BEING IN THE GRIP OF LIGHT
Wednesday, 28 January 2015 at 11:48
BEING IN THE GRIP OF LIGHT: Anxiety, Ambiguity and Loneliness in the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin.
Poetic nature, ambiguity and clarity, opaqueness and transparency in the creative process (the personality of the poet) and the creative result (the poem on the page) are indices of poetic diction. The poet and the poem cannot be unglued. There exists a dynamic between the two that indelibly marks the voice of the poet and the semantics of the poem.
‘Poetic nature’ must, therefore, be a kind of audit for the writing. No-one writes from a vacuum and the personality of the poet, the poet’s experience of life and his/her understanding of the life that has been led, their peccadillo’s, anxieties, success, failure and finally the scope of their work is informed by their imaginative personality.
The type of work written by Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin are examples of this nature and its manifestation on the page. Larkin’s life was ambiguous and fraught with ambivalent terrors of both being dead and being alive yet his poetry is pellucid and crystalline with the examination of the world about him.
Stevens, influenced by Whitman and Pound, who must be considered his major precursors, contemplated the inexpressible qualities of being alive while Larkin focused on the prosaic expressions of being ‘In the Grip of
Light(1) that he expressed as the state he found himself in. Steven’s life, conventional, measured and wealthy, produced poetry that is sublime with what Harold Bloom has termed ‘the Lucretian swerve’(2) or ‘veering’ as Nicholas Royle writes(3), where the pressure in the poem’s meaning forces it to relocate itself and swerve between the opening lines and the final stanzas in ways equalled by only one or two other poets of the 20th. Century. One of them, John Ashbury, has often remarked on the influence of Walt Whitman and Stevens on his own work(4)
On Being Alive
Larkin’s life has been documented by many writers, most notably in Andrew Motion‘s(5) biography of 1994 and James Booth‘s(6) more recent one. These versions of his life differ to some extent but always agree on the main themes. Larkin was subject to complex moods of irritation, insight, solitude, loneliness, (the distinction being that loneliness is an infliction whereas solitude is, more often than not, chosen), fractured sexual desires, feelings of failure, drunkenness and a morose morbidity.
Stevens on the other hand offers his biographers nothing very special: he became the vice-president of the Hartford Insurance Company, was wealthy, had a stable marriage (Larkin was a bachelor), begat a child and pondered in his writing the mysteries of reality and illusion. Larkin also dwelt on ‘reality’ but reduced it to an Englishness of abbreviated, piercing insights bordering on cynicisms but turned at the last moment on a humanist’s love.
Stevens life unfolded with a quiet showman’s confidence and, but for a few lapses into thuggishness and bullying, was the acme of a literary projectory, uncomplicated and secure.
The Journey to Nowhere
Both poets arrowed in on feelings of unresolved experience; Stevens juggling with the places and colours of the American continent (which he never left) and Larkin with that peculiar state if insularity that the English manage to manifest in a rather regal fashion, two fingers in the face of worldly or global criticism, or even regional murmurings of discontent. Yet the element that united them was that the world they described didn’t really exist; going about this common quest in entirely different ways, declared famously, in High Windows, from the collection of the same name ‘…And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’
In Larkin’s final published collection, High Windows, he reminds us that his condition is our condition. It is not the sky that is blue, we live under different skies, it is the air, and we all breathe it. Both inside and outside ourselves we know that it is at once everything, since our life depends on it, but as ubiquitous as breath itself it is nothing, nowhere and endless.
With Stevens we can see the same thing being offered in the following lines from Man and Bottle ‘The mind is the great poem of winter, the man, Who, to find what will suffice, Destroys romantic tenements Of rose and ice.’ And then immediately following in the collection ‘Parts of a World’ Of Modern Poetry(7): ‘The poem of the mind is in the act of finding What will suffice.’
The deliberate ascendancy of mind over emotion, or ‘head’ over ‘heart’, is not qualified in either poem. On the contrary it is amplified. Once again Stevens pushes home his point that everything emerges from this source, from the mind, and that therefore this is the only relevant thing to examine, even if you can only extract enough to suffice. In Of Modern Poetry the examples are abundant: ‘The actor Is a metaphysician in the dark, twanging An instrument….’. And the last sentence: ‘The Poem of the act of the mind’.
It was as if Stevens’ life, one of assurance and solidity, a public life, in a beautifully cut three piece suit and polished brogues, a powerful executive in the world of Insurance, could allow himself to drift away and rummage in the mental constructs that nature fools us with. His inspiration was that reality and the façade of the real need exposure and differentiation.
His poems in one-way or another reflect this. One of his most celebrated poems, The Auroras of Autumn gambles with poetry itself, its work load, what it’s for, allowing expression of colour and ‘things’ only as adjuncts to the primacy of the mind.
Larkin and Culture
For Philip Larkin image played a central role as he quietly dismantled the middle class society he loathed; a loathing principally based on his own anxieties about entrapment. Describing this Larkin once said ‘Deprivation is to me what daffodils are to Wordsworth’.
A comment in relation to photography by Barthes can as easily be utilised for poetic criticism ‘No other recourse than this irony: to speak of the nothing to say(8).’ this is the irony of discussing Larkin as opposed to Stevens. About Stevens there is so much to say, about Larkin it is sometimes difficult to comment because, it seems, that he has said it already; a self-defence mechanism that pulls the rug. He leaves very little to be resolved by the reader in contradistinction to Stevens whose work consistently allows for varying interpretations.
In his poem Livings from his final collection, High Windows, he masters this voice; undoubtedly his own, but uncannily also, our secret voices ‘…Telling (us) me of elsewhere(9):’
Noted(10), but never really explored, is the influence of an earlier writer who also rebelled against social mores and his own upbringing, George Orwell. There is a feeling of stock from his novel Coming Up for Air being eagerly empathised by Larkin(11). George Bowling’s anguished trip down memory lane and the general feeling of hopelessness, captured in the quote from the frontispiece He’s dead, but he won’t lie down, is seized on by Larkin in each of the three sections:
I ‘…Wondering why I think it’s worthwhile coming. Father’s dead: He used to, but the business now is mine. It’s time for change, in nineteen twenty-nine.’
II ‘Fleets pent like hounds Fires in humped inns Kippering sea-pictures.’
III ‘…Dusty shelves hold prayers and proofs: Above, Chaldean constellations sparkle over crowded roofs.’
There are elements of other voices in this poem, notably W.B. Yates, All Souls’ Night, in the final section. However the first part is the wry pathos of Orwell’s George Bowling. It is this description containing the usual, adventurous and entertaining, Larkin ‘lists’ that breaths life into the terrible boredom of Being in the Grip of Light. The word ‘grip’ has a grimness when Larkin uses it, as if he is frozen in the light of something approaching him. With Stevens the same word conveys a place that he found, and then sought to remain in; he desired this location. Another rendering of the word ‘grip’ in relation to light in Stevens’ poetry is one of sensual indulgence, of allowing himself to be gripped by this emanation. Larkin meanwhile had a puritan guilt of lust while gripped by sexual fantasies and the anxieties that they produced.
Stevens also uses lists but they have a quality of transparency as if they are really not quite there as ‘things’.
The Transparency of Light
In The Auroras of Autumn(12) the opening lines make plain Stevens’ intention ‘This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless. His head is air.’
He goes on in stanza IV ‘This is form gulping after formlessness,’. The entire poem is a bridge suspended between an attempt of conscious apprehension and the bedazzlement of the magical evasion of actual things. The anxiety in the poem is palpable. He writes in section III:
the windows will be lighted, not the rooms.
A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round
And knock like a rifle-butt against the door.
The wind will command them with invincible sound.
Overwhelmed by this he goes on in section VIII:
There may be always a time of innocence.
There is never a place. Or if there is no time,
It is not a thing of time, nor of place,
Existing in the idea of it, alone,
In the sense against calamity, it is not
The world of innocence and quest seems to escape as soon as one feels them in one’s grasp. Stevens is writing, very clearly, about the place where truth lies which is nowhere (yet everywhere) throwing shadows in Plato’s cave. This zen-like paradox settles gently on all ten sections of eight stanza unrhymed iambic tercets. Contradictions pile up as the inevitable result of describing the indescribable. Interestingly these conflicted ideas arrive at once at his meaning, which is contrary to Larkin’s approach where he anchors himself firmly in the world but then spies ‘nowhere’ at the limit of his sight and is hopelessly seduced once again.
This reflected self-reflecting of Stevens mirror is the only position available if you want multiple viewpoints of the same thing you are not sure of. In the opening lines from The Rock(13) Stevens once again confirms this position, ‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive, Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves By our own motions in a freedom of air.’ What is real? Both Larkin and Stevens ask the same question. However there is in Larkin a consistency of imaginative unambiguous detail that is not contradictory whereas with Stevens this is often the case, just as looking in a mirror reflects the reverse of the fact. In the following example I cannot accurately describe why I find it beautiful poetry yet recognise its inherent ambiguity,
Beauty is momentary in the mind --
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal(14).
How can this be? Stevens repeats in the next lines of the following stanza: ‘The body dies; the body's beauty lives.’ Once again this is evidently not so. Once the body dies the body becomes magnificently dis-figured, not con-figured, and beauty in the mind is unsullied by the decay of flesh, which is certainly not immortal. Beauty survives as memory as Larkin so clearly expressed in the last line of An Arundel Tomb ,’ What will survive of us is love.’
I get the feeling that I know what Stevens is driving at but somehow the complexity of the puzzle defeats me. Throughout Stevens’ work one is confronted with this, sometimes, paralysing effect
In The Auroras of Autumn we find Stevens wrestling with this problem: ‘Reminding, trying to remind, of a white That was different, something else, last year Or before, not the white of an ageing afternoon.’ And :’The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand, He observes how the north is always enlarging the change’. How can a compass direction enlarge a change? Yet nowadays we refer to something ‘going south’ as a decrease in value, while something ‘going north’ is an indication of increasing value. So once again I have the uncanny insight understood in some way, but am at a loss to deliver it as reasoned argument. Poetry has always been and will always be full of these excursions of ambiguity. These ideas of structure that Stevens makes us aware of, are actually shadows used as meaning like the word north in the above, and have parallel usage in Larkin’s work. For instance the astonishing line from the light-house section of Livings: ‘Lit shelved liners grope like mad worlds westward’. With ‘westward’ being absolutely the place that mad worlds would or are groping toward.
Loneliness and Concealment
With Stevens there is a feeling that he is proud of a job fairly well done. He wrote a lot of poems. The Collected Poems runs to over 450 pages. The poems have companions and there is a strong seam of a colourful world described: flowers, garments, sunsets, birds, hair, minerals. Yet the very thing Stevens runs after remains concealed. The final product is of a poetic device, a lucid but evasive machine that looks like this one minute and then morphs into something different the next and this concealment is in fact a sealed device. Stevens the poet doesn’t let you in. He conceals himself in his seemingly endless anxious quest for truth and the poems appear to end up as relics from some powerful civilization; they impact, but they are solitary.
With Larkin this quest runs a very different course. One of the first things one notices about Larkin’s work is how well crafted it is. His rhyming is usually very subtle, almost invisible, and this carries the reader along with a quiet but insistent internal rhythm; the ‘craft’ of putting poems onto pages is carefully nurtured by him. Stevens on the other hand is only interested in conveying meaning and uses ‘form’ rather arbitrarily, finding rhymes when he can and delivering complex ideas by often writing in two line and three line stanzas which separate everything out on the page, making it appear more digestible.
In the first stanza of Larkin’s Church Going the rhyming is hardly noticeable until you analyse the line endings:
Once I am sure there is 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.
It also has to do with Larkin’s ambling voice, so casual that it deceives in regard to formal dexterity. This theme of vigilance, by the observer of emptiness, is one of his trade-mark characteristics. He neither uses the word ‘solitude’ nor ‘loneliness’ and yet the stanza, indeed the whole poem is suffused with ’being alone’, or being enabled by exactly that lack of company that reveals solitary moments like this. Of course he ends up where he feels most alone, and will be most alone, in the graveyard: ‘Which he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.’
This is where Larkin slides into place beside Stevens; the loneliness Larkin apprehends conceals the thing he most wishes to explore: transcendent truth. It dominates him to such an extent that he hides his quest, or rather makes his quest reasonable to examination by others (a brave thing to do), but confusing it for himself. He exposes his vulnerability, but in doing that conceals his grip on the light (his transcendent values) as though it were faintly embarrassing. The result is that, although very influential as a poet, it is only those poems that grandstand the national headline sentiments of class and sex and death that are well known; This Be The Verse, Annus Mirabilis and Aubade amongst others.
Larkin’s core, however deeply he may have wanted to surround it with a flamboyant throw-away tone, is nailed to the deeply held belief that life conceals more than it reveals, and in this he works, as we all do, alone.
Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get(15).
These lines from A Life with a Hole in it, written in 1974, seem a postscript to an earlier poem composed in 1966 Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel:
Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
clusters of lights over the empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors the dining room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.
In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile. Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages(16).
Fairly wallowing in misery, Larkin describes the indescribable moment when the exile from life must write home, but finds that it is impossible to describe what he has discovered. Arriving nowhere, in the grip of a light denying them access, Stevens and Larkin fall in step, waving us passed, that we might go on alone, searching for ourselves.
1. In the Grip of Light used by Larkin as a working title for an early unpublished collection.
2. Harold Bloom The Anatomy of Influence (Literature as a Way of Life) Yale University Press, 2011.
3. Nicholas Royle Veering: A Theory of Literature, Edinburgh University Press 2012.
4. Harold Bloom Whitman’s Prodigals (page 294/295) Yale University Press, 2011.
5. Sir Andrew Motion Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life Faber & Faber 1994.
6. James Booth Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love Bloomsbury 2014.
7. Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems ed. Archie Burnett, Faber & Faber 2012.
8. Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, Vintage Classics 1993.
9. Telling me of elsewhere Line 15, section II: Livings Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems ed. Archie Burnett, Faber & Faber 2012.
10. Blake Morrison The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction in the 1950’s (page 234) Oxford University Press 1980.
11. George Orwell Coming Up For Air. Penguin Books 1973.
12. Wallace Stevens Collected Poems. Faber & Faber 2006.
14. Wallace Stevens Peter Quince at the Clavier (section IV) from the collection: Harmonium, Collected Poems. Faber & Faber, 2006.
15. Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems ed. Archie Burnett, Faber & Faber, 2012.