Beauty And Despair In The Poems Of Philip Larkin…

The English poet Philip Larkin died thirty-two years ago but was perhaps England’s last truly popular poet.

It is not surprising that he is remembered. His poems are accessible, in style and in theme, compared to his modern successors. They are also very English: romantically meditative and equivocal yet with bouts of scorn, cynicism and black comedy. They inspire both catharsis and consolation.

That Larkin endured such an unattractive life, holed up in the bleakest outposts of the English provinces to wallow in loveless affairs, pornography and alcoholism, has made some commentators disapprove of his poems. I think it makes them more remarkable. He saved his sensitivity, one feels, for his art.

The occasional nature of his poetic instinct is evident in his poems, which often begin with banal, if elegant, observations. In “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb” the poet visits churches and takes in their “matting, seats, and stone”. He feels “awkward reverence” yet remains unstirred. In the former he reflects “the place was not worth stopping for” while in the latter he is tempted to dismiss effigies of an earl and countess as exhibiting the “plainness of the pre-baroque”. Yet his tone subty shifts. In “An Arundel Tomb” Larkin observes that the earl and countess are holding hands and suggests that this proves:

Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

In “Church Going” Larkin asks himself what will become of such churches when they “fall completely out of use” and reflects that he stands “a serious house on serious earth”, where:

…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.

Some nonbelievers describe themselves as “cultural Christians”. This is often superficial, such as in the case of Richard Dawkins, who defined it as appreciating Christmas carols. Larkin’s reference to a “hunger…to be more serious”, presumably unassauged by material concerns, is infinitely more profound.

As moving as it is, one feels the thought should be pursued. What does it mean to be serious? How can the dead advise? Perhaps this is unfair to ask of Larkin, who, blessed with an extraordinary transcendental sense, made no great claims for his transcendental substance. Drifting around the church – signing the book and donating a sixpence – he admits to often being “at a loss like this/Wondering what to look for”.

Even in his purest moments of sublime insight Larkin suppresses the encroachment of the mystical. The “almost-instinct” is almost true, and it is “someone”, not himself, who seeks wisdom in the church. Well, fair enough. He was a staunch materialist and to indulge his sentiments would have struck him as a cop-out. He had no wish to elide emotional almost truths with empirical actual truths. Yet there is an unreflective cynicism in his dismissal of faith, in “Aubade”, as a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die”. He had too much imagination to be so reductive.

Larkin was a constitutional conservative, not in the sense of admiring Franklin and Hamilton but in the sense of being nostalgic, sceptical and bilious. The latter tendency emerged in his acerbic doggerel about the “so-called working class” (“I want to see them starving”) but the former was sincere and sentimental. He pined for what he never had and never quite believed in: the naive pre-war England of “MCMXIV”; the doomed wildlife of “Going, Going” and potential domestic bliss in “Home is so Sad”, which mourns, “A joyous shot at how things ought to be/Long fallen wide”.

These inclinations often soured into the nihilism of “Days” or “This Be The Verse”. In the latter, the injunction to “get out as early as you can” reveals a certain playfulness, coming from a man with a tremendous fear of death. Yet I think it probable that the sardonicism only ironised the overwhelming loneliness expressed in “High Windows” and “Faith Healing”. There Larkin concludes:

In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures.

There is truth to this. But is it true? For some, of course, it is, and heartbreakingly so, but most? Larkin, whose fear of being entrapped by his commitments locked him into convoluted, often arduous bachelordom, exaggerated both the highs and lows of family life – the “joyous shot” of “Home is so Sad” contrasted with the abjection of “Self’s the Man” – so as to make the former seem completely unattainable and the latter seem entirely inevitable. This dignified his predicament. Why not laze about single rooms as that of “Mr Bleaney”, stubbing out one’s cigarettes and “shaking off the dread”, if no one else is really happy?

One can sympathise, of course. One can even empathise. Yet I think this points towards a deeper limitation of his work: it is not too depressing but too consolatory. One could wallow in beautiful pathos; romanticising failure so much as to preclude success. So lovely is “Church Going” that Christians might accept its implication that the church is doomed to fall into obscurity. So beautiful is “Going, Going” that one might find it easier to imagine “England gone”. So striking is “High Windows” that one might too readily glance up and find, “the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”. This surrender to decline, and this acceptance of futility, tempts people who enjoy being what Samuel Francis called “beautiful losers” but it feels like an excuse for existential indolence. The world demands more clarity and more resolution. Poeticised hopelessness is no more hopeful for being poetic.

Larkin was no nihilist – not a consistent one – even mourning, in “The Mower”, a hedgehog he had innocently killed. “We should be careful/Of each other,” he laments, “We should be kind/While there is still time.” In his way, deploring the fact that he had “mauled its unobtrusive world”, he was evoking thoughts of industrialised progress, chopping up the small, particular and traditional. Elsewhere, in the “The Trees”, he stood apart from nature and observed:

…still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

It is a beautiful thought. Yet one cannot help remembering that trees do not grow again once they are pulled out of the ground. One cannot be immersed in poignance if one’s hope is to conserve and not just elegise.

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Posted in Britain, Poetry, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

New Year (Posting) Resolutions…

A new year is a time for reflection; a time to think about the past, and the present, and the future; a time to cherish what is good and assess what is bad; a time to think about what can be changed; a time for resolutions.

We have resolutions for our personal lives – to quit smoking; to exercise; to spend more time with loved ones – but perhaps we need some resolutions for our social media. The Internet heaves with otherwise good, smart people behaving like boors and fools. Tidal waves of tedium, hailstorms of hysteria and blizzards of bullshit crash, swirl and roar.

1. I will have a sense of humour.

The Internet is not real life. It interacts with it but it should not define it. Online dysfunction, social or epistemological, has a lot to do with people losing their sense of perspective and inflating the importance of transient or trivial matters. Being receptive to the comical absurdities of our behaviour helps one to maintain a sense of perspective.

2. I will keep my cool.

I have no wish to promote a spiritually stunted kind of objectivity. Emotions are important. Anger, for example, motivates us and intimidates our enemies. Yet it can be useful in its time and place. It inspires people who are likely to agree with us yet it tends to repulse people who are agnostic. It intimidates opponents in a physical setting yet as well as being crude it is almost entirely useless on the Internet. It makes us less reasonable, and less self-aware, and makes us do ridiculous and obnoxious things. When we are angry on the Internet we should step away, and breathe, and look into the sky.

3. I will check my sources.

Lies, as Mark Twain observed, can spread around the world before the truth has got its boots om. Social media has ensured that lies can spread around the world while the truth is looking for its socks. The temptation to react to apparent outrages, or promote convenient assertions, overwhelms our critical faculties. Even if the truth does get its boots on and stumble into the street it is too late. The lies have gone. How many times have you seen falsehoods get thousands of retweets and corrections get twelve? In 2018 we should at least resolve to check our sources before we promote claims, and assess evidence, not just implications.

4. I will not virtue or vice signal.

“Virtue signalling”, as a term, has been overused: an ad hominem argument for pseudo-intellectuals. At its core, however, is the insight that the Internet allows us to replace virtuous deeds with virtuous assertions; to pose as good people without doing good things. This should be avoided, obviously, as should its companion: vice signalling. We are attracted to subversive and iconoclastic opinions, which can be courageous and incisive to express. They can also be childish, obnoxious and destructive. Many people say obscene things under the delusion that it makes them fearless heretics, while others, perhaps more annoyingly, express mundane opinions with the same jejune pretensions. We should choose ideas based on their logical and evidential value, not their trangressive connotations.

5. I will not dogpile.

The suicide of the pornographic actress August Ames, who had been abused and criticised for alleged homophobia after announcing her refusal to have sex with men who had appeared in gay porn, renewed the debate Jon Ronson had explored in his superb book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?. We all recognise the unfairness of people being attacked by thousands of absolute strangers until John Q. Average tweets something we find dislikable and we swan dive into a dogpile. Abuse should be avoided as a rule, of course, but we should also be aware of the effects of mass hostility on someone’s mental health before unnecessarily contributing denunciation.

6. I will not connect all events to my personal obsessions.

Whenever something happens in politics or art, people see it as justification for their beliefs. If an alien has the misfortune to land on Earth you can bet the little bastard will be used to show that countless things are right and wrong. “What the alien tells us about atheism…” “Why the alien proves Donald Trump is a bad president…” “The alien demonstrates that the world is flat…” If events have implications for our beliefs then we can make that case but we should not be monomaniacal or opportunistic. It is irrational and it is very, very dull.

7. I will not comment on things I know (or care) nothing about.

Bitcoin. “Cat People”. The Last Jedi. Every now and then a subject inflames social media and the Internet is overwhelmed with thousands of opinions. People feel compelled to comment even if they neither know nor care about the subject: directly, with prejudiced pronouncements, or with bad jokes and futile complaints. This does nothing except waste their time and clog up people’s feeds. To avoid squandering our precious hours on the Earth we should abstain from compulsive commentary.

8. I will have a life.

Remembering that we should have lives off the Internet makes us less obnoxious online. More importantly, it makes us less obnoxious in real life. Apart from a few exceptionally influential people, we are more significant in what we say and do than in what we type. Friends and family will remember us when everything that we have published on the Internet is long-archived and ignored. I began by saying that we should keep a sense of perspective so as to avoid embarrassing ourselves online, but we also need a sense of perspective to avoid neglecting that which exists beyond our screens.

Let me end on a cheerful note. For all the bullshit on the Internet I have talked with dozens of fun, interesting people: bloggers, tweeters, commenters, journalists and scholars. I have laughed a lot and learned a lot. I am grateful for that. I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Killing Children

In his arms, a rabbit
Twitches like a time bomb.
In his eyes, unreason.
In the air, astriction.
I have trouble breathing.
Bosnians are herded,
Stalked by Serbs. Today’s dogs.
Worse behaved. Not a job.
History said, “It’s time.”
The rabbit looked like mine.

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Two Cumbrian Poems

End of the Summer

Autumn has come early:
Drawing clouds like curtains;
Saying, in chilly winds,
“Too late”; imposing rain.
We slip off up the hill,
Admire ignorant sheep
And watch a raven fall.
I stumble over rocks
And think of hospitals.
My brother talks of death
And wills. I admire him
For being factual.
“See you soon,” my love says.
We drift, like clock hands, home.

Yewbarrow

Against the rocks
The shepherd stands
Our cottage mocks
His calloused hands.
Yet as we sleep
The wild ones wake
And round dumb sheep
Their shadows shake.

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Giles Coren, Explained…

Some might think that Giles Coren is a lifestyle columnist who writes jokey articles about restaurants, cuisine and the trials of middle age. He is not. “Giles Coren” is in fact a morbid exercise in performance art: a fictitious sociopath who has sprung from the mind of its presumably more sane, decent and reasonable creator Giles Coren. “Coren”, the character, is, much like the real man, a middle class restaurant critic and opinion columnist, yet he is also misanthropic, vindictive, lascivious and bigoted.

This intrepretation makes a lot of sense of his career. It outraged me that Giles Coren had published a vicious hit piece libelling Polish immigrants as descendants of people who “used to amuse themselves…by locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it”. I could not imagine how he had kept his job after responding to complaints with, “fuck the Poles”. If a Polish writer said that Jewish people were descendants of Jakub Berman and Julia Brystiger, and responded to complaints with “fuck the Jews”, they would be sacked, and very rightly so. Yet if “Coren” is a character, whose ranting is meant to provide an insight into dark recesses of a sociopathic mind, it is understandable.

“Coren” is in trouble for an Esquire essay in which he expressed his fears that his son would grow up to be fat. “I know what you’re thinking,” he wrote underneath a picture of a little boy who is in no sense overweight, “You’re thinking, “Fat little bastard”.” “Coren” went on to insist that “each actual fat person is blatantly just a badly brought-up, greedy little son of a bitch…I’d kill them all and render them down for candles.” To call this “fat shaming” is a hilarious understatement. This is the demented tirade of a bourgeois Jerry Sadowitz.

What is strange is that people act as if Coren is a jokey lifestyle columnist. His every outburst of depravity is thought comic exaggeration, or, at worst, over the top. Am I the only person who appreciates that this is a postmodern social satire which makes Portnoy’s Complaint look like a children’s book? What does it say about us that so few realise?

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Elsewhere…

It has been a long time since I have written here but I have been writing elsewhere:

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The Passion of the Kriss…

One thing I will give Sam Kriss is that he can write. His prose can be elegant; his phrases original and his invective perversely amusing. Take this passage from his pre-election article endorsing Jeremy Corbyn…

Britain is not just sliding into fascism; we’ve landed. This has become a deeply ugly place. Our Prime Minister – gurning, grimacing, parochial,  incompetent, rhadmanthine, segmented, arachnid, and inhuman; the Daily Mail letters page given chitinous flesh; a zealous ideologue for the doctrines of smallness and stupidity and dumbfuck blithering hatred; a vicar’s daughter distilling all the common-sense peevishness and resentment from the dingy grog of the English national spirit; a leader who doesn’t so much impose austerity as embody it, in every word or gesture that seeks to foreclose on all possibilities and draw the furthest boundaries of the sunlit world no further than your respectable lace curtains – instructs the public to give her more power, to paint over a divided country with a false unity in Parliament, so she can exercise her supreme will.

Gripping stuff. And yet this avalanche of adjectives cannot distract one from the fundamental ludicrousness of his claim. Britain is not even remotely fascistic. Its large ethnic, sexual and religious minorities have almost exactly the same rights as everybody else; its free speech is constrained mostly to silence people who resent its liberalism; it has a free press; it has active trade unions; it offers benefits to the disabled and the unemployed; it has academic and artistic classes that enjoy state subsidies while opposing the government. It could be a lot more conservative – as some of us wish – without being remotely comparable to Franco’s Spain, never mind Hitler’s Germany.

Kriss is a man whose ranting never quite coheres with the universe. (How else could he mock Nick Cohen’s “strange remnant of a haircut” as his hairline continues to retreat?) The anti-fascist paranoia is at least amusing. The communist apologetics are not. Elsewhere in his pre-election piece came a tentative, qualified defence of the Soviet Union. He wrote…

…whatever its failings, the Soviet project was our project. Socialism is not an abstraction or a negation; it’s the real attempt to build a better world in this one, and it demands our fidelity. It won’t be possible unless we’re prepared to do more than oppose the evil. Demands are made on us for the sake of a liberated existence, and the first is that we be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable, and that we accept that our faith might be disappointed.

Kriss, living in English freedom, has not had to make himself “vulnerable”. People who were “vulnerable” to actual socialist projects risked far more than disappointment. They risked their lives, and often lost them. Kriss knows this. He hardly cares. In a perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek tweet two years ago he wrote…

in revolutionary china landlords were made to self-criticise kneeling on broken glass and frankly mao was a big softy who went easy on them

A bit tongue-in-cheek, perhaps? Is it? Well, not wholly. When a girl responded that during the Cultural Revolution her dance teacher had been forced to work on a farm, Kriss sneered, without a trace of humour, that…

all these denunciations of the great proletarian cultural revolution resolve into “but they made RICH PEOPLE do POOR PEOPLE work!”

Kriss did not mention the girl’s second tweet, where she added that if the woman did not work quickly enough her legs were cut as punishment. This posturing ideologue, who is paid well to write in freedom about how we live under a fascist government, sneers at forced labour and torture as if it is nothing, while congratulating himself on his willingness to make himself “vulnerable” to “disappointment”. No elaborate similes or florid insults can obscure how pathetic and obnoxious that is.

Posted in Media, Personalities, Uncategorized | 3 Comments