This Old Poem #75:
Philip Larkinís Long Sight in Age
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/12/03
is 1 of those poets that was overestimated by Academia & underrated by outrť
poets. His overestimation stems from trying to conflate him with the all-time
greats. Heís not, although he has 5 or 6 poems you could argue as great-
including the excellent High Windows- the poem heís probably most
well-known for. On the other hand, heís not nearly as bad a poet as hipsters
who poke fun of his poetry would have you believe. Overall he was a very
competent, & often very good, poet who crafted taut little poems that made
piquant observations on the human condition. He was not as consistent as a
Robert Frost, & he lacked RFís ability for sustained narrative, but he is
far better than the neo-Victorian/quasi-Georgian poet his detractors make him
out to be.
This TOP is gonna be 1 of those where I simply improve an OK poem, not try to resurrect a horrid 1. But, before I hit the poem in question lemme give you the requisite dope on old PL, & then some examples of his little poems that work. This will manifest, to a degree, why the poem in question does not succeed.
The curriculum vitae:
Philip Arthur Larkin was born on August 9, 1922, of Sydney & Eva Larkin. Sydney was City Treasurer of Coventry from 1922-1944. He had an older sister named Catherine- Kitty for short. PL went to St. John's College, Oxford, & graduated in 1943 with a degree in English. His made friends at Oxford with writers Kingsley Amis & Bruce Montgomery. Throughout the 1940s sporadic poems of PLís were published. In 1946 & 1947 he tried his hand at novelry- publishing 2 books: Jill & A Girl In Winter. At about that time he also embarked on his career as a librarian. By 1955 PL was considered a major new poet on the English scene- this due mostly to his book of poems The Less Deceived. It would be 9 years before his next poetry book. In the interim he took up criticism & reviewing, mostly of poetry books & jazz albums. PL then edited the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse in 1973. A year later his last book of poems, High Windows, was published. Late in his life PL was feted relentlessly- to the dismay of younger poets who viewed him as a stuffy librarian & a bigoted right wing reactionary. PL also had a reputation as being nasty & insecure in personal encounters. In 1984 PL was offered the British Poet Laureateship (upon the death of John Betjeman), but declined. Ted Hughes got it, instead. At this time PL was suffering from throat cancer- he died of this at 1.24 a.m. (GMT) on Monday December 2nd, 1985.
Now, letís survey some of PLís better little poems, & those not
generally known. Let us see if patterns emerge. Hereís No Road:
Since we agreed to let the road between us
Fall to disuse,
And bricked our gates up, planted trees to screen us,
And turned all time's eroding agents loose,
Silence, and space, and strangers - our neglect
Has not had much effect.
Leaves drift unswept, perhaps; grass creeps unmown;
No other change.
So clear it stands, so little overgrown,
Walking that way tonight would not seem strange,
And still would be allowed. A little longer,
And time will be the stronger,
Drafting a world where no such road will run
From you to me;
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty.
Not to prevent it is my will's fulfilment.
Willing it, my ailment.
This is an
almost textbook example of a good poem- well-constructed but sort of banal. It
does not say much- the usual of lost things, decisions, regret- but says it very
well. The fact that the lines also vary in length give the poem a bounce- as if
the speaker is arguing against themselves subconsciously; as if, just as the
speaker seems willing to fall in to a rhythm or pattern, a part rebels- even as
the tone (in what is said) remains static. PL uses a similar technique in this
even shorter poem on flowers, called Modesties:
Words as plain as hen-birds' wings
Do not lie,
Do not over-broider things-
Are too shy.
Thoughts that shuffle round like
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense,
Weeds are not supposed to grow,
But by degrees
Some achieve a flower, although
No one sees.
The rhythms are not as perfected as the 1st poem, which is good, because the idea of writing an ideal lyric conflating flowers with emotions- well, itís been done many times before. Hereís another poem that succeeds:
Since the majority of me
Rejects the majority of you,
Debating ends forwith, and we
Divide. And sure of what to do
We disinfect new blocks of days
For our majorities to rent
With unshared friends and unwalked ways,
But silence too is eloquent:
A silence of minorities
That, unopposed at last, return
Each night with cancelled promises
They want renewed. They never learn.
Yes, thereís no need to repeat the title as line 1, but- after that- the poem succeeds in rehabbing another tired trope- the dialectic poem. This poemís humor & brevity make the final sentence have alot more gravitas than had this been a seriously introspective poem. Note how well he succeeds at observations. Observation poems are his forte. Now look at how this longer narrative poem sags (& has a blasť title, to boot) & the reader ends up bored by the time the final observations roll around:
'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed
Fall to within five inches of the sill
Whose window shows a strip of
Tussocky, littered.'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books
'I'll take it'. So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool,
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits- what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why
He kept on plugging at the four
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.
But if stood and watched the frigid
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own
And, at his age, having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.
BY stanza 3 we donít give a whit as to what Mr. Bleaney thinks or feels, & the really good last stanza is not even read by folks who flip through an anthology. Want an explanation of the poem? Read it yourself- I wonít aid in the poemís weakness. Compare the previous poem to this 1- another more narrative-leaning poem:
When getting my nose in a book,
Cured most things, short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.
Don't read much now, the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
You enjoyed reading this, didnít you? Admit it. Whether this is a good poem or not, it applied techniques to engage readership. PL has many poems as this 1- & it points out the silliness in the criticisms leveled at him by his detractors. Oh well. Before we hit the titular poem let me show you a similarly titled poem to keep in mind when you read the poem in question. Hereís the 1st poem:
She kept her songs, they kept so
The covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
And coloured, by her daughter-
So they had waited, till, in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood
Relearning how each frank submissive
Had ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
That hidden freshness sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,
The glare of that much-mentioned
Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
To pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.
This is a fantastic & great poem- from the opening metaphor of piano songbooks as themselves, as the song, & as mementos, to the closing emotion- or rather stifled emotion. Add to that how taut & nonetheless plainspoken this poem is- damned good! Now, on to a lesser work:
They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves- all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.
The images & metaphors are obvious & banal- compare ĎAs dew clarifies airí to ĎOne bleached from lying in a sunny placeí. The former tells you in no uncertain terms the literal & metaphoric interpretation. The latter could be the literal bookís blanching, memory that erodes with too much remembrance, or a host of other interpretations. Since the poem is so short I will try to improve it by adding duplicity with a few changes:
They say eyes clear with rage,
As dew clarifies air
To crispen evenings,
As if time put a wedge
Through the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The too-soft waves of grass
Wrinkling away the old
Wind-ridden tides- all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we know old.
The change from age to rage in line 1 seems abrupt- but as the poem goes on we will see the foreshadowing it casts. Crispen is better than sharpen because itís not as trite & things can crispen in a # of ways, by a # of sources. A wedge through things is more active than the passive & trite edge round- too indicative of the senescence of the original poem. The grassy lines are a little better- for me to really up them I would have to change the focus of the poem too much- but my word choices are a little niftier. & knowing old is a much better way to describe the percipient than growing old. Why? Because it adds a level of understanding to the speaker that upon rereading the reader will wanna seek out. The original is too pat, & a lesser version of a Robert Frostian sentimental poem. & that has its own problems- aside & apart from being lesser Larkin!
Final Score: (1-100):
Philip Larkinís Long Sight in Age:
TOPís Long Sight in Age: 88
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