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The Modernist Lyric

Saturday, 1 August 2015 at 12:59



The Modernist Lyric


Reading about Plutonium recently, in a book called Plutonium by Jeremy Bernstein (Cornell University Press, 2007) it seemed to me, in my slightly irradiated state, that the history of Plutonium, like the history of modern poesy, is actually quite similar. Both had explosive prospects that have never been quite fulfilled. In plutonium’s case thankfully unfruitful, but in poetry’s case rather disappointing.

The reason for the latter, unlike the former, it seems to me, is because its entrance was so diffident and remarkable while Plutonium’s delivery was exceptional, violent and an exodium.

I suppose it all started in 1916 with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. What I want to do in this short piece is take the great lines, the one-liners, or the felicities if you like, and try and merge them coherently with 20th and 21st. century song lyrics. It is very difficult to quote back at people ‘one liners’ in modern poetry, because they don’t exist any longer and I believe there is a reason for this. The time frame is roughly 1980 to the present. We might be tolerant and allow ‘…they fuck you up your mum and dad….’  to be enough to carry the decade of the 70’s.

Of course Philip Larkin was no stranger to the work of T.S. Eliot and Eliot’s gift for introducing exceptionally vivid and dynamic phrases to rev the sagging bolus, on occasion, of his longer pieces, made him unforgettable. This wasn’t new of course, the stunning figure has always been employed. One only has to go to a dictionary of quotations to see the true giants, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne and many others including the anonymous originals of William Tyndale’s Bible. Often a single line, a brutal ravishing figure of speech can turn an ordinary poem into something truly mesmerizing. Much of Dover Beach, for instance, is a series of meditations that had the last line not been included, would have rendered the poem rather ordinary.
Dover Beach was written by Mathew Arnold in 1867; Prufrock between 1913 and 1916.

The famous first lines are as follows:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;


followed by an ellipsis all by itself:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Well I mean, as Frankie Howard might have said, this is brazen showmanship. These lines could be transposed to the lyrics of a song by Bob Dylan and probably have been. They are big, grandstanding lines that any lyricist would be very grateful for. Ezra Pound egged him on, who himself went out not with a bang but a whimper. Then the lyrics of the Blues seemed to take over and had an echo in the other great modernist work, again written by T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land. The Waste Land however seems to me, many will disagree, rather self-conscious in its effect; too urgent and deliberate in its commonplace and misfiring in many of its strivings for immortal phrasing but nevertheless Eliot carried a great quiver, amongst them for instance:

…I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


Then came the cargo of lines that broke Modernism from all its constraints, The Second Coming written in 1919 by W.B. Yeats. For us now, it is still a gut wrenching intimation of human destiny but for those at the time it was a terrible, spiritual, comment on the wreckage of war.

The three most electric observations from this one poem are arguably:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.


Everyone has their most admired phrases in 20th. Century poesy, yet I think that these lines of verse and prophesy and sheer depth of insight speak well to our uneasy age.

There are plenty of other single lines of great force, many of them from the First World War poets especially Wilfred Owen, but this is a subjective appraisal.

Interspersed with Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith’s line from Not Waving but Drowning published in 1957:

I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning


song lyric has taken on the role of providing the binding sentiment that speaks to a generation, while quotable poetic force, at present, is subdued.

In no particular order and by no means definitive (ignoring for instance Cole Porter, Country and Folk Song lyrics) here are a few that have caught my attention and certainly remain memorable.

Marianne Faithfull’s lyrics for Sister Morphine from the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers:

What am I doing in this place?
Why does the doctor have no face?


Some of the finest and most visceral lines come from songs about drugs.

John Lennon. in Happiness is a Warm Gun, a feat of lyrical engineering in itself and thoroughly memorable (if I remember rightly swiped from an American Rifle Association ad), writes up the hypnosis of his addiction as:

She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand
Like a lizard on a windowpane


The back step objectivity and coolness of the word acquainted, like an antiquarian observing a specimen, gives huge authority to the simile. That’s it,
touching velvet is like a lizard feeling its way across a windowpane. That slippery wet grain when rubbed the right way.

Christopher Ricks, Warren Professor of Humanities at Boston University in Massachusetts, has long written about the lyrics of Bob Dylan and has recently published a book of Dylan’s lyrics re-adjusted in the sentence structure and stanza formation, but otherwise exactly true to the actual words, so this is not a new idea. Here is a line from Just Like Tomb Thumb’s Blues, on Highway 61 Revisited:


  Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there and they really make a mess outta you.


Here’s Johnny Mercer with a blissful quatrain from Moon River, music by Henry Mancini:

We’re after the same rainbow’s end
waiting round the bend
my huckleberry friend
Moon River and me

The above quatrain, nearly a Haiku, (24 syllables rather than 17) encapsulates an idea with an ambiguous trick. The final line seems to introduces the river itself as the third participant in chasing the rainbow. That’s poetic grace.

Charlie Dore, a contemporary English songwriter, often manages in her lyrics
to hit the perfect pitch between sentimentality and tough insight. This is from Time Goes By from the Album: Things Change:

Everybody moves in rhythm
Driven by dreams
All in perfect sequence
..That’s how it seems


The coda of the quatrain once again having the ability to decompress and release the sentiment by its indifference; and rhythm/driven brings to the party the thump of a bass which doesn’t allow anyone off the hook. Or from the song When Bill Hicks Died on the Album Cuckoo Hill,

Swearing or praying
Sometimes they’re the same…


Another woman singer songwriter who turned out one-liners of power and sensitivity was Joni Mitchell. She was just 20 when she wrote this line from Hejira the title song of her album:

There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain


Is this true? What other quality can turn itself into an excuse for not having to present oneself in explanation, not having to expose the vulnerable self? Guilt perhaps, remorse definitely, but there is no comfort in the keeping of that silence. Only in melancholy, it seems to me, can silence reside in comfort. What an insight for someone barely out of her teens.

Then there’s Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues:

I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die

What line from contemporary English language poetry of the last forty years can you bring to mind without a prompt? This does not mean that some of the poems of the last 40 years have not been exceptional, but the one-liners, the moments from poems that are otherwise memorable seem to be absent. It seems that you have to go back to Larkin as the last trumpet of the single imperishable note.

Sexual intercourse began
               In nineteen sixty three…
               Between the end of the Chatterley ban
               And the Beatles first LP

or the lighthouse keeper as he stares from his tower in Livings as:

 Lit shelved liners
Grope like mad worlds westward.


or terrifying himself (and us) with thoughts of death from Aubade:

Most things never happen: this one will,…


I don’t think Larkin will be the last but since him there has certainly been a silence, happily filled by the lyrically explosive lines of songs.























The Meaning of a Poem

Monday, 22 June 2015 at 15:23



The Meaning of a Poem

What is meaning? Not solely the meaning of a particular event or declaration or creative work attached to something that exists either physically or as a perception, but Meaning itself, of itself. Is there a background, as it were, to Meaning? Might Meaning have proceeded from The Truth (whatever that is)? In order to have Truth there must be a translation of it, a ‘meaning’ for it.

Seamus Heaney once said that no lyric ever stopped a tank. Yet poetry like all written thought can, although assembled in isolation, transform civilizations. We are all familiar with this, that the Pen is mightier than the Sword. But the meaning of poetry can be elusive. However if we were to ask what is the goal of ‘meaning’ then we might answer that it must, to some degree, reveal the truth. This moment of revelation is what all writers attempt to convey. If it isn’t true then it is misleading; leading us away from the Truth. The Truth is the only apparatus available to humans to persuade and influence and stop tanks.

I believe it may be that ‘meaning’ and truth are the same things at the original moment, along with imagination. Poetic imagination reveals aspects of The Truth as does all art. As has been pointed out by Andrew Rawlinson, amongst others, visions require an art not a description. Imagination is, after all, only another cognitive structure along with insight, judgement and even reason. The writer and artist mines this rich and infinite seam in order to create a world; and all human beings do exactly the same.

I am only one of very many to have asked this question. Harold Bloom, the pre-eminent literary critic of his generation, has often debated the ‘meaning’ of poems and by association the relevant meaning of written thought. This, of course, can be applied to art in any form. Harold Bloom handles this by talking about ‘misreading’ or the unconscious mis-interpretation of something read. The past tense here presupposes that (and this is Harold’s area of activity) past creative writers impose influence on the presently creative poet or writer. The influence, often admitted by artists, (Hockney for instance saying how much he struggled to escape from under the giant shadow of Picasso) is adapted and modified and built upon by ‘misprison’ or misreading.

In this misreading of something often emerges a new meaning, to be misinterpreted by future poets, writers and artists. Misreading is however particular to poetry because of the density of language harvested for the task.

In this moment of bestowing meaning I think an attempt is made to transfer Truth from Reality to Illusion. For instance; I give ‘meaning’ to a tree by saying that it has life and it provides shelter, enriches the earth around it and absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, amongst other things. Yet what I have done is to describe a tree’s attributes. I cannot say what the meaning of a tree is in relation to its creation. I can hazard a guess but I do not know. Therefore, is a tree ultimately meaningless to me or is it just that I do not know the Truth?

So we come to poetry and its various imprecisions, evasions and diversionary tactics in order to describe the indescribable. To describe feelings that evade language.

Here is a two line poem with the title and acknowledgement by Michael Longley from his recent book of poems The Stairwell (Cape Poetry, 2014).

Constellations
poem ending with a line of Dermot Healy

Thistledown and meteors are streaming
Along the lazybeds of the constellations.


Now this is rather weird. At first reading of the dedication, as it were, exactly half the lines of this poem are written by someone else and unless you know who Dermot Healy is it can’t be certain if this is a translation, a fragment of a poem, a piece of journalism or some other type of writing. But it gifts to the poem, half the poem being written by someone else, (whatever one may think of the poem itself) a fairly important thought and we haven’t even considered the words of the poem yet.

There is also an ambiguity here because Longley says the line is ‘of’ Dermot Healy, not ‘by’ Dermot Healy and I’m not completely sure how to read this.

Why would one acknowledge that someone else had written half your poem? Perhaps because you were afraid that the plagiarism would be discovered and better to come now with a blazing statement of authority about pinching it than to keep quiet? Perhaps because you wanted to pay tribute to Dermot Healy?

Let us suppose that the second line is from another poem not, for instance, the text of a political speech. It is certainly lovely ‘…Along the lazybeds of the constellations.’

Yet why would Michael Longley want to embellish his first line with this? Because he admires it so much that he wishes to pay homage to it? Or is something else going on?

What is the meaning of this poem? We must assume that it has one or otherwise we would have to say that it is meaningless but add, forcefully, that this is because we do not know the Truth. Either way we are tempted to unearth meaning.

The first line of Constellations reads:

Thistledown and meteors are streaming

When the wind is breezy and mischievous and it is late July in the northern European theatre of life, the thistle heads explode with seeds and stream in the wind across fields and gardens. The skies at night are often clear and bright with stars and in late July and August, coinciding with the thistledown, come the Perseids, a meteor shower of great beauty and drama.

This is not a Haiku, although the first line suggests a domestic release, as is the case of many Haiku, for instance, (and with huge impudence) the second line might go at night across the windows:

Thistledown and meteors
are streaming
at night across the windows


But they are not, they are streaming along the lazybeds of the constellations, infinitely better.

But why this line from Dermot Healy? Who is Dermot Healy? Who is Michael Longley?

Longley, apart from being a poet and recently Ireland Professor of Poetry, lives in Belfast, was educated in Ireland and is well known as a translator of Homer’s The Iliad. The Iliad, about which a great deal has been written, is, at its core, a search for identity.

Dermot Healy (who died last year) was born in the Republic of Ireland and wrote plays, fiction, autobiography and poetry. He led an unsettled life in his early years, lived in London in the 60’s doing menial jobs and living in squats but eventually got published and returned to Eire. He has said that he liked to write about what he could not see. A classic statement of being lost and by inference searching for an identity.

Longley lives in the North, Healy lived in the south. Identity crises are rampant in both countries.

Along the lazybeds of the constellations

Terrestrial and inter-stellar objects swirl across the poets imaginations; ending in ‘constellations’ the very fabric of myths. The myths of being afforded a ‘place’ and ‘identity’ but still separate, at arm’s length; divided, as the Irish were during the potato famines of the nineteenth century when millions perished and further millions emigrated. If you think this is too fanciful then look up the word ‘lazybeds’.

They are the thin strips of land on Irish small holdings that contained the two or three rows of potatoes for family consumption that one day rotted in the ground causing mass starvation while the constellated heroes and gods looked down.

This is ‘meaning’ so intertwined with discovery, albeit elusive, that maybe the Truth is after all discoverable; even though Longley has presented it with a knowing wink, rather than a straight forward declaration of memoriam for his dead friend.




















In the Grip of Light: The poetry of Larkin and Stevens

Tuesday, 7 April 2015 at 10:52




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 trajectory, 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. Yeats, 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:

…upstairs
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
Less real.

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.


NOTES

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.
13. Ibid
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.
16. ibid





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:

…upstairs
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
Less real.

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.


NOTES

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.
13. Ibid
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.
16. ibid



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