"Men of few words are the best men." - William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act III, Scene II

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mycroft's Poetry Corner ... Philip Larkin (#2)


Yes. It would be comforting for me to pretend that the choice of which poet to feature in this instalment of Mycroft's Poetry Corner was a simple one, however, I assure you that it was not. 

How the pressure of this selection moved me, with incessant weighing of the existential pros versus the subjective cons of one poet over another; I declare now it was exacting an unspecified toll on my balding pate. Indeed, it is my hypothesis that the inner turmoil was increasingly manifesting itself through my interrupted sleep, my reduced appetite(s) and most worrisome of all - uncharacteristically meagre bowel-movements. This simply would not do.

Therefore, when these perturbations were combined, with the acquisition by my housekeeper, of a persistent dry cough which meant that even my last refuge of an afternoon snooze was repeatedly interrupted by her hacking, I took action.  I packed a moderately-sized valise and powered up my vintage Mercedes and decided to spend a number of days travelling around the South-west of Ireland. And what honest Joy! I say now that I feel I have a greater understanding of why the Germans invaded Poland & Czechoslovakia; if it was not to feel the satisfaction of putting precision-engineered machinery to its intended use, then I Sir, am a Dutchman.

My love of motoring aside, the primary purpose of this brief holiday was to look at my fair country through the other end of the telescope, hopefully gaining a welcome change of perspective and to clear the maelstrom within my head.

How the small coastal villages and snaking roads of West Cork and Kerry slipped by, as if in some sort of beautiful slideshow; each colourful hamlet, each grassy roadway, each sprawling Atlantic vista wound wistfully by to an aged cassette recording of Boccherini's La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid. It is almost a cliché but the beautiful scenery of that area really hit its mark and the fresh Atlantic air did this traveller the power of good.

Ironically though, despite all the cathartic scenery, it was a labyrinthine boarding house in the back-streets of Dingle that would provide the required inspiration. I had taken a small but clean room in the attic; and this unlikely "Old Maid in the Garret" was compelled to keep his wits about him at all times to avoid cracking a head on low door frames and even lower light fittings.

It was after dawn on the first morning and lying in the strange gloom I was set to thinking about all the previous occupants of that room and what their lives had been like. Whose black knickers were those under the pouffe? Why was there sand at the bottom of the bin? Whose cigarette butts were clogging the lead flashing outside the window? And burying my head into the thin pillow to try for another forty winks, I could not help but laugh at the recollection of a poem where similar questions were asked and in that instant I knew I had my man - Philip Larkin.

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry in 1922 to middle class parents and enjoyed a comfortable early life at the heart of little England, attending Grammar School in Coventry and later he studied English at St John's College, Oxford.  He spent the majority of his working life as a University librarian, chiefly at the University of Hull. A job which afforded him ample time to write and also uniquely positioned him to watch the world and youth pass him by with a jaundiced leer.

Reputed to be deeply anti-social, Larkin was still affectionately known as the "Hermit of Hull" and often imagined by his early readers as a modern-day Eeyore. In the later part of this life, he enjoyed a combination of critical success and wide public readership that other poets could only envy. However, in my opinion, the question of how a poet with such a gloomy outlook could become one of the best loved English poets of the second half of the twentieth century is still largely unanswered.

A few year's after his death in 1985, the publication of his "Selected Letters" dealt a considerable blow to the reputation of the poet  (and the man) when many right-wing, sexist ideals were found in much of his personal correspondence. In the eyes of the QMBC, this storm in a tea-cup does nothing to damage the man's reputation and truthfully even adds to the emotional honesty and candour of his poetry in places.

I have included 3 of his poems below to give some small impression of the man's work but I invite the reader to discover more themselves.

With Respect,

Mycroft Webb (QMBC)

PS -  A hearty congratulations to Mr & Mrs McGavin on the birth of their wee bairn - the sentiments of the final poem here almost certainly do not apply in this instance.


Mr Bleaney

This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him. Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land?
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand'
Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take  it.  So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

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.


High Windows

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.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.