Saturday, January 17, 2015

`The Sombre Debits of Maturity'

“World is suddener than we fancy it.” 

A month-long cold snap in Houston. Women in boots, mittens and scarves, the annual excuse for dress-up. Homeowners wrap flowering shrubs and water pipes in towels and blankets. You can trace the sun’s ascending angle as it melts the glaze on the grass in the morning. The breath of kids at the bus stop condenses in clouds and disappears. Into the love of complaint they inject pride in collective hardiness, as though 30 degrees Fahrenheit were harrowing. That’s why Louis MacNeice’s early “Snow” came to mind. Three days after MacNeice’s death at age fifty-five in September 1963, Philip Larkin published a brief tribute to the Irishman in the New Statesman (collected in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 2001). He calls MacNeice “a town observer” (rather like a town crier) and says 

“his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and lipsticked cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of `These Foolish Things.’ We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties, for intruding them in `the drunkenness of things being various.’” 

“These Foolish Things” is a 1936 standard with words by Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey. Larkin is thinking of this line: “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces.” (Go here for Ella Fitzgerald’s recording and here for Frank Sinatra’s.) Larkin quotes from the second stanza of “Snow”: 

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.” 

The memorable phrase, the one that corroborates everything I know about the world, is “incorrigibly plural,” and Larkin plays with it in the rest of his encomium to MacNeice: 

“Now we are older, some of these qualities have faded, some seem more durable. Against the sombre debits of maturity that his later poetry so frequently explores – the neurosis, the crucifying memory, the chance irrevocably lost – he set an increased understanding of human suffering, just as against the darkening political skies of the late Thirties he had set the brilliantly quotidian Autumn Journal. In what will now be his last collection, The Burning Perch, the human condition is shown as full of distress. If it is described not too solemnly, the chances are, he seems to be saying, it will become easier to bear.” 

With allowances for the fifteen-year differences in their ages, Larkin might have been writing about himself – “the somber debits of maturity.” In connection with MacNeice and his “poetry of our everyday life,” he mentions "lawn-mowers."

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