Saturday, December 02, 2017

`Astonishing the Brickwork'

“I don’t look for any kind of `light’ in poetry. I like Larkin because to me he tells the truth, and I love his technical mastery of writing verse.”

I fell hard for Yeats and the “Celtic Twilight” business when I was fifteen. I bought the hardback Collected with the blue and white cover, and loaned it to a girl who never returned it. In 1975, I replaced it with the newer edition, with Yeats on the cover looking like a blind man. It’s beat-up and defaced with useless notes, most heavily from The Tower (1928) onward. Several weeks ago I took it from the shelf for the first time in years and browsed without expectations. That’s not quite true. I was hoping the old ardor might rekindle, and was hardly disappointed when it didn’t. The failing is mine. Some writers supply us with what we need at specific times in life. A few go on doing so forever. Others fade. I can’t dispute Yeats’ gift and have no desire to disparage it, but it’s one that’s no longer useful.

The quote at the top is from an email I received Friday from a friend. He is reading Seamus Heaney’s prose collection The Redress of Poetry (1995), specifically “Joy or Night: Last Things in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin.” Heaney looks at “Aubade” and concludes: “For all its heartbreaking truths and beauties, `Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called the ‘spiritual intellect’s great work.’” I’ve heard such objections before, and appreciate them without agreeing. No writer is obligated to perform such “great work.” Heaney calls the poem “defeatist.” I would note that there are many ways to succeed, and among them is writing a poem with rare “technical mastery,” to use my friend’s phrase. He continues:
“I like Yeats but in some ways I find him always on stage, posing and acting. As I age, I find myself reading more and more Larkin and Hardy than, say, Yeats and his epigones. I see the poet under no obligation to cry out, when all is said and done, a stentorian YES. Sometimes it’s good tonic for a poet to shout out a loud NO.”

Like Bruce, I don’t go looking for “light” in what I read, if by that we mean flattering affirmations. Yeats is often flattering himself. The truth in literature is what I crave, and I seldom sense soft-headedness or aggressive dishonesty in Larkin. Consider “Coming” from The Less Deceived (1955):

“On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon—
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.”

By Larkin’s standards, “Coming” is a giddy cry of exaltation. His phrasing and word choice is unexpected and precise (in most poets, a rare combination): “Its fresh-peeled voice / Astonishing the brickwork.” So too, “forgotten boredom,” seemingly an oxymoron. In Larkin one learns to value moments of happiness, and it comes only in moments, not lifetimes.

Larkin died on this date, Dec. 2, in 1985.


Brian said...

I never tire of Larkin, nor of articles in praise of Larkin. It was delightful to read "Coming" again to start the day. Still, I wonder about the aversion to light in poems. "Technical mastery" and "truth" would seem the goal of any poet, with light being the effect produced by the two. Most poetry is awful, said Northrop Frye (in arguing that that was no reason not to write it), but I am grateful that so many fine works exist. I wonder what your friend would think of Christian Wyman's new anthology of "Joy" poems:

Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" is a great companion of mine. It is one of a dozen poems that my slow mind has been able to memorize over the years. It would be interesting to hear from you, and others what poems they have found worth the effort of memorization.

Nige said...

As it happens, I used to have Yeats's Among School Children by heart, but it's mostly gone now. As my powers of memorising fail, few complete poems remain, but among them are two of Larkin's - Cut Grass and, alas, This Be the Verse.
Coming is wonderful - a joy to read it again.

Brian said...

I love repeating Hopkins' "The Windhover." It did not come easily and one line continues to trip me up, but following the technical mastery of that poem is thrilling. I have most of "Aubade" down, but it planted itself on its own without much effort. I remember reciting it (on his request) to the owner of an upscale lodge In Ecuador where my wife and I were invited to lunch. Odd to be declaiming "nothing more terrible, nothing more true" with diners about, but as the poem has always been for me primarily a thing of beauty, it felt less awkward than might have been expected.

This Be the Verse - alas, indeed. As with "I love to see them starving, the so-called working class...", these are the examples the humorless Larkin-haters love to throw at us.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Kingsley Amis related many anecdotes about Larkin in his Memoirs.