Friday, April 17, 2009

Cheer Up, Phil (a review)

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems

The proof of hope lies in disappointment.
That’s the most positive spin I can give these poems. Don’t get me wrong; they’re great. But don’t look to Larkin for uplift. Look to him for honesty, insight, and formal play. The formal play makes it hard for me to give you representative lines since the lines are, after all, connected by rhyme, punctuation, and placement. I'll see what I can do, though.

[Here’s my story of getting to Larkin. It seems that a year ago every pseudo-intellectual started misquoting Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” because McEwan’s Chesil Beach is about a kind of sexual awakening at the referred-to time. “Blah, blah sexual intercourse began blah blah 1963 blah blah Chatterley ban blah blah Beatles LP.” I meant to look up the actual poem but didn’t get around to it. Then I started reading Kingsley Amis and picked up Lucky Jim and huh, looky here, it’s dedicated to Larkin. Then I noticed that all of Larkin’s poems fit on less than 200 pages and there we are.]

As a reader of his work, I hit my stride in Larkin's mid-thirties – I’m not bold enough to say that it’s when he hit his stride as a writer – with The Less Deceived. A "random" sampling of titles will give you a flavor of his subjects. Poems include: Next, Please; Going; Wants; Maiden Name; Born Yesterday; Whatever Happened?; No Road -- you get the drift.

Here’s a bit of “Maiden Name”:

Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless, wholly
Untruthful? Try whispering it slowly.
No, it means you. Or, since you’re past and gone,

It means what we feel now about you then:

Or, how about only the rhyme words of “Maiden Name”:

Disused; face; grace; confused; cannot be; beauty; used;;
No one; scattered through; prize or two; ribbon; wholly; slowly; gone;;
Then; young; among; again; faithfulness; meaning less; laden.

Great stuff.
If you don’t care for a whole book of poems, I highly recommend “Church Going,” “High Windows,” and “The Trees” (“Their greenness is a kind of grief.”)

[Depending on my speed on bigger novels, I reserve the right to count this reading as four books, since The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows each originally appeared as a separate volume. And now I’m off to start Lucky Jim.]