Sunday, October 11, 2020

'Issuing from a Single Self'

“[W]hat moves me, jars me, cannot be sought but must surprise me. It must always come and save me.”


One can’t live for such moments, whether in books or life, but they help redeem the less scintillating but pragmatically necessary parts of existence that surround them. To dedicate our lives to an unending quest for pleasingly jarring experiences, in Kay Ryan’s sense, is junkie logic. Surprise can’t be plotted. Seasoned readers learn to forget about it, a sort of disciplined form of patience. One can make its occurrence likelier by reading more and better books. Just this week I was jarred by a Robert Conquest poem that I had already read several times. Such time-bombs of pleasure come as rewards for perseverance.


The passage at the top comes from a brief, previously unpublished essay, “The End of the Party,” collected in Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose (Grove Press, 2020). Ryan takes her title from the first line of a poem by Philip Larkin that remained unpublished until seventeen years after his death. Some readers will judge Larkin an unlikely trigger for the pleasantly jarring sensation described by her. Here is her explanation, which is humble and humbling: “[T]he wonderful power of this Larkin poem comes clearly and simply from its being exactly what Larkin would write, from its issuing from a single self. . .”


Ryan tells us she encountered the poem in an obituary. It had made the dead woman cry – a detail that in itself is jarring and infinitely human and touching. Ryan concludes her essay with this:


“Really, we have here regular old Larkin, morose, losing out, fearing death, and using that exact stuff: he has appointed a poem with furniture so right, and just enough of it, that we can move around forever sensing a symphony all around us.”


The Conquest poem I referred to above, “A Girl in the Snow,” begins with a beautiful two-word sentence: “Autumn’s attrition.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

My favorite Conquest poem is a little limerick that I have committed to memory:

“There was an old bastard named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That's a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That old bastard Stalin did ten in.”