Sunday, February 03, 2019

'Dead Leaves Desert in Thousands'

“In my own experience, a phrase will wait decades for a poem to form around it. Larkin kept one of his most beautiful ideas (‘dead leaves desert in thousands’) for thirty years and never completed a poem into which it would fit: strong evidence, if negative, of how his mind worked.”

That’s Clive James in Cultural Amnesia (2007) in the chapter devoted not to Larkin but to Paul Valéry. In fact, Larkin did find a place for the phrase, in the first stanza of “Autumn,” a poem he never published during his lifetime:

“The air deals blows: surely too hard, too often?
No: it is bent on bringing summer down.
Dead leaves desert in thousands, outwards, upwards,
Numerous as birds; but the birds fly away . . .”

In his notes in The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett dates the first draft of the poem to 1953. In a letter to Monica Jones from 1956, Larkin terms it “a flop.” Typically, he jokes about it, saying he aspired to write a version of The Seasons or 4 quartets: “it would be hard to avoid being corny – typing up various ideas with each season, like Ulysses (autumn – dissolution – middle age – resignation – twilight of W. civilization, etc.).” A nice takedown of Modernist pretentiousness.

James sees Larkin’s willingness to stringently wait, to hold himself to high standards that others may not recognize and resist instant gratification, as a mark of his disciplined genius: “He found ways of saying things and the ways led to poems. For all good poets, something like that process happens.”

I’m no poet but I have often put together phrases that pleased me, or even discovered and socked away choice new words, but found no appropriate place to use them. I write down such things or at least try to remember them until the proper hole in a sentence comes along. In 1981 I came upon “fossiliferous,” a delicious adjective that refers to rock, especially limestone, containing fossils. In part because it sounds high-falutin’, I’ve never found it a good home.

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