Saturday, February 10, 2018

`A Certain Dull Contentment with Our Lives'

“In life, he was a man who shouldered with good grace crushing responsibility.”

Who is being described? A clue: He is a poet, unlikely as that sounds, as is the writer. I say “unlikely” because the Romantic notions of poet-as-sprite and poet-as-prophet persist. Those who work hard on the page and in life, and do so without complaining and without concern for maintaining a properly bohemian image, are still a little jarring.

While researching a long piece I’m working on I came across X.J. Kennedy’s brief tribute to Philip Larkin, published soon after Larkin’s death in December 1985. This is before the posthumous vandalism of Larkin’s reputation prompted by publication of his letters and Andrew Motion’s biography. With Larkin, Kennedy – another poetic outsider by virtue of his fealty to form – senses kinship:       

“Unlike the typical American orphic bard of the moment, Larkin never says, `Behold! I am one hell of a brilliant visionary, and my life is the most important thing in the world —admire me, damn you, or die.’ By contrast, the voice of Larkin, modest and clear and scrupulous, is that of a man who sees himself as just a bit silly: the amateur student of architecture who, entering a church, takes off his cycle-clips `in awkward reverence.’ In the end, I think, we love Larkin for admitting to a quality we recognize in ourselves—a certain dull contentment with our lives, for all their crashing ignobility.”

Grownup sentiments, rare among poets and other demographics. From the Larkin piece I linked to another Kennedy tribute, this one to a much earlier poet, E.A. Robinson. Kennedy writes: “He took our poetry out of the hothouse, shone light upon the lives of ordinary people. Writing in traditional forms and making them new, taking dark and ironic views, he is our poet closest to Thomas Hardy.” And another link, this one to Kennedy’s homage to J.V. Cunningham, who also died in 1985:

“Now Cunningham, who rhymed by fits and starts,
So loath to gush, most sensitive of hearts—
Else why so hard-forged a protective crust?—
Is brought down to the unresponding dust.
Though with a slash a Pomp’s gut he could slit,
On his own flesh he worked his weaponed wit
And penned with patient skill and lore immense,
Prodigious mind, keen ear, rare common sense,
Only those words he could crush down no more
Like matter pressured to a dwarf star’s core.
May one day eyes unborn wake to esteem
His steady, baleful, solitary gleam.
Poets may come whose work more quickly strikes
Love, and yet—ah, who’ll live to see his likes?”

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