Friday 21 August 2015

Oliver's Blues

On this day 60 years ago, the 33-year-old Philip Larkin was on his holidays and having a whale of a time (hem hem). Paying a reluctant return visit to his 'unsatisfactory' parental home in the 'unsatisfactory prime' of his life, he was idly playing jazz records in his 'unsatisfactory' room to pass the time. One of them - Joe 'King' Oliver's Riverside Blues - elicited a call of 'That was a pretty one' from his mother in the hall. From that unpromising soil the poem Reference Back sprang suddenly up - a poem that, like so many of Larkin's, climbs steadily in register as it nears its sharp uncomfortable nub, the pain and loss of time's passing.

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.
Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.
This is the track Larkin was listening to  - the Creole Jazz Band in its prime, 'blindingly undiminished', with Louis Armstrong on second cornet and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. A pretty one indeed...
Fifteen years later, King Oliver died, a broke and broken man, in a rooming house in Savannah.

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