Be Kind While There's Time
Curtis Fox: Some listeners might find some of the language in this program offensive. This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, June 7th, 2012. I’m Curtis Fox. This spring, the great gloomy Gus of English poetry. This spring, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published “The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin”. It’s edited by Archie Bernett, and it’s called “The Complete Poems” instead of “The Collected Poems” because it includes poems that have never before been published, from journals and from letters even. The new book has gotten a lot of attention. Philip Larkin of course is the poet at the top of a lot of people’s list when it comes to the best post-war British poets. His poetry usually rhymes, and it’s easily apprehended on the first reading or hearing, and all of that is very deliberate on his part. Larkin disliked the difficult poetry that modernism brought into the language. His favorite poet was probably Thomas Hardy, and he shares Hardy’s obsession with mortality and death. But unlike Hardy, Larkin could be funny even when he was gloomy, as you’ll hear in a moment. In April, at the Cooper Union in New York City, The Poetry Society of America put on a tribute to Philip Larkin with readings of his poems given by a trove of poets and writers, from Billy Collins and Adam Gopnik to J.D. McClatchy and Zadie Smith. We’re going to hear a few of the readings, but first, let’s listen to the Executive Director of The Poetry Society of America, Alice Quinn, reading what must be Larkin’s most popular poem.
Alice Quinn: My Catholic girlhood almost prevented me from reading “This Be The Verse”. Allowed, but no one else claimed it. And as Giles Harvey of The New Yorker wrote in a recent Harper’s piece, the poem continues to be read and to claim to all over Britain. And besides, I recited it to my father, to his delight, last Sunday.
This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Curtis Fox: Alica Quinn reading “This Be The Verse”, no doubt blushing. Paul Simon is also a Philip Larkin fan. He was there at Cooper Union, and he read a short Larkin poem about cutting the grass which turns into a little meditation on death.
Paul Simon: The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Curtis Fox: Paul Simon. Next up, Mary Karr, the author of the memoir The Liar’s Club, and a tough minded poet who is no stranger to bleakness herself. She read Larkin’s poem, “High Windows”.
Mary Karr: When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Curtis Fox: Mary Karr reading “High Windows”. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think another poem that combines transcendence and thoughts of suicide as that one does at the end. I’ve saved the longest poem for last, it’s one of Larkin’s greatest. It’s called “Aubade”, and an aubade traditionally is a poem or song about lovers separating at dawn. In Larkin’s “Aubade”, there is no lover. The poet awakens before the sun comes up, and it being a Larkin poem, his thoughts turn to death. It was read by poet and novelist Nick Laird.
Nick Laird: I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Nick Laird, reading “Aubade” at a tribute last April to Philip Larkin produced by The Poetry Society of America at the Cooper Union in New York City. You can read those poems and others by Larkin on our website poetryfoundation.org, and of course you can read pretty much every poem Larkin every wrote in “The Complete Poems” just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintent. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.