Monday, December 29, 2014

`The Lot of Man'

For a week at sea I remained digitally free. No computer, no telephone, relying instead on print and conversation. My books were Larkin’s Complete Poems, Santayana’s The Realms of Being and Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, all of which I’ve read and reread before. Travelling invites the familiar, and no poem is more familiar than “This Be the Verse.” As a challenge to myself, I often try to read a poem or other work that seems thoroughly familiar as though it were brand new. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes sufficient changes have taken place in me that the poem becomes new again. Perhaps that’s what characterizes the reading of any great work – something new and unexpected with every return. Take these lines from “This Be the Verse,” read somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico:  “Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.” I was marooned on a ship of hangovers, queasiness and bellyaches. The contrast between intent and result was never so obvious. On the date, Dec. 29, in 1753, Dr. Johnson writes in The Adventurer #120: 

“There is, indeed, no topick on which it is more superfluous to accumulate authorities, nor any assertion of which our own eyes will more easily discover, or our sensations more frequently impress the truth, than, that misery is the lot of man, that our present state is a state of danger and infelicity.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

You will have to help me with this, Mr Kurp. I am new to the etiquette of blogs, so, if I transgress against it, you will have to alert me to the fact. I have been moved to comment on Larkin in verse, using a Larkinesque form as a tribute to him (while the content contains some criticism). It feels that this may be illicit in this context? I couldn’t say.


First water, poetic aristocracy,
a cricket lover, plied exquisite line
and length. An expert witness in elegy
he mourned his life, alive, as he refined
the elegant corralling of a phrase;
the management of words schooled to erase
the early grief afflicting him. His main
relief and consolation found in art,
whose sorcery’s felicity imparts
integrity to dull quotidian pain.

For him fulfillment gained from causing change
was insufficient. Being able to
impinge and choosing how to rearrange
was little privilege. No clue
how to charm mortality’s blind funk,
nor how to raise foundering courage sunk
in terror. Unless, like Baudelaire, the verse
he fashioned conjured fears, rescued his life
in metre, end-stopped time, consoled the strife
that froze his heart, helping dissolve the hearse

that passed so near. Momento Mori were
his stock in trade. He was danse macabre’s hep cat.
But why should this unman us? Let’s concur
that old Skull Hill’s our natural habitat.
The Bone House is our living room, it throws
things into focus. Such perspective grows
us balls. It sets life’s gemstone, making keen
the sweetness we receive. Colours brightened
and sounds more plangent. Tastes, too, are heightened
knowing the lease will be guillotined.

While Bechet wailed out an enormous yes
he always kept his options open, knew
“What will survive of us is love”, confessed
he sensed, though, this was only “almost true.”
Preferred half measure modern alienation,
a fifties form of British constipation,
insisting on his English diffidence,
was unconsoled and less deceived, defined
by negativity. The yes declined
in non-commitment. Never once relents.