This Be The Verse
But they were fucked up in
Man hands on misery to man.
Seja assim o Poema
Fodem-te a vida, o papá e a mamã,
Mesmo que não seja essa a intenção.
Deixam-te todos os vícios que tenham
E mais dois ou três, por especial atenção.
Mas no tempo deles também foram fodidos
Por tolos trajando jaquetão e coco.
Que quando não estavam piegas ou hirtos
Saltavam, raivosos, à veia, ao pescoço.
E assim é legada a infelicidade,
Vai mais e mais fundo, como o fundo do mar.
Foge mal tenhas oportunidade
E quanto a teres filhos – isso nem pensar.
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.
Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)
High and preposterous and separate -
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
Tropeçando de volta à cama depois de uma mija
Afasto as grossas cortinas e surpreendo-me
Com as nuvens que correm, com a lua tão limpa.
Quatro da manhã: jardins de sombras oblíquas, jazendo
Sob um céu cavernoso e rasgado pelo vento.
Há nisto uma faceta ridícula.
Na lua a lançar-se através de nuvens fugazes
E soltas como fumo de canhão, para logo se apartar
(A luz pétrea aguçando, cá em baixo, os telhados)
Alta e soberba e separada –
Pastilha de amor! Medalhão de arte!
Ó lobos da memória! Imensidões! É certo,
Há um leve arrepio, quando se olha para o alto.
A dureza e a claridade e o alcance,
A singularidade de tão vasto e fixo olhar
É lembrança da força e da dor
De ser jovem; do que não se pode ter de novo,
Mas que é vivido por outros, em pleno, nalgum lugar.
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Quando vejo um casal de miúdos
E percebo que ele a anda a foder e ela
Usa um diafragma ou toma a pílula
Sei que isto é o paraíso
Com que os velhos sonharam toda a vida –
Compromissos e gestos postos de lado
Que nem debulhadora fora de moda,
E toda a gente nova a descer pelo escorrega,
Interminavelmente, para a felicidade. Será
Que alguém olhou para mim há quarenta anos,
E pensou: Isso é que vai ser boa vida,
Nada de Deus ou de suores nocturnos,
Ou medo do inferno, ou ter de esconder
Do padre aquilo em que se pensa. Ele
E a malta dele, c’um raio, hão-de ir todos pelo escorrega
Abaixo, livres que nem pássaros? E de imediato
Em vez de palavras, vêm-me à ideia janelas altas:
O vidro que acolhe o sol, e mais além
O ar azul e profundo, que não revela
Nada e está em lado nenhum e não tem fim.
Estes três poemas: Philip Larkin, Janelas Altas, Poesia, Tradução e introdução de Rui Carvalho Homem, Edições Cotovia, Lisboa, 2004, ISBN 972-795-087-6
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Once I am sure there's
nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand
around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing
the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious
earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –-
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –-
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
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 anaesthetic 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.
Philip Larkin, “Aubade” from Collected Poems.
Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,
Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires -
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers -
A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives
Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
8 October 1961 : The Whitsun Weddings
O desvio para leste, saindo de prósperas sombras industriais
E do tráfego toda a noite para norte; o desvio por campos
A que a escassez e o tojo não permitem chamar prados,
E de vez em quando uma paragem, um nome áspero que cobre
Trabalhadores ao amanhecer; o desvio para a solidão
De céus e de espantalhos, medas, lebres e faisões,
E a presença lenta do rio que se alarga,
As pulhas de nuvens douradas, as marcas de gaivota na lama brilhante,
Prepara-se para a surpresa de uma grande cidade:
Aqui, cúpulas e estátuas, pináculos e gruas aglomeram-se
Junto a ruas salpicadas de grãos, águas repletas de barcaças,
E habitantes de cruas moradias, monotonamente
Trazidos milhas abaixo por trolleys lisos e furtivos,
Empurram a vidraça de portas giratórias e entram nos seus desejos
Fatos baratos, louça vermelha de cozinha, sapatos pontiagudo, gelados,
Misturadoras, torradeiras, máquinas de lavar, secadores –
Multidão dos descontos, urbana mas simples, morando
Onde só vão parentes e vendedores
Num pastoral de barcos rua acima,
Limitado e cheirando a peixe, o museu dos escravos,
Lojas de tatuagem, consulados, donas de casa austeras de lenço na cabeça;
E, para além das suas orlas semiconstruídas e hipotecadas,
Campos de trigo, depressa ensombrados, altos como sebes,
Isolam aldeias onde a solidão clarifica
Vidas afastadas, Aqui o silêncio perdura
Como o calor, Aqui folhas despercebidas engrossam,
Ar povoado de luminiscência ascende;
E, passada a distância azulada e neutra das papoilas,
Termina subitamente a terra para lá de uma praia
De formas e de seixos. Aqui é a existência não vedada;
Enfrentando o sol, retraída, inacessível.
Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS
poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993.
January/February 2012: Volume 33, Number 1 |
By Francis-Noël Thomas
Read this article here
Uma Questão de
PÚBLICO, Sábado, 31 de Julho de 2004
Jorge Gomes Miranda
Autor: Philip Larkin
Tradutor: Rui Carvalho Homem
Editor: Cotovia ,99 págs
Ao recusar a atitude tradicional que fazia do poeta, colocado na situação de profeta ou vidente, um intérprete das sublimidades do coração humano, o inglês Philip Larkin leva a cabo um trabalho verbal de substituição do canto da poesia pela voz natural do poeta. Esta, de um modo reflexivo e atento, aproxima-se das outras vozes humanas, na afirmação de um novo sentido de realidade para a expressão poética, distinto da afectação de atitudes e de tons em que continuam a obstinar-se certos poetas que persistem em ver-se como seres excepcionais, incapazes de se misturar com a realidade comum, aptos apenas para celebrar o que está para além do mundo.
Em Larkin - à semelhança de inúmeros poetas em distintas tradições poéticas - o tom adoptado nos versos vai ser o da experiência real, o das relações humanas, o que desde logo implica que o seu mundo de consideração seja preferencialmente o que verbaliza experiências e sentimentos comuns. Numa pose franca e directa os poemas de "Janelas Altas" são pessoais, descrições mais ou menos autobiográficas, corajosos no modo como em termos de linguagem não erigem nenhuma barreira entre o seu território e o dos leitores. Larkin definiu poema como "o conservar duma experiência", acrescentando ainda, noutra passagem dos seus importantes escritos críticos, ser a poesia, num tempo de loucuras imagéticas e estiletes verbais, uma trégua, "uma questão de sanidade, de ver as coisas tal como são."
Segundo Stephen Burt, Robert Crawford e Sean O'Brien - notáveis hermeneutas de Larkin -, a poesia do autor de "Aubade", ao transmitir a força de um sentir pessoal através do sentido de testemunho comunitário, contribuiu significativamente para um sentido colectivo dos anos de pós-guerra: as observações contidas na sua visão do mundo servem como arquétipos, uma das maneiras de a nação se reconhecer a si própria. A enorme popularidade que alguns dos poemas de Larkin alcançaram é o resultado de terem retirado os seus temas da vida comunitária - no que esta também possui de excluinte e solitária -, ao mesmo tempo que incorporam palavras de "outros grupos", as "dirty words" "extraídas" do mundo das classes trabalhadoras e do universo dos jovens.
Com efeito, esta poesia do quotidiano, da meditação e da história, ao utilizar por vezes uma linguagem "performativa", reflecte o que muitos pensam, sentem e expressam a partir dessa época. Acima de tudo, a questão da verdade; a verdade acerca das nossas relações com os pais, a verdade acerca do crescimento do individuo dentro de uma comunidade cujos lugares e valores se vão deteriorando; a verdade acerca do conceito de pertença a um determinado lugar histórico; a verdade acerca de o tempo nos tornar um pouco mais solitários e descrentes. E por fim, o medo da morte. A inevitabilidade de o homem, esse caleidoscópio de pensamentos e emoções, findar em hospitais inóspitos.
"Jazem, à parte, lá em cima - homens, mulheres;
Velhos, novos; rudes faces da única moeda
Que este lugar aceita. Todos sabem que vão morrer.
Ainda não, talvez não aqui, mas por fim,
E num lugar como este. É o que significa
Esta falésia abrupta, a luta para transcender
A noção da morte; a menos que os seus poderes
Ergam mais que catedrais, nada irá suster
A treva que aí vem, ainda que as gentes tentem
Dia a dia a intercessão, esbanjando débeis flores." (p. 65)
A tristeza, a paciência e a resignação diante do outro que chama progresso à delapidação paisagística, à construção selvagem que grassa na província, entregam por vezes o seu olhar melancólico ao pathos. Larkin é fundamentalmente um poeta sério, jamais trivial, apesar de gostar de começar os seus poemas com o mais comum do humano: umas férias de comboio, um disco de jazz, o retrato de Dublin, um hotel de província, uma feira. Independentemente das suposições de classe, fruto das suas simpatias políticas conservadoras que, segundo alguns (por exemplo, Sean O?Brien), pautam a obra de Larkin, nomeadamente o poema "Vai caindo, Vai caindo", tal não impede que um dos conseguimentos desta escrita radique na tentativa de dar voz a um sentido do "comum", erigido em torno das vidas das classes trabalhadoras. Com precisão e cuidado os poemas de "Janelas Altas" - "o resultado de, entre outras coisas, um olho arguto e um ouvido exacto", na opinião de Kingsley Amis - combinam cenas, modos de vida e detalhes escolhidos, ao mergulharem a sua atenção na medula do quotidiano, no que está sob a superfície das memórias, no vórtice da vida: a solidão, a perda, a morte e o modo como estas mudam o passado e as nossas relações com nós próprios, com os outros, com a natureza, a política, a religião, etc..
Um outro campo de sensibilidade desta poesia pode ser encontrado no pendor para a ironia e a reflexão sobre os mecanismos de recepção da obra literária. Larkin, lembremo-lo, era quase hostil ao estudo da literatura como "disciplina", afirmando não existir muito para dizer acerca da sua obra, uma vez "lido um poema é isso mesmo, é completamente claro o que quer dizer."
"Jake Balokowsky, meu biógrafo na América,/Manda microfilmar esta página. Dentro/da sua cela climatizada e académica,/De ganga e sapatilhas, não faz por esconder/Uma leve impaciência com o seu fardo: /Estou preso a este peidoso pelo menos a um ano" (p. 67) .
Como todos os poetas, Larkin teve ao longo da sua vida alguns detractores que não conseguiram, no entanto, retirar a força e o grau de influência da sua escrita na comunidade, e o colocaram, a par de Auden, como o poeta inglês mais importante da segunda metade do século XX, o lugar que Eliot ocupou na primeira.
Seja como for, transformações profundas do gosto e do enquadramento estético-social em Inglaterra conduziram, nas últimas décadas, a mudanças de compreensão da poesia e do próprio Philip Larkin, intensificando linhas de interpretação que plasmam um compromisso histórico com o mundo em direcção a um simbolismo cósmico, visível sobretudo em " Poema Solar" e "Explosão". De tudo isso nos dá conta também a introdução de Rui Carvalho Homem, o responsável pela tradução de "Janelas Altas".
Larkin Re-Collected Stephen Knight
A queer sort of remedy
Edited by Anthony Thwaite
218pp. faber. Paperback
0 571 21654 4
In an interview published in 1981, Philip Larkin is amusingly rueful about “An Arundel Tomb”, a remarkable poem in which “everything went wrong”. He concludes: “A friend of mine who visited the tomb in Chichester Cathedral told me that the guide said, ‘A poem was written about this tomb by Philip Spender.’ Muddle to the end”. With this latest Collected Poems , muddle, it seems, continues to dog Larkin.
Introducing his first stab at a compilation in 1988, Anthony Thwaite admitted that the addition of so many pieces of uncollected work was “something I do not take lightly”. But it was not the inclusion of this material but its presentation that caused dismay: interleaving the poems of Larkin’s mature volumes with pieces left in notebooks, or published only in journals, obliterated the careful structures of the originals, three of the most important books of modern English poetry. In a puzzling non sequitur , Thwaite argued that Larkin’s scrupulousness in dating and preserving manuscripts meant that “such a man would not wish to stand in the way of a collected volume such as this”. Thwaite’s editing called to mind lines from “Dockery and Son”: “Why did he think adding meant increase? / To me it was dilution”.
This slimmer Collected Poems “returns the reader to the book Larkin might have intended” by printing, in chronological order, The North Ship , which appeared in 1945 when the poet was not yet twenty-three, The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). Dated 1940–72 and 1974–84, two appendices of work Larkin published but did not collect in book form conclude the selection. The earlier volume’s unpublished material is omitted; nothing is new. Thwaite does not say why this approach was inappropriate fifteen years ago, though he does take the opportunity to explain that the structure of his 1988 travesty was imposed “with the agreement of my fellow literary executors, Monica Jones and Andrew Motion”.
Happily, Thwaite has restored not only the running order of the individual volumes but also, in the case of two of the three major collections, The Less Deceived and High Windows , the first editions’ verso and recto pairings. Thwaite quotes a piece of typically unpretentious Larkin, which likens a book’s contents to the order of a music-hall bill: “contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls”. His pairings shift perspective, contradict one another, or expand a theme. So, the lunar gloom of “Sad Steps” faces the glow of “Solar”, the end of an affair in “No Road” looks on the imprisonment of “Wires”, and the injunction of “This Be the Verse” to “Get out as early as you can” precedes “How distant, the departure of young men / Down valleys”.
manner is hands-off, at times too much so. Having astutely placed the poems of
The North Ship at the back of the 1988 version, Thwaite now moves them
to the front, so his selection begins with thirty-eight pages of inferior work.
Is this really what Philip Larkin would have wanted? Scattered through letters
and interviews, Larkin’s thoughts on his debut are quite consistent: it is
“juvenilia” and “drivel”, includes some pieces “I hate very much indeed” and is
“abysmally bad ”; while, in a letter to Thwaite in 1966, Larkin claims his
motives for sanctioning a reissue twenty-one years after the book’s first
appearance include vindictiveness:
What happened was that old Caton printed a new edition, the stinking treacherous bastard, without payment or permission, & I thought the only way to fuck him up was to bring out an “official” edition. [. . . .] The flaw in all this is that if one is angry at having a book brought out, it’s a queer sort of remedy to bring it out twice.
Of course, it is difficult to gauge how much all this is Larkinesque self-deprecation; after all he was quite prepared to undermine “An Arundel Tomb”, and he was sunnier about The North Ship on its reissue in at least one letter to his mother. Perhaps then it is best, not to speculate on what a dead author might have wanted, but in the first instance to provide the general reader with a book that shows the poetry to its best advantage. Unfortunately, neither Collected quite achieves this.
There are certainly flourishes at both extremes of this book. “Femmes Damnées”, written in 1943 and included in the first appendix, is pleasingly detailed:
the early morning sun
Outlines the patterns on the curtains, drawn
The night before. The milk’s been on the step,
The Guardian in the letter-box, since dawn.
Even The North Ship has its moments, mostly adumbrations of the later work that possess a certain curiosity value: the “Long sibilant-muscled trees” become, twenty-five years later, the “Wet century-wide trees” of “The Card Players”, while “The train runs on through wilderness / Of cities” is a blurred image of that famous snapshot in “The Whitsun Weddings”:
An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl – . . . .
Larkin’s verdict on one poem in The North Ship – “It’s not very sharp, is it?” – might stand for that book as a whole; and, with the exception of “Aubade”, a major work and one of the most frightening poems I know, the poetry in the appendices is second-rate Philip Larkin. As far as its organization is concerned, this Collected Poems is a sandwich made with stale bread.
An even thinner book, comprising the three mature volumes and a smattering of early and uncollected pieces, would have been more in keeping with the rigour of a poet who wrote little and left nine or ten years between slim volumes; it would also have better reflected his aesthetic of deprivation and claustrophobia. Larkin’s poetry defines a small area in which déjà vu is pervasive: “The Large Cool Store” ramifies “Here”, the invitation-cards of “Wants” are delivered again in “Vers de Société”, the “specially-chosen junk” of “Poetry of Departures” and the furnishings of “Home is so Sad” might have been bought in the same shop. In art as in life, Larkin gives himself little room to manoeuvre. One of the triumphs of his poetry is its marriage of formal control with a speaking voice. It is brilliantly effective in, for example, “The Old Fools”:
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair,
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening.
Held together with full rhyme camouflaged by enjambment, the second sentence is sustained over eight lines; internal rhyme, alliteration and repetition echo somewhere at the back of the mind, haunting the reader as the old people are haunted by the past. The first full stop comes in an unexpected place, and the final two-and-a-quarter lines are unpunctuated. Read aloud, the whole passage takes the breath away. So, deftly and decisively, Larkin puts us with the old fools, puffing up “extinction’s alp”.
This Collected Poems is certainly an improvement on its predecessor, though I can’t help thinking that one of the half-dozen finest English poets of the twentieth century has deserved a better deal since his death. Presumably, at least until the print run of the 1988 edition is exhausted, there will be two books with identical title-pages in circulation. What would Philip Larkin the librarian have made of that?
By Mary Karr
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Philip Larkin almost tried to sound unattractive and misanthropic. How'd he describe himself at Oxford? As a balding salmon. Ultra-conservative in politics and art, he praised Margaret Thatcher and mocked experimenters like Picasso. For Larkin (a college librarian), poetry was "an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are." He didn't read in public and eschewed any fanfare associated with what he scornfully called "being a poet." College pal Kingsley Amis once asked if he dreamed of being poet laureate of England, and Larkin quipped, "I dream about that sometimes -- and wake up screaming." He never wasted a reader's time but spitefully resented his own being wasted through inane social activity. He opens "Vers de Société" by satirizing an invitation:
My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You'd care to join us? In a pig's arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I'm afraid --
The poem concludes with Larkin's trademark fear of death, which leads him to accept the invite he initially scorned:
Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse
Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why of course --
My favorite poems by Larkin aren't his jokey snide ones, but the more introspective lyrics that find a tragic failure to love in his urge to isolate. In "No Road," the lost lover is also a next-door neighbor.
Since we agreed to let the road between us
Fall to disuse,
And bricked our gates up, planted trees to screen us,
And turned all time's eroding agents loose,
Silence, and space, and strangers -- our neglect
Has not had much effect.
Leaves drift unswept, perhaps; grass creeps unmown;
No other change.
So clear it stands, so little overgrown,
Walking that way tonight would not seem strange,
And still would be allowed. A little longer,
And time will be the stronger,
Drafting a world where no such road will run
From you to me;
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty.
Not to prevent it is my will's fulfillment.
Willing it, my ailment.
These last lines sound squeezed through clenched teeth -- the phrases growing shorter and shorter, as if losing steam. So as the poet's self-knowledge becomes more like an indictment of inadequacy, the poem tightens till it snaps shut, leaving us out, as Larkin willed it.
(These poems are from "Collected Poems of Philip Larkin," edited by Anthony Thwaite .
Mary Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.
ACTUAL, 11 de Setembro de 2004
Lição de coisas e de sombras
Editado em Portugal o último livro publicado em vida de um dos mais estimados poetas ingleses do século XX
Texto de António Cabrita
de Philip Larkin
Cotovia, 2004, trad. e introd. de Rui Carvalho Homem, 102 págs. € 14
Nos anos 50, um grupo de universitários de Oxford - entre os quais Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis, Tom Gunn, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings e Philip Larkin - propôs-se recuperar uma vertente da poesia inglesa obnubilada pela influência das vozes dominantes de Yeats e Eliot e que tinha em Thomas Hardy o seu último avatar.
Um jornalista do “Spectator” apelidou-os The Movement. O objectivo do grupo: rechaçar os grandes sistemas teóricos, o esoterismo dos grandes temas, os primados inconscientes ou místicos, bem como qualquer réstia de preciosismo formal ou de experimentalismo gratuito, e deplorar o isolamento do poeta, a sua pose. “Como princípio reitor, creio que cada poema deve nutrir o seu próprio universo recém-criado e, portanto, não comungo nem com a tradição nem com o mitologismo...», declarou Larkin, numa entrevista, tomando o hábito de apresentar-se como «uma entidade insonsa» (Marcelo Cohen).
Larkin tornou-se no nome cimeiro do grupo e provou-se a sua popularidade na edição póstuma dos seus Collected Poems (CP) que vendeu em dois meses cerca de 35.000 exemplares.
Janelas Altas (JA) foi a sua última recolha publicada em vida. Esta é uma poesia «impura», permeada por elementos biográficos e circunstanciais, que assume um valor de testemunho e documento e se revê na fórmula dc Luis MacNeice, de 1938: «The poet’s first business is mentioning things». De facto, a obra de Larkin é umna das janelas que melhor ventila as cores da vida e a emergência das Coisas nas décadas do pós-guerra, que fizeram da reiteração do presente (assistia-se à explosão da «cultura de massas» e aos gérmenes da pop) uma das suas bandeiras. Por outro lado, como refere Derek Walcott, raros poetas são tão capazes de fazer o leitor sentir-se um ouvinte na intimidade. Ressalve-se que os poemas não são confessionais, mas esse encadeamento de coisas e assuntos que se compartilha numa conversa fluente e que, pelo seu anti-intelectualismo, flirta com o humor, fazendo do leitor seu confidente.
Larkin bebe no quotidiano, afia nele as facas da auto-reflexividade, multiplica as máscaras e os pontos de vista, e, numa anti-epopeia laceradora, retrata uma Grã-Bretanha a pique, na sua pequenez de um país sem império, na mediania dum quotidiano agridoce que vai demovendo as ilusões:
Fodem-te a vida, o papá e a mamã,
Mesmo que não seja essa a intenção.
Deixam-te todos os vícios que tenham
E mais dois ou três, por especial atenção.
Mas no tempo deles também foram fodidos
Por tolos trajando jaquetão e coco.
Que quando não estavam piegas ou hirtos
Saltavam, raivosos, à veia, ao pescoço.
E assim é legada a infelicidade,
Vai mais e mais fundo, como o fundo do mar.
Foge mal tenhas oportunidade
E quanto a teres filhos – isso nem pensar. (pág. 73)
Neste afã de se colocar «à distância», Larkin até via nas rosas presenças demoníacas — «And fear are flowers, and flowers are generation» (CP) — pois para ele não era suportável a beleza que não autoriza o recuo, a ironia, e que, por acção de um timbre empático, tenta sublimar um mundo que é caído, sujo, desprovido, material: «O vinho aquece o ânimo e as faces:/ Pragueja se a apoiar opiniões/ Sobre a ressurreição ou a febre reumática,/ O regicídio, ou a receita de empadões” (JA, pág. 39).
E, contudo, não obstante, a resignação neste poeta parece-nos aparente. Atrás da efemeridade das coisas, da mudança inelutável de tudo, da insignificância do destino humano, de que se faz relator, o realismo de Larkin, como sublinha Etienne Galle num notável artigo, “constrói-se sobre uma falta, sobre um sentimento de transcendência que não chega a crer na sua validade mas que não pode senão ressurgir sem parar, porque continua a advir, em segredo». Daí que não se instaure o niilismo no fecho do poema «Janelas Altas»:
Em vez de palavras, vêm-me à ideia janelas altas:
O vidro que acolhe o sol, e mais além
O ar azul e profundo, que não revela
Nada e está em lado nenhum e não tem fim. (pág.45)
- mas sim algo que está para além do comércio das palavras.
A poesia de Larkin foi, aliás, assimilando um leque alargado de leituras e, paradoxalmente --lembremo-nos da insistência de Larkin em dizer que na sua poesia não havia nada a interpretar -, apesar do tanto que o poeta quis rechaçar, nada rejeita. Hoje, como refere Rui Carvalho Homem no prefácio, Larkin vem sendo «crescentemente lido contra ele mesmo», revelando as dimensões ocultas (as do simbolismo, por exemplo) que nele coabitam e lembrando que esta poesia da contingência não prescinde de uma claridade lunar e de lampejos «metafísicos» escondidos debaixo do tapete.
Sempre me intrigo por exemplo, a estranha correspondência que existe entre um verso do místico sufi Djalâl-ud-Dîn Rûmi, «A rosa é um jardim onde se escondem as árvores» e este poema de North Ship, o primeiro livro de Larkin, 1945: «This is the first thing/ I have understood:/ Time is the echo of na axe/ Within a wood”. Mas podíamos falar numa propensão para uma totalidade (sinfónica) em poemas como « The Whitsun Weddings» (do livro homónimo ou em «Sábado de Feira», de Janelas Altas, que termina assim uma longa enumeração:
«Voltam agora, todos eles, às suas vidas locais:
Aos nomes nas furgonetas e aos calendários comerciais
Na parede das cozinhas; voltam ao vozear
Da Bolsa de Cereais, aos dias de mercados em bares,
Ao lnverno iminente, enquanto a Feira desmontada
Se vai esbatendo no terreno do trabalho.
Que fique aí, oculta como uma força subjacente
A anúncios de vendas e de burlas; algo que as gentes fazem,.
Sem notarem como o fumo que volteia da bigorna do tempo
Encobre gestos muito maiores; algo que partilham e
que eclode ancestralmente a cada ano numa
União revigorada. Que fique sempre aí» (pág. 91, sublinhado meu);
o que nos traz à memória o eco destes versos de Sophia de Mello Breyner: a escrita exige solidões e desertos! E coisas que se vêem como quem vê outra coisa».
Esta edição é bilingue e permite o cotejo. Algumas soluções levantam-me dúvidas, há escolhas que não favorecem o verso na língua de chegada: “(...) ao som do mesmo cacarejar de praia» (pág. 27); «As folhas rebentam nas árvores! Como algo que quase se diz» (pág. 33); «Ó lasso mundo de borboletas» (pág. 37); «(…) alguém bebe cerveja/ e abre mexilhões, e grasna passos de cantigas» (pág. 59); e em «Quadro de Dublin», na minha opinião, na passagem da terceira para a quarta estrofe, a sugestão da morte que dança com os passos dos vivos é minada pela explícita materialidade da palavra «dança», que Larkin não usa, e que rouba a ambivalência (quem dança ali: a morte ou as amigas da evocada?). Mas esta é apenas a minha leitura, pode haver outras. E o essencial (aliás, há boas soluções, e cito uma: «A rádio coça-se de satisfação,/ Falando-me de outros lugares», pág. 37) é a divulgação deste excelente livro.
By Philip Larkin.
218 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Philip Larkin published sparingly, and ordered his collections with care -- ''great care,'' he once emphasized, then joked, ''I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls.''
The 1988 edition of his ''Collected Poems'' included all the poems Larkin completed after 1946, when he turned 24; a healthy dose of juvenilia; and the unfinished poems Larkin had preserved in typescript. They were presented chronologically, so that dancing bears, freaks and children were now shuffled in with the comic and the Irish tenor. A service to completists and scholarly curiosity seekers, this was a disservice to general readers and the poet himself, who had been fastidious to the point of self-torment. (At the end of some of his most beautifully realized poems, Larkin would scribble a string of dismissive obscenities, as if he were defacing a billboard.) The idea seemed to be that, without all the extras, Larkin would somehow lack heft. But heft is precisely what Larkin's reputation has never required. As Kingsley Amis said at his funeral, though Larkin ''may not have written many poems, he wrote none that were false or unnecessary.''
The new ''Collected Poems'' is streamlined, and truer to Larkin's inner censor, almost to the point where that fidelity turns slightly perverse. Nothing is there that Larkin did not see fit to publish, including some major poems, most notably ''Letter to a Friend About Girls'' and ''Love Again.'' Yet Amis's judgment still stands; and passing over the immature work, the reader hits upon a virtually unbroken string of quietly harrowing masterpieces. For the first time in one volume, we get Larkin as Larkin intended. If one starts with ''Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album,'' from 1953, and reads through the famous ditties from ''High Windows'' (1974), the conclusion becomes inescapable: he belongs in the company of Yeats, Frost and Auden as one of the finest poets of the 20th century. For all that, Larkin did not believe poetry should be forbidding -- he once insisted any poem demanding more than an ''understanding of the language it was written in, and a feeling heart'' deserved to be ''slapped down'' -- and for new readers, an appropriately ingratiating volume of his work is now available.
But new readers beware. Since 1988, a very frank biography has been published, as well as an eye-opening ''Selected Letters.'' To Larkin the following epithets must now sadly apply: racist, misogynist, misanthropist, avid consumer of pornography -- he was ''one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys,'' as he himself imagined a biographer putting it. For Larkin, smallness of personality was what Wessex had been for Hardy, a defensively provincial redoubt from which to safely examine the world. But poets are expected to be more than first-rate talents. As Wordsworth had it, the poet is ''the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.'' How do we square this with Larkin, with his bitterness, his commitment to masturbatory solitude and his slide into gross political reaction?
In one way, of course, Larkin was a Wordsworthian through and through -- he never strayed from ''the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.'' His poetry was always lucid and plain-spoken. For generations, young men had arrived at Oxford expecting to slough off in Latin and Greek while sneaking doses of vernacular literature. But Larkin's Oxford was now teaching novels, of all things. To sustain the anti-donnish pose, he lurched away from every conceivable literary affectation -- toward Auden and Isherwood, who were too recent to be canonized, and Lawrence, whom Larkin (echoing Frieda Lawrence) considered ''not a classic, but an experience.'' Larkin would forever conceive of both his life and work as profoundly antiliterary. ''I do find literary parties or meetings,'' he once told Ian Hamilton, ''or anything that considers literature, in public, in the abstract rather than concretely, in private, not exactly boring -- it is boring, of course -- but unhelpful and even inimical.''
To affront the scholarly ear, Larkin gladly struck minor, even bathetic chords. The later poems often feature shortened lines, nursery or lullaby rhymes and a vocabulary that is unadorned, if not slangy and vulgar. Nowhere in the collection is there any gratuitous display of metrical show-jumping. Still, Larkin had an acutely sensitive ear. One later poem, ''The Trees,'' opens with
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said.
The phantom word after leaf -- the word ''almost being said'' -- is ''again,'' which would round out the first line into perfect iambic pentameter. Instead, Larkin unfolds the poem, a melancholy paean to spring, in steady, even, four-beat lines. In the final stanza we get the withheld word, but it upbraids us by being even lovelier than anticipated:
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Even when playing upon a Jamesian ambiguity, Larkin never relinquished clarity. In the much-anthologized ''Mr. Bleaney,'' the speaker considers the former tenant of his own rented room. ''So it happens that I lie / Where Mr. Bleaney lay, and stub my fags / On the same saucer-souvenir. . . .'' As he continues to muse on their possible affinities, he seems simultaneously to inhabit and repudiate Bleaney:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.
Just who is being described here? Larkin took great pains to distance himself from his creation, and from his own public image as a miserable hermit, by appearing endlessly commonsensical and debonair. Bleaney or not, Larkin was devoted to his isolation, and by the time he published ''Aubade,'' near the end of his life, there was no doubt to whom the opening lines were referring: ''I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.'' To have written ''Aubade,'' an unblinking meditation on his approaching extinction, Larkin had to have lived alone; and to live alone, Larkin warded off marriage like a devoted matriphobe. He regarded the practice as ''an enormous absurdity,'' like ''taking a job as a sparring partner in order to see the champ in action.'' Thus we inherit a twinned image of Larkin: as a loner who drew down the shades, not so much to keep the light out as to keep the jaundice in; and as a bachelor, sitting drink in hand, jazz on the hi-fi.
Yet Larkin held no illusions about personal freedom. He was the classic postwar neurotic, and knew it: he suffered under a crushing sense of behavioral determinism. Put another way: he thought his mum and dad had indeed . . . well, you know the rest. (The opening of ''This Be the Verse'' may be the most promiscuously circulated line of 20th century poetry. It ''will be my Lake Isle of Innisfree,'' Larkin grumbled.)
For Larkin, failure was not some grand or metaphysical gesture; he meant failure as ordinary, petty you-and-me failure. What would success have meant? Commercial triumph, after the example of his old chum Amis -- ''500-words-a-day-on-the-Riviera,'' as he joked once it was clearly out of reach; sounding a note of Yeatsian grandeur in his poetry; and not growing up to be his father. Larkin failed spectacularly at all three. He produced two passable novels, ''Jill'' and ''A Girl in Winter,'' before giving up on a third. In his first book of poetry, ''The North Ship,'' the influence of Yeats served him poorly. And after his rejection by the civil service, he became, like his father, a career bureaucrat. The great undergraduate wit, who could gore you with a flick of the tongue, had ended up a librarian stationed in Hull, a locale so grim as to be trite. It was, Larkin wrote the poet and historian Robert Conquest, ''like a backdrop for a ballet about industrialism crushing the natural goodness of man.''
Larkin's father, as is now known, had been a Nazi sympathizer. But he also introduced his son to Hardy and Lawrence, and bought him a drum kit and a subscription to Down Beat magazine when he expressed an early interest in jazz. A perverse mix of authoritarian and freethinking impulses left Larkin with nothing unequivocal to rebel against or love. Unsurprisingly, as a result, a lacerating ambivalence about his parents followed him throughout his life. With a certain dismal glee, though, Larkin gave in to one side of his father's disposition. As he grew older, he became increasingly obsessed with immigration and the dole. Efforts to excuse Larkin's racism are doomed, but it might at least be understood in context. Larkin had fled the presence of literary pomp his whole life, only to win the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Where to keep renewing the old, delightful sense of his own naughtiness, then, but in a grotesque politics?
His rants about blacks were repellent, but also simply juvenile: of a piece with the lullaby rhymes, the clink of ice in rented digs, the grousing about one's parents -- the strange mix of adult sophistication and utter childishness that marks the existence of a permanent bachelor. But Larkin always remained a wildly inconstant mix of a best and a worst self. The man who flung around the N-word in his private correspondence also wrote, ''The Negro did not have the blues because he was naturally melancholy. He had them because he was cheated and bullied and starved.''
Larkin's best self was Larkin the poet, of course; and for Larkin the poet, the bitterest partialities of modern life -- racism, isolation, egoism and failure -- were to be clung to with an unrelenting and sour pride, the better to be examined and understood for what they truly represented: the absence of love. Larkin experienced and wrote about love as a crestfallen theologian might write about faith. He saw it as inexorable and overwhelmingly beautiful, but fundamentally not his to be given over to, or fully possess. It is the childless eye that sees how parents at the beach are ''teaching their children by a sort / Of clowning.''
By feeling chronically gypped in his personal life, Larkin came to know love intimately, by the contours of its absence. Where most of us dare only pause, Larkin set up shop -- in that state of near-total abjection over the suspicion we're damaged goods. ''The object of writing,'' he once said, ''is to show life as it is, and if you don't see it like that you're in trouble, not life.'' To read Larkin is to be helped to endure life as it actually is. For this he deserves not only the title poet, with its fullest and most humane connotation, but also hero.
Stephen Metcalf, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
A Poet in Full
Fri March 12, 10:30
Could Larkin the beloved poet have existed without Larkin the racist cad of a man?
by Adam Kirsch
by philip larkin, edited and with an introduction by anthony thwaite
faber and faber, 218 pp., $23
selected letters of philip
edited by anthony thwaite
faber and faber, 832 pp., $24.99
philip larkin: a writer's life
by andrew motion
faber and faber, 592 pp., $29.99
the philip larkin i knew by maeve brennan
manchester university press, 382 pp., $38.95
In the mid-1990s, Maeve Brennan - a colleague of Philip Larkin's for thirty years, and his lover for more than half that time - mentioned to a new acquaintance that she had worked at the library of the University of Hull, in Britain. Immediately, the woman cried, "You don't mean to say you worked for that abominable man!"
That abominable man had been known, until his death in 1985, as England's greatest modern poet. In his small but nearly perfect body of work, Larkin resurrected a tradition of English poetry that had seemed lost in the heady Modernist years. He used plain speech and metrical form to deal with profound and universal themes - nature, mortality, loneliness. At the same time, he was naturally contemporary in both language and feeling, easily mixing references to the Beatles with meditations on a medieval tomb or the First World War. His poems were often bleak and comfortless, but readers responded to Larkin with an affection rivalled by few modern poets.
But, in 1993, after the publication of his selected letters and a biography by Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin suddenly became - in the gleeful rhetoric of Britain's book-page pundits - "a petty-bourgeois fascist," embodying a "rancid and insidious philistinism" and a "repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity." Larkin had made no secret of being, as he wrote in "Posterity," "one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys," and his poems were remarkably frank about his sexual griefs. But the revelation of the details of Larkin's private life - including simultaneous love affairs with three different women, and scandalous correspondences with friends such as Kingsley Amis - suddenly cast the beloved poet in an unpleasant new light. What mattered most about Larkin, the press seemed to decide, was not that he wrote some of the best English poems of the twentieth century - "Church Going," "The Whitsun Weddings," "Faith Healing," "Aubade" - but his taste for pornography and his occasional use of racial slurs. As Martin Amis wrote at the time in The Guardian, "The word 'Larkinesque' used to evoke the wistful, the provincial, the crepuscular, the sad, the unloved; now it evokes the scabrous and the supremacist."
Worse, it seemed that Larkin's poetry would become a casualty of the scandal. Most great writers suffer a temporary decline in reputation after their deaths, as the literary world grows weary of paying them homage. But the reaction to Larkin was more personal and venomous, thanks in large part to the early-1990s vogue of political correctness - all of whose pieties and sensitivities Larkin had eagerly violated. One prominent professor of English editorialized (under the headline "Philip Larkin's letters have exposed him as a misogynist and racist - defending him is despicable") that he had been "edged . . . from centre to margin" of English literature. A columnist for the Library Association Record demanded that Larkin's books be banned. The whole sordid episode seemed to confirm, with a vengeance, what Larkin once told an interviewer: "I think it's very sensible not to let people know what you're like."
Yet, last year, when the Poetry Book Society commissioned a poll of Britain's favourite poets of the last fifty years, Larkin came in first, above T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney. It appeared that the contingent he had called, admiringly, "the cash customers of poetry" had not forgotten Larkin the writer. Neither have his publishers: recent years have seen the publication of a second volume of his essays, Further Requirements, and a collection of his early unpublished fiction, Trouble at Willow Gables and Other Fictions. Nor have all the critics agreed that Larkin's place is on the margins. A forthcoming study, Philip Larkin: Subversive Writer, by Stephen Cooper, argues that the poet's 'immoral' behaviour, which has prompted extensive criticism in recent years, was part of the same impulse towards subversion which guided Larkin's greatest works. And a new biography by Richard Bradford, also in the works, will break the Motion monopoly on Larkin's life.
Lately, even Larkin the man has enjoyed a surprising comeback. Last summer, the BBC broadcast a movie about Larkin's romantic life, Love Again, whose writer, Richard Cottan, and star, Hugh Bonneville, declared it "an attempt to reclaim him" from "the prurient knee-jerk reaction" to the letters and the biography. Maeve Brennan published a memoir in 2002, in which she tried to distinguish The Philip Larkin I Knew from the "morose, self-pitying misanthropist" of popular myth. Even Andrew Motion recently declared in The Guardian that "the future looks good for Larkin's writing."
But perhaps the most significant milestone is the new edition of his Collected Poems, published in Canada and Britain last year, and released in the U.S. this April. By returning our attention from the failings of the man to the triumphs of the work, it symbolically completes Larkin's rehabilitation. In fact, the symmetry is perfect, for it could be said that the publication of the first collected Larkin, published in 1988 and edited, as the new one is, by Anthony Thwaite, one of Larkin's literary executors, marked the beginning of his posthumous slide.
The new Collected Poems is the book that should have been published sixteen years ago. Smaller than its predecessor by some hundred pages, it reproduces each of Larkin's collections in their original order, with an appendix of poems that were published in magazines but never included in books. Almost all of Larkin's important poems appeared in three slim books, published at long intervals: The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). He was a rigorous judge of his own work, waiting years to publish some poems, and refusing to let others ever see the light of day. What's more, he carefully planned the order of his collections. "I treat them like a music-hall bill," he told an interviewer, "you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls." Yet, the 1988 volume included almost everything Larkin wrote, not just the uncollected poems, but the unpublished and even the unfinished. And since the arrangement was chronological, the delicate sequences of Larkin's books were destroyed; masterpieces were jumbled up with squibs.
Anthony Thwaite's only questionable decision is to start off this new volume, not with The Less Deceived, but with The North Ship, a collection of juvenilia that appeared in 1945. While he did allow the book to be republished later in life, Larkin also wrote that "I could never contemplate it without a twinge, faint or powerful, of shame compounded with disappointment." If these poems have any value, it is the light they shed on the roots of Larkin's poetic personality. For that personality was remarkably consistent, from the beginning of Larkin's writing life to the end and it is only by understanding the poet that we can make sense of the unlovelier aspects of the man.
The central fact about Larkin is that he accepted, with harrowing seriousness, the challenge of W.B. Yeats: "The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work." In 1944, at twenty-one, Larkin wrote to a friend: "I feel that myself & my character are nothing except insofar as they contribute to the creation of literature. . . . To increase one's value as a pure instrument is what I am trying to do." If every great poet essentially feels the same way, Larkin was unusual in the extent and ferocity of his renunciations. While writing his poems, Yeats got married, had children, ran a theatre company, and served in the Irish Senate. But Larkin, for reasons that he himself never claimed to understand, could not write without a nearly monastic isolation and routine.
The most revealing document in Trouble at Willow Gables is a short fictional dialogue he wrote in 1950, "Round the Point." In it, the brutal Miller proclaims that the writer must erect "a crustacean barrier between him and the rest of the world to protect the shrinking membrane that registers every sensation so appallingly." The earnest young Geraint is appalled by this notion, but Miller insists: "Once and for all, get it into your head that you cannot be a complete writer without being a complete cad." For Larkin, however, this did not mean becoming one of those he derided, in an article on the Beats, as "people who, on the pretext of having to do with art, choose to live in a way that strikes the rest of society as reprehensible." Quite the opposite: Larkin's conduct, notably of his professional life as a librarian, was always beyond reproach. "Caddishness" was, for Larkin, an affair not of license but restraint; it meant not giving away any of his freedom and independence to another person, especially a woman.
It was only by embracing Miller's ruthlessness that Larkin attained his poetic maturity. In the poems of The North Ship, one can already discern his great themes - loneliness, sexual deprivation, fear of death - but he writes about them in a borrowed Yeatsian diction, and with the misty self-pity of adolescence: "It will not matter, / It is not love you will find." In "Ugly Sister," however, he begins to suggest that his lovelessness is not just something to complain about, but the necessary price of his gift:
Since I was not bewitched in
And brought to love,
I will attend to the trees and
their gracious silence,
To winds that move.
Larkin became a great poet only once he had confronted the full implications of this bargain. In the four years after he left Oxford, he was precociously prolific, publishing two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, in addition to The North Ship. Then, as he later recalled, "There came a great break in about 1948 when I finished - I thought I'd finished writing. I knew I'd finished writing novels, and I thought I'd finished poetry." By the time the crisis was over, he had broken off an engagement (to Ruth Bowman, his first love), renounced fiction, and begun to write the poems of The Less Deceived.
It was, however, an ironic triumph. Larkin, it might be said, immolated his life in order to write poetry, and then found that the true subject of his poetry was the immolation of his life. Just as, it seems, Yeats fell hopelessly in love with Maud Gonne in order to write "The Folly of Being Comforted," so Larkin buried himself in provincial bachelordom in order to write "Mr Bleaney," "Talking in Bed," and "Dockery and Son":
Life is first boredom, then
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something
hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only
end of age.
As he himself once wrote about John Betjeman, "he was holding off with an instinctive obstinate wisdom anything that might hinder contact with the factors that were to form his particular nature." And because it is an instinct, or a destiny, it is beyond the poet's deliberate choice. As he wrote to Maeve Brennan, "to have acted differently, I shd have needed to have felt differently, to have been different." As in life, so in art: "one no more chooses what one writes," he explained, "than one chooses the character one has or the environment one has."
It is for this reason that the posthumous indignation about Larkin's character seemed so shallow and hypocritical. Of course, his avidity for pornography is distasteful; of course, his use of racial slurs is a moral failure (though it should be noted that while Larkin behaved badly in the privacy of his letters, he never behaved evilly in his life, or in his poetry). But when the critics declared themselves shocked to discover a "rancid" or "repellent" Larkin, one wonders which Larkin they had been reading all along. Surely not the poet who imagined the inside of his head, in "If, My Darling," as "Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles," and described his face, in "Send No Money," as "The bestial visor, bent in / By the blows of what happened to happen." To read Larkin's poems is to know the worst that his letters reveal, and then some.
But it is also to know the best. For, while journalism reduces people to foolish formulas ("the little Englander porn fiend," as one reviewer of the BBC program put it), poetry is a universal charity. And an intelligent one: what makes Larkin's verse appealing, even at its darkest, is the uncomplacent wit of his self-portraits. He always includes himself in his own satire. "Toads" starts out with a comic attack on work - "Six days of the week it soils / With its sickening poison" - but ends by acknowledging: "Something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too."
At times, Larkin rises to a self-exposure of extraordinary courage, putting himself at risk in a way few poets dare. "Love Again" - perhaps the only poem whose absence from the new Collected Poems is to be regretted - has drawn a lot of fire from Larkin's detractors, with its sexual loathing and use of words like "wanking" and "cunt." But you would have to be blind, or malicious, not to see that the violence of Larkin's language - just as in "The Old Fools," a poem about mortality that begins by mocking the aged - is meant as a symptom of his own pain, grief, and fear:
Isolate rather this element
That spreads through other lives
like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of
And say why it never worked
And if suffering hones Larkin's savagery, it also breeds his remarkable compassion. Many poets might write a poem on the subject of "Faith Healing," and even rival Larkin's sharp eye for the unctuous, fraudulent preacher, "Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair." What is unique is Larkin's pity for the women who flock to be healed, a pity secured against condescension by his own experience of lovelessness:
In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according
To some it means the difference
they could make
By loving others, but across most
As all they might have done had
they been loved.
That nothing cures.
Lines such as these remind us what it really means for a poet to sacrifice himself for his art. It has nothing to do with ambition, vanity, or even material deprivation, though many poets' lives include all of these. It means hollowing out one's self, in order to allow all the bitterness and joy of life to take up residence there, and find expression. In this sense, even a misanthropic poet is bewilderingly generous; as Larkin said, "the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done." And it is this rare generosity, not his common failings, that will finally secure Larkin's reputation for posterity. As he wrote in "An Arundel Tomb": "What will survive of us is love."
Adam Kirsch is the author of The Thousand Wells: Poems, and the book critic for the New York Sun.