Saturday, 19 April 2008

What will survive...

Jim Murdoch has done a great post about Philip Larkin (and his poem 'Mr Bleaney' in particular) this week. As I mentioned a few posts ago Larkin is one of my very favourite poets. I don't even have favourite poems as such (more like favourite lines, favourite moments) and it's weird but he feels like a family member almost - in the sense that I don't like everything about him but I feel a loyalty, a connection, a love I can't quite explain. I'm glad he's not still around though...I'm sure meeting him would have finished off any love forever. Like some of the best relatives - absence can keep the heart much fonder.

I mentioned to Jim that I had been just about to blog about Larkin - largely because I got the new Chumbawamba cd this week and it has a song about him called 'Hull or Hell'. (The cd, by the way, is called 'The boy bands have won' and is fantastic. It contains many songs of interest to people working in the word business - 'Words can save us' is brilliant and inspirational, 'Sing about love' explains so well how some of us can't avoid writing about what's going on in the world around us, no matter how hard we try. If you only think of Chumbas as that band that did the 'knock me down and I get up again' song then you should seek this out at once.) But to get back to where I was...Jim said something like 'do the blog about Larkin - I've only scratched the surface...' (nonsense - he had made some of the vital points about Larkin and linked to lots of interesting articles too - I enjoyed the one about Motion's biography and its motivations especially).

So here I sit. I'm not sure I have a blog about Larkin that can move on any discussions or anything. I am not good at writing about writers in any kind of even-vaguely-approaching-academic way - I discovered that at university...a little too late perhaps as I was already on a literature-heavy course (you should see some of the essays I wrote then...well, no, you really shouldn't...). I've always loved to read but have never quite understood how the study of literature (once you're over 18) has turned into something so dry and cold and dull. Call me an over-sentimental old fool, do I care? If I wanted to turn everything into a science I would study science for heavens sake! In fact one of my favourite bits of Zadie Smith's 'On Beauty' (to hark back to my last post) is the easily-missed little interlude where we meet one of the novel's least overtly academic characters - student Katie Armstrong. Katie tries to take part in her very theoretical history of art class but can't quite make it. From Indiana and now at an east coast university Katie was 'by far the brightest student in her high school' and 'loves the arts' but finds the intellectual life at the university, Wellington, simply incomprehensible. She doesn't know the language ('she wished her high school had given her different kinds of books to read than the ones she has evidently wasted her time on') and much as she tries (she is a hard-working, clever girl) she just doesn't think or talk or feel the way her teacher and some of her fellow students do and she can't quite see why. To use a reference that comes in later in the novel, she just loves tomatoes. You have to read it...it's well worth it believe me.

When I first read that scene I was amazed. Was Zadie Smith sat next to me in a Lisa Jardine lecture on Barthes back in 1988 (LJ talked about signs and all I could think about was Monty Python 'Brian, Brian, give us a sign...')? Had she read my mind? I still don't know how much the author sympathises with the Katie character or how much she looks down on her as not-quite-up-to-the-intellectual mark but as I feel that character is me (in a little way) I always choose understanding and an appreciation of Katie's finer, less sculpted sensibilities (as opposed to some of her very convoluted contemporaries)...but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

So it's also no wonder I feel so happy with Larkin, the man who, as Jim says 'used plain English and somehow managed to infuse it with poetry'. I'm not saying everyone should use plain English (please let us not all try to be the same!) but it is generally what I do, just because it feels right to me. I don't have an academic theory to explain it. That would be most out of character. I like the way he wrote some short, snappy, straight-to-the-point poems as well as some of the more...obviously poetic ones. I like poetry when it sneaks up on me - not when it comes out waving a flag saying 'hello, aren't I the bee's knees?' (is that a very English way of thinking? Or a British one?). I like the way he showed life, the way he told his tales in little lines and sad details. The way he got on with his job at the University Library in Hull, knowing, I am quite sure, that he didn't need a glittering career in academia or elsewhere when his poems were so important, so much better on humanity and its confusions than so much else being written at the time. That's what will survive...and that's enough.

16 comments:

Colin Will said...

Can I confess something? I've never liked Larkin. I've tried - I really have - but I never find anything to interest me very much, in subject, style or language. There, I've said it.
Colin

Rachel Fox said...

There's a lot of bitterness in Larkin...a lot of Englishness too. Maybe you are just too well-adjusted a Scotsman to need him (and I mean that as a compliment!).

Joanna said...

Jim was right. You should write what you want and what moves you, never mind what expert analysis others have come up with. I bet more people will connect with your words than the academic articles anyway. (I am also a fan of plain English - it cures so many woes)

Thanks for the CD recommendation :-)

Joanna

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for dropping by Joanna. I'm glad you got something out of this piece (if only the fine experience that is listening to some of the songs on 'The boy bands have won').
I must repeat though that I am not in any way suggesting 'plain English' is the only way. Things would be very dull if we all used one type of language. Personally I just like it when something that is not obviously ornate can be much cleverer than it at first appears (for example). I like surprises. I like twists. I like the way bitterness can suddenly turn into joy...things like that...

Rachel Fox said...

And in fact 'plain English' isn't really a phrase I would use myself much...because what's plain to one reader can be anything but to another...it all depends where you've lived, what you've read etc. Still it's in there now!

Jim Murdoch said...

Now, that was an interesting blog. Okay, so it wasn't heavily focused on Larkin the man or Larkin the poet but you made valid points. Larkin was just the jumping off point you needed.

What I never mentioned in the blog, it slipped my mind actually, was that Larkin is the only famous person I have ever written to. When I was sixteen I photocopied a few poems and posted them off to Hull only to have them returned promptly and politely by his secretary who informed me that she had a standing instruction from Dr. Larkin to do so and that it was nothing personal. In retrospect what I’d posted to him was tripe and I'm glad she did but it hurt like hell.

The thing I find interesting about how people feel about Larkin is that now that all his dirty little secrets are out in the open – minus the ones in his diaries – people still hold his poetry in such high regard.

I loved the last line to your blog by the way – very good indeed.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Jim.
I wish I'd only written to one famous person! Many, many embarrassing letters lying in landfills (or hopefully recycled) thanks to me and far too many of those impulsive love-me, listen-to-me, I-love-you urges. At least they would be embarrassing if it weren't for the fact that I have done so many bizarre things in my time to date that I am pretty much beyond embarrassment. It feels great!

Rachel Fox said...

And on Larkin and your point about people still liking him...I think it would be very different if there were any prejudiced content in the poems but certainly I've never picked up on any.

Also you mentioned family members with prejudiced opinions in your blog and I do feel Larkin is in some ways that miserable old git of a Dad/Grandad/Uncle (and there are female versions too!). You may disagree with him a lot of the time but you can still respect some of what he has to say some of the time. It can make you sad that he chooses to talk a lot of tired old crap when he has a brain and 'why can't he get beyond all that rubbish?' but often he doesn't and sad is what it stays. Incidentally this is also something Zadie Smith looks at in 'On Beauty' when the central male character visits his Dad back in London. Did I say it was a good book?

Art Durkee said...

Is there a 12 step group for recovering former academics? I feel like there ought to be.

I think you're onto something about Larkin being the miserable relative that is nicer to know from a distance. I've often felt that way.

But here's the critical fallacy in a nutshell: You don't have to be a good person to make great art. There's no correlation. The list of bad people who made great art is a long one. I for one am able to separate out the person from the art they made; the art is what endures. Certain types of biography are tantamount to gossip: they do not matter for appreciating the art. The biographical idea that knowing more about the person helps us understand the art is pretty much wrong; or at least so often wrong that it should always be viewed with skepticism.

I appreciate Larkin's poetry very much. I also have enjoyed reading his collected criticism on literature and the arts (although I'll never agree with him on jazz).

But in many ways Larkin was an unhappy lemon of a man, who I would not go out of my way to have tea with. I feel the same way about James Joyce: I dig the writing, not the writer.

Sometimes those biographies just don't add anything important to our pool of knowledge.

Dave King said...

For me it is a matter of mood, I have decided. I imagine that Larkin was not easy to like as a man, and he certainly is not easy to like as a poet, but sometimes I surprise myself and find that (for now) I do like him.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say it disappoints me – although I accept that it is human and a failing I also exhibit – that we feel we need to know the person behind the words to better understand their work. It could be taken as saying that the work lacks in some way, that only when we are privy to the exact circumstances that surround the writing of a work will if make real sense and that's usually rot. Yes, it's interesting to know a bit about the background to a particular work but when does knowing too much become distracting.

Beckett is a fine example of how people have felt the need to mine every aspect of his life to try and shed a little more light on his pieces. It was something that got him down during his life. He considered it irrelevant. Sadly these days the man (or woman) gets marketed along with (if not ahead of) the book and that's just not right.

Art Durkee said...

It was a tenet of the New Criticism that the text alone is what matters, and everything else is extraneous.

In more recent criticism, there was the desire to develop context for better understanding of the text's context. The idea was to find the "aura" around the text, not necessarily to find a cause to its effect, but to give resonance to it.

Both positions have merit. Unfortunately, since a lot of post-modern criticism is highly politicized (not only by political correctness, but in other ways, too), they can skew the reading. Lots of interpretations, especially in academic lit crit, tend to favor this approach these days. The "who am I" of the writer is seen as driving all the work; hence, identity politics, etc.

So, one feels sometimes lately that the pendulum between knowing and not-knowing the context of the text has swung very far towards knowing, rather than not-knowing. I think it's usually a safe bet that the truth lies in the middle ground: some context is beneficial, but intensive data-mining per se produces only data, it doesn't produce wisdom.

Colin Will said...

I have to confess also that I don't understand much lit crit. My background is scientific, and maybe because of that the poetry I most enjoy combines emotion with reflections of the real world, the natural world. However, for nearly 40 years I was a librarian, as Larkin was, so I keep looking for connections.

Rachel Fox said...

Goodness me people...I go away for not even 24 hours (friend's 40th in Edinburgh) and look at you all!

On the train back this morning we sat in the quiet coach (the bliss! Small girl was elsewhere, obviously) and I sat and read Larkin solidly (not something I find easy to do at home, read poetry solidly...too many issues to do with food and dogs and this and that). What a fine couple of hours. It's a great view along that coast but I saw that yesterday - today it was planet Larkin all the way (it's a strange, gloomy but honest place with little wonders and moments of odd love sprinkled not very generously around - you wouldn't want things to be too easy would you?).

I started the 'Collected Poems' at the beginning...read all 'The North Ship' and most of 'The Less Deceived'. So many clouds, so much wind (no laughing please), so many lovely turns of phrase 'love and its commerce', 'instantaneous grief of being alone', 'always is always now'....and it reminds he had, above all, a way with words...something you'd think every poet should have but I'm not sure they all do (not for my taste anyway). Reading him again I thought...you know... the language isn't particularly plain in a lot of the less-known poems but what stands out is how he uses language...never the predictable (or very rarely), always a harsh truthfulness, no interest in making himself anything better than he is or was.

Colin - maybe you would like poem 'III' from 'The North Ship'...I'll put it here. Larkin was only 23 when this was published by the way.

III

The moon is full tonight
And hurts the eyes,
It is so definite and bright.
What if it has drawn up
All quietness and certitude of worth
Wherewith to fill its cup,
Or mint a second moon, a paradise? -
For they are gone from earth.

Philip Larkin


Actually there is still some quietness...just remember to aim for the quiet coach...

shug said...

I absolutely love Larkin. How could you not? He is the bard of tender and mundane desperation, and sums up so many fearful lives, my own included:

"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..."

Rachel Fox said...

'Tender and mundane desperation' - that's just right, just right, just right (as the old Dr Seuss expression has it).