apart and leaving it apart, is the wrong approach. But, students usually have little idea how to read a poem. They are blind and deaf and my job was to work miracles. I suspect this need to temporarily comparmentalize a poem, is true at any level of school work.

Although my first reading of Larkin was like an epiphay, ultimately, it is repetition that brings the full reward. But that reward will surely have been enhanced with the elucidation of the poem's elements. As to interpretation, I found my main job was clearing away nonsense so that a student could feel the fine ambiguities that remained.