Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Less Deceived by Philip Larkin

Source of book: I own this.


Right before our libraries shut down due to Covid, I grabbed a book on an impulse, namely James Booth’s biography of Philip Larkin, and enjoyed the lines quoted throughout enough that I realized I needed some Larkin in my library. 


The Fundie curriculum I had in high school tended to gloss over most of the 20th Century for literature, other than to condemn a lot of it as “godless.” The video teacher, Mr. Collins, did his best to work around that, but nonetheless, we didn’t get much of a picture of 20th Century poetry other than the Harlem Renaissance, Dylan Thomas, and T. S. Eliot. (Not bad choices, of course, but incomplete.) I suspect Larkin was particularly disliked, being an atheist and using dirty language from time to time. But I don’t really remember. Later, of course, I read a few of his. But nothing particularly comprehensive. I had been thinking of finding some since reading Clive James’ book on poetry, but the biography is what sealed the deal. I also found that the biography helped with understanding the poems in context. 


I decided to start with The Less Deceived, as it was the first truly successful collection for Larkin, and considered one of his best. 


Because Larkin was so meticulous, and only released his best work, this collection doesn’t really have a weak poem in it. Each and every one would be quotable in its own right, and I had to work hard to decide which to discuss in this post. Larkin used a broad vocabulary, often in unexpected ways, and polished each poem to perfection. 


Let me start by mentioning a few poems I liked, but decided not to quote. First, a pair of poems about bittersweet remembrance of the past. “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” is exactly what it sounds like. And it reminded me so much of looking through childhood photos with my now-wife back when we were dating. Larkin captures the poetry of the moment, as well as the weird jealousy felt that I was not part of those years of her life. Likewise, “Maiden Name” speaks of what is now gone forever, a name that represents a person changed - and in this case, now gone forever.


While brilliant, the poem “Deceptions” is thoroughly disturbing. It is the poem from which the title is drawn, and it is the excuse-making of a man who has essentially date-raped a girl, but told from a third person perspective. It is hard to explain it in that sense, but if you read it, you will see what I mean. The poem does not, as far as anyone knows, represent Larkin’s feelings, and while he was a bit of a prick, he was never accused of rape. The reason I mention the poem is two-fold. First, Larkin may be right that the victim is indeed “the less deceived,” because she knows her seduction/rape will be her ruin. Whereas the rapist has deceived himself and learns afterward of the violence he has done to his own psyche. He finds himself, as Larkin puts it, in “fulfilment’s desolate attic.” The second reason to mention the poem, however, is this line, which is just amazing. 


                                    All the unhurried day

Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.


I mean, dang. That was an unexpected simile. It makes one consider exactly what Larkin means by it. The obvious “she was sharp” seems too simplistic. The rapist perhaps finds her naivete or innocence to be lacerating in retrospect. Or perhaps he felt her hate. Or that she turned out to have many ways of cutting. Whatever way you lean, it is an unforgettable picture.  


I also enjoyed the longer poem “I Remember, I Remember,” which recounts a visit to the haunts of the narrator’s childhood. Where the memories are not good, but unpleasant, mostly. A thoroughly bitter poem - Larkin can write bitter better than anyone - it too captures the ambiguity of time and memory. The narrator talks about all the stereotypical “good” things that didn’t happen to him as he recalls his youth. There are several fantastic lines, including these two:


‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’

No, only where my childhood was unspent,

I wanted to retort, just where I started: 


And the last line, which is as good as any ending in poetry:


'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,'

My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,

I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.


'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'


While it is impossible to pick a favorite from this collection, this one is up there. The imagery and language combine to create what may well be the perfect poem about its topic. It is true that we spend so much of our time anticipating (which is part of the fun, of course), but then are left bereft as what we hope for marches along with time. Your mileage may vary as to whether you agree with Larkin on the finality of death, but as far as earthly life, he nails it. 


Next, Please


Always too eager for the future, we

Pick up bad habits of expectancy.

Something is always approaching; every day

Till then we say,


Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear

Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

How slow they are! And how much time they waste,

Refusing to make haste!


Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks

Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks

Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,

Each rope distinct,


Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits

Arching our way, it never anchors; it's

No sooner present than it turns to past.

Right to the last


We think each one will heave to and unload

All good into our lives, all we are owed

For waiting so devoutly and so long.

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.


“A huge and birdless silence” is just a fantastic image. Larkin also uses some interesting technique. He breaks his sentences over lines in a way that evokes inexorable movement, refusing to pause at the end of the line. 


Soon after that one, Larkin puts a different twist on the theme, expressing a longing for that inevitable oblivion. 




Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:

However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards

However we follow the printed directions of sex

However the family is photographed under the flag-staff -

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.


Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:

Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,

The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,

The costly aversion of the eyes away from death -

Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs. 


I have never thought of invitations quite that way, but will always have that in my mind now. Larkin was clearly an introvert (as are virtually all poets, I suspect), and this is a brilliant introvert poem. 


Perhaps one of the least bitter and genuinely good-natured poems in the collection is this one, which was dedicated to the newborn Sally Amis, daughter of Larkin’s friend, novelist Kingsley Amis. Unfortunately, between the neglect by her notoriously philandering and hard-drinking father and her own demons, Sally ended up drinking herself to death in her 40s. But Larkin’s benediction is still beautiful and moving in its embrace of the ordinary. I wish this for my own children. And I feel it is the blessing that I have had in my own life, to be “dull” in the good sense of the word.


Born Yesterday


Tightly-folded bud,

I have wished you something

None of the others would:

Not the usual stuff

About being beautiful,

Or running off a spring

Of innocence and love —

They will all wish you that,

And should it prove possible,

Well, you’re a lucky girl.


But if it shouldn’t, then

May you be ordinary;

Have, like other women,

An average of talents:

Not ugly, not good-looking,

Nothing uncustomary

To pull you off your balance,

That, unworkable itself,

Stops all the rest from working.

In fact, may you be dull —

If that is what a skilled,

Vigilant, flexible,

Unemphasized, enthralled

Catching of happiness is called.


Another positive poem that I loved is this one, which takes a few lines before you figure out where Larkin’s metaphors are going. And then, with that personal twist at the end, leaving you wondering exactly what has been going on in his head. I also like the ABABCBCDCE rhyme scheme, which has the B and C lines running backwards against each other, kind of like a wave bouncing off a sea wall. 



Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.

Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,

Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,

A wave drops like a wall: another follows,

Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play

Where there are no ships and no shallows.


Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,

Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:

They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.


Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!


If you want to hear Larkin read this one, here you go. Larkin made recordings of most of his poetry collections back in the 1960s, and you can find a few online. 


I’ll end with another death and aging focused poem that reminded me of a certain Star Trek TNG episode




Obedient daily dress,

You cannot always keep

That unfakable young surface.

You must learn your lines -

Anger, amusement, sleep;

Those few forbidding signs


Of the continuous coarse

Sand-laden wind, time;

You must thicken, work loose

Into an old bag

Carrying a soiled name.

Parch then; be roughened; sag;


And pardon me, that

I Could find, when you were new,

No brash festivity

To wear you at, such as

Clothes are entitled to

Till the fashion changes.


While the thought of Philip Larkin - even a young one - naked is a bit of a turnoff, he has a point. It is kind of a shame that we are most ashamed of our skin when it is the best it will be. I love Larkin’s very dry sense of humor here. A number of his poems poke fun at aging, and as a person, he seemed kind of obsessed and depressed by the passage of time. The world is richer for his turning of his own anxieties into works of art. 


I must say I enjoyed this collection a lot, and look forward to reading the rest of the complete poems over time. 


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