Archives for posts with tag: Philip Larkin

“People are supposed to be married, supposed to go through this world two by two.”

from Clock Dance, Anne Tyler

I spent New Year’s Eve at a dinner party. I had a truly super time – lovely people, wonderful food, great fun. Eleven sat at the table – five couples, with me as the uneven eleventh. A not unusual situation. I have been divorced a long time, and more single than coupled ever since. The uneven number thing did strike me, though. Coupledom is the norm. Singledom creates an unevenness, an asymmetry that can be uncomfortable for many, and even threatening for some.

Most people I know (particularly in London, less so in New York) are married. Having once been married, and now residing in the alternate de-married world, I often consider my status/non-status. Rachel Cusk, in her novel Outline, says much that is interesting on the topic, including:

“You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated.”

“You don’t renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.”

Her words remind me of Philip Larkin’s, from his poem Marriages:

“To put one brick upon another,

Add a third, and then a fourth,

Leaves no time to wonder whether

What you do has any worth.

 

But to sit with bricks around you

While the winds of heaven bawl

Weighing what you should or can do

Leaves no doubt of it at all.”

Cusk also considers the illusory impossibility of marriage:

“When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years of my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion.”

from Outline, Rachel Cusk

Elsewhere, Larkin is more playful in his ruminations:

“My wife and I – we’re pals. Marriage is fun.

Yes: two can love as stupidly as one.”

Marriage, Philip Larkin

Where does all of this leave me on the topic? I am not sure. For the most part, I am perfectly okay with my uneven number contribution to social gatherings. I hold no envy for married friends and strangers. Marriage is a complicated business, and one that I do not currently subscribe to.

Of course, coupledom and marriage are not synonymous. I absolutely believe in the possibility (and impossibility) of love, short-term or other:

“Il n’y a de vrai au monde que de déraisonner d’amour”

[The only truth is love beyond reason]

Alfred du Musset

This belief brings me to Shikibu’s words:

“My pillow

has become

a dusty thing–

for whom

should I brush it off?”

Izumi Shikibu

For whom, indeed? It will be interesting to see whether this time next year my contentment remains at being the uneven 11th, or whether I will choose to present myself within the evenness of a coupled 12.

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I took this picture at dusk while walking by the canal. It made me think about reflections – both the physical and the contemplative kind. The twilight time of year is particularly conducive to the latter as we pause, consider and reconsider the year that ends, and move on in a (hopefully) more surefooted way to the commencing one.

Although I am not generally into New Year Resolutions, I do appreciate this pause, the freedom to reflect back on past months. David Sedaris believes that we tend to remember sadness, not happiness, happiness being harder to put into words. There is a truth in that. However, I remember many moments of exquisite joy in recent times, mostly derived from the simplest of things – the beauty of water, the sense of sun’s warmth on my face, the smiles and kindnesses of others, the awareness of earth beneath my feet…

I have learnt more about myself this past year than ever before, which has both surprised and at times shocked me. In his wonderful novel, Early Work, Andrew Martin states that “the provisional life is easily unmade.” I like this, it inspires hope. As does Anne Lamott in Almost Everything–Notes on Hope:

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

One thing I have learnt over the past year is that being open to change makes the experience of living so much more fulfilling.

“Living is no laughing matter:

you must live with great seriousness

like a squirrel, for example–

I mean without looking for something

beyond and above living.

I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

from On Living, Nazim Hikmet

Life is indeed a serious business, the realisation of which grows year on year with age. Living it in a lighthearted way, however, need not contradict this realisation.

Beckett’s refrain “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” is particularly apt as the old year fades. For me, as the new year approaches, Larkin’s (uncharacteristically) optimistic words resonate:

“New eyes each year

Find old books here,

And new books, too,

Old eyes renew;

So youth and age

Like ink and page

In this house join,

Minting new coin.”

from Femmes Damnées, Philip Larkin

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This poem, from the current issue of the The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2014/01/06/140106po_poem_twitchell), moved me:

Roadkill

I want to see things as they are

without me. Why, I don’t know.

As a kid I always looked

at roadkill close up, and poked

a stick into it. I want to look at death

with eyes like my own baby eyes,

not yet blinded by knowledge.

I told this to my friend the monk,

and he said, Want, want, want.

Chase Twichell

It reminded me of Philip Larkin, and his poem The Mower, which has a similar impact every time I read it:

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found

A hedgehog jammed against up the blades,

Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.

Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world,

Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.

The first day after a death, the new absence

Is always the same. We should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

Philip Larkin

CQ

‘I saw three ships go sailing by,

Over the sea, the lifting sea,

And the wind rose in the morning sky,

And one was rigged for a long journey…

…But the third went wide and far

Into an unforgiving sea

Under a fire-spilling star,

And it was rigged for a long journey.’

from Philip Larkin’s The North Ship

The word ‘suffering’ in the title of this blog is intentional and deliberate. However, I am aware that my interpretation of what suffering means may well be at odds with that of others. For me, I see my voyage through life as one demarcated by many diverse and rich experiences. But, as Larkin reflects, life itself is ‘an unforgiving sea’, and living it involves many obstacles and challenges that interrupt and disrupt the passage, a passage where suffering sits equally alongside all other emotional experiences.

Religion, particularly Catholicism, has historically appropriated, and plagiarised, the word. And so, ‘to suffer’ has come to additionally assert some kind of penitential meaning, a necessary experience to be endured for atonement of sins committed.

I am reclaiming the word in a purist and secular sense. I argue that suffering belongs with all the other subjective experiences that define our humanness, all of which contribute to the final sum of what it is to experience life and the living of it, and ultimately what it is to be one’s self.

A friend drew my attention today to a current piece in The New England Journal of Medicine, ‘The Word That Shall Not Be Spoken, by Thomas H. Lee (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1309660).

The word referred to in the title is indeed ‘suffering’. The author considers how physicians tend to avoid the word, judged as being ‘a tad sensational, a bit too emotional.’ He discovers that academic journals and textbooks similarly avoid it. When Lee asked colleagues why they avoided using the word ‘suffering’, one of the comments was that it was not ‘actionable’ for clinicians, which in turn reminded them of their powerlessness.

‘And it makes us feel guilty. Suffering demands empathy and response at a level beyond that required by “anxiety,” “confusion,” or even “pain.”

Thus, the word ‘suffering’ tends to be avoided by the medical fraternity, even though it may most accurately reflect what the patients they are caring for are actually experiencing.

Lee proceeds to discuss the alleviation of suffering, and here our views diverge. Undoubtedly, we cannot be complacent about the suffering of others. However, I believe that the critical first step as compassionate human beings, is to allow for the expression of suffering as an experience that is an inevitable accompaniment of life and living, and to acutely bear witness to what that lived experience is, for others, and for ourselves.

Only then, can we start to consider how it might be alleviated.

CQ

… and I am with the poet on this one.

From The North Ship:

‘XVIII

If grief could burn out

Like a sunken coal,

The heart would rest quiet,

The unrent soul

Be still as a veil;

But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,

The grey ash soft:

And I stir the stubborn flint

The flames have left,

And grief stirs, and the deft

Heart lies impotent.’

CQ

I spoke in my last post, on Christopher Hitchen’s posthumous Mortality, of how the diagnosis of cancer abruptly and immediately catapults one from the Kingdom of the well to that of the ill. Hitchen’s widow, Carol Blue, refers to this in the Afterword:

‘We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.’

Dennis Potter came to mind when I read this. In his last interview, with Melvyn Bragg two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, Potter spoke about the ‘nowness’ of his life. Since the realisation that he had incurable cancer, his ability to see, and live, the present tense had become a celebration, a truly wondrous thing. As a result, he experienced a newly found serenity, and a true appreciation of life’s beauty, whilst at the same time also noting more acutely what is most trivial and most important, although the distinction did not seem so relevant any more.

Hitchen’s widow mentions fear. The writer himself briefly alludes to Philip Larkin and his poem Aubade (Faber, Collected Poems, 2003, ps. 190-191), a piece that overtly addresses the fear of dying:

‘…Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.’

Referring again to Potter, during the interview the playwright discussed our innate fear of death, despite the fact that only humans, of all the animal species, know with absolute certainty that we will die. Larkin deals with this fear head on in Aubade:

‘…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.’

In Mortality, Hitchens reveals how he dealt with the fact of being ‘mortally sick’ with both a ‘modicum of stoicism’ and a great interest in the ‘business of survival’, which often necessitated existing in ‘a double frame of mind’. Inevitably, Hitchens discusses religion. Being ‘mortally sick’ did not weaken his atheism. With some irony, he shares the following:

‘What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.’

And:

‘If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist.’

On a more serious note, Hitchens concludes:

‘the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.’

Although not an atheist, Potter had a similar view on religion, that of a phenomenon that too often reflects man’s fear of death. Its very notion held no interest for him, even when faced with imminent mortality.

Although not fearful, Hitchens did feel cheated. He had much more to do, much more to read and to write. That very need, to achieve, at least partly, what had to be done and said, became a driving force for Hitchens, as it had also done for Potter.

For Hitchens, there were times, particularly in the throes of pain and the side-effects of very aggressive treatment, when he wondered whether, with the knowledge of the agony endured, he would go through it again. Possibly not, he concluded.

He chose to ‘do’ death in the active sense, all the time nurturing ‘that little flame of curiosity and defiance’.

As his readers, we benefit from this ‘doing’.

CQ

I have been thinking lately about how we live, and how we die, and how our lives are/are not shaped and affected by the only truth we can pretty much all agree on…some day, we will all cease to be alive. It is a corporate thing, and no one is exempt.

It still amazes me how profoundly we ignore and refuse to acknowledge, even believe that fact. Yet, or so it seems to me, an acceptance of our mortality, the fact that we will die tomorrow, potentially imbues today with something wonderful, even (and forgive this evangelical tone) magnificent. It gives today so much more potential and possibility that need not depend on a yesterday, or a tomorrow, just a nowness of being.

I return to Philip Larkin, and probably my favourite of his poems, Next, Please (Collected Poems, Faber, p.51). He challenges our constant looking to the future, our sense that things will be better tomorrow, and our stoic belief that some day our luck will change…

‘Till then, we say’

He alludes to our belief that one day – the nebulous tomorrow –  it will all come good, the ship will eventually dock and unload

‘All good into our lives, all we are owed

For waiting so devoutly and so long.’

In true Larkin style, the poets ends by attempting to shock us out of our delusional state:

‘But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.’

I end on the words of Noah and The Whale from an excerpt from the lyrics of their song L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.:

‘On my last night on earth, I won’t look to the sky

Just breathe in the air and blink in the light

On my last night on earth, I’ll pay a high price

To have no regrets and be done with my life.’

CQ

I often look to poetry to facilitate a discussion with myself about something…in this case ageing.

Larkin is often dismissed as a pessimist, as the poet not to read if you are feeling remotely low. But I love his frankness, his realness, his putting-out-there, sometimes uncomfortably for the reader, of truths that define our humanness.

Take ageing.

We see Larkin approach this theme, gently perhaps, in Trees (In Collected Poems, London: Faber, 2003, p.124):

‘The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.’

There is a nostalgic, even romantic tone to the similarly themed Age (p.60):

‘My age fallen away like white swaddling

Floats in the middle distance, becomes

An inhabited cloud.’

But The Old Fools (p. 131) is different. It exposes the vulnerability of ageing, ‘the whole hideous inverted childhood’. Nothing appears to be gained from the process of ageing, of being old, and Larkin seems angry and resentful:

‘What do they think has happened, the old fools,

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose

It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,

And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember

Who called this morning?’

The anger calms as the poem progresses, as ageing and old age appear to equate with loss, but also the possibility of hope:

‘Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms

Inside your head, and people in them, acting.

People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms

Like a deep loss restored…’

CQ

I am a great fan of the Bloodaxe poetry collections edited by Neil Astley, Staying Alive and Being Alive. Between them lies such a wealth of words and thoughts that it feels as if I can dip into them and find something that resonates with whatever mood or experience I am living. Being Human is a companion collection that I have not read, but this did not stop me from attending a performance of selected poems from the anthology at Kings Place this week.

Three performers dramatised the varied works, varied both in terms of content and also the diverse corners of the world the pieces originated from and have been translated for the collection.

The performers are talented and impressive actors, who with an innate skill and ease allowed the poetry to come alive, and to seduce.

Of more than 30 poems, which covered most life events from the banal to the sublime, I enjoyed the entirety, yet inevitably I have favourites.

Philip Larkin’s poignant The Mower is one:

‘The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed.’

‘Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.’

I love the essence of this poem, how the banality of mowing the lawn transmutes into something that resonates beyond the event. But only if you allow it to.

I was introduced to many poems and poets during the performance that I was less aware of, for example Doris Kareva, and her poem Shape of Time (translated from Estonian by Tiina Aleman):

‘You aren’t better than anyone.
You aren’t worse than anyone.
You have been given the world.
See what there is to see.’
The performance encompassed most life events, from birth (Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child, by Thomas Lux), to the departure of children from the parental home (To a Daughter Leaving Home by Linda Paston), to ageing (Getting Older by Elaine Feinstein) and death (Antidote to the Fear of Death by Rebecca Elson).
One of my favourites was Table, which proved to be a centre piece, as the text recurred throughout the performance. It is a multi-layed piece that epitomises the power of poetry to say little, and much…
From Table, by Edip Cansever, translated from Turkish by Julia Clare and Richard Tillinghurst:
‘A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.’

‘On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.’

‘He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.’

‘He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness;
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.
Now that’s what I call a table!
It didn’t complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.’

Being Human, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2012.

http://www.bloodaxebooks.com

CQ