Thursday, August 2, 2012

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin would have been 90 years old this week (had he not died of cancer in 1985). Larkin's reputation has only grown since the 80's and especially in the last decade & now, perhaps, most critics consider Larkin to have been the finest English poet of the twentieth century. I think so too in my unschooled opinion. For me WH Auden, TS Eliot, Ted Hughes etc. aren't quite in the same league, or rather, don't seem to get to Larkin's depths. I identify with Larkin to some extent, not with the pervy, racist stuff, but certainly with the gloom. He was born in Coventry (a city I lived in for 3 years) and spent several of his most fertile years in Belfast. His novels, Jill and A Girl In Winter are tremendous fun and his Collected Letters are fascinating. His jazz criticism is also pretty good (although he was prejudiced against all the musicians who innovated post 1945). Anyway, here's maybe my favourite Larkin poem of all, Aubade, which was published in the TLS in 1977. It is a thundershower of melancholy truth that came in the middle of one of Larkin's long poetic droughts.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.