Thursday, July 31, 2008

Excuses for Sentimentality

I'm ambivalent about Philip Larkin. Not for the usual reasons; I don't mind the grouchiness and the stick-in-the-mud persona, in fact I'm very fond of the two "Toads" poems. What gets to me, whenever I read the Collected, is how predictable and similar the poems are, except for ~8-10. With a lot of writers this wouldn't matter, but Larkin's poems usually end in epiphanies or transfigurations, which can't afford to seem mechanical because they're where the poetry is supposed to be. "Money" and "High Windows" are good examples of what I dislike about Larkin. The exceptions are the larger, more panoramic poems (e.g. "The Whitsun Weddings") and the frankly comic poems like "Toads Revisited" or "A Study of Reading Habits."

"An Arundel Tomb" is an interesting borderline case. The poem is about the somewhat worn statues of a medieval couple holding hands, and this is the final stanza:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

The last line makes this poem one of Larkin's most popular, and one is tempted to accuse him of being cheap -- esp. if that's what one already thinks of his poetry -- except that, of course, he isn't saying that "what will survive of us is love." (The narrator of the poem looks at a statue and comes away with an irrelevant uplifting message; the reader skims the poem and comes away with the same, equally irrelevant, message. Talk about mimesis.) On the whole this is legitimate, and the device is a case of Empson's seventh type of ambiguity, in which you bring e.g. bishops into a poem about sheep by explaining that a sheep is not a bishop. Look at the setup, though:

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Look, in particular, at the boldfaced passage. It's the only part of the poem that isn't plot development. It's magnificently written; I love how the sequence throng-litter-strew sets up the notion of a picnic with absolutely no support from the nouns. The point is that it's people that are "washing at their identity," that have begun to "look, not read," and that essentialize the past when its local features cease to be interesting -- but the verb is washing, which implies rain, just as throng and litter imply people.

Time has transfigured them into

Weathering is progressive, but the decision to misread art is not. Each reader freshly and consciously transfigures the statues into untruth. Which raises the question of why Larkin's poem is better, or the tomb more moving, for the deliberate misreader than a Hallmark card or an equivalent modern statue would be -- if this is true, and I must say I'm not quite sure. Speaking for myself, and I imagine for a lot of Larkin fans, it's at least partly the guarantee that the poem and the statue have an interpretation that wouldn't make a sensible person gag.


zbs said...
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zbs said...

OK; but this is too confident just taking the Collected on its own—imagine wandering into your bookstore and idly picking up a copy of The Less Deceived (even if, or perhaps especially if, you'd seen things in North Ship). He may have a formula, but more often than a lot of the field, it works.

Zed said...

Oh I agree. I'm extravagantly fond of his best stuff. It's just that his corpus is (I'd claim) much less than the sum of its parts because of the repetitiveness, so the Collected is a letdown. If I were to make a Selected I'd keep most of "The Whitsun Weddings," about a third of "The Less Deceived," two or three poems from "High Windows," and "Aubade." It would be a less frustrating book.