Friday 21 August 2020

Larkin in August

There seems to have been something about August, the traditional holiday month, that got Philip Larkin reaching for his bleakest, most cynical and philistine personas. On yesterday's date in 1960, he signed off on 'A Study of Reading Habits', a study in (studied) disenchantment that ends with one of those Larkin 'statements' that is all too liable to snatched from its context and presented as the poet's 'opinion' (e.g. 'They fuck you up...', 'What will survive of us...'). Happily this one has escaped that fate, perhaps because it would be especially hard to impute to a career librarian...

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 coat 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.

On today's date in 1962, Larkin signed off on another exquisitely constructed essay in disenchantment, 'Send No Money', in which Time is presented as a booming, aldermanic figure with a fob chain across his waistcoated belly, and Truth as a 'trite untransferable truss-advertisement'. This last image refers to something that used to be a familiar feature of newspapers and men's magazines: adverts for surgical trusses (one, I remember, bore the slogan 'Ruptured – but on Top of the World!'). These devices could be seen, along with other equally alarming paraphernalia, in the windows of 'surgical goods' shops, which also sold what were known alluringly as 'prophylactic sheaths'...

Standing under the fobbed
Impendent belly of Time
Tell me the truth, I said,
Teach me the way things go.
All the other lads there
Were itching to have a bash,
But I thought wanting unfair:
It and finding out clash.
So he patted my head, booming Boy,
There’s no green in your eye:
Sit here and watch the hail
Of occurrence clobber life out
To a shape no one sees –
Dare you look at that straight?
Oh thank you, I said, Oh yes please,
And sat down to wait.
Half life is over now,
And I meet full face on dark mornings
The bestial visor, bent in
By the blows of what happened to happen.
What does it prove? Sod all.
In this way I spent youth,
Tracing the trite untransferable
Truss-advertisement, truth.
A later August poem, dated 8 August 1974, is thematically similar, presenting life as a struggle between 'your wants, the world's for you, and (worse) the unbeatable slow machine that brings you what you'll get'...

The Life with a Hole in It

When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you've always done what you want,
You always get your own way

– A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that's been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I've never done what I don't.

So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) . . .

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. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces.
Days sift down it constantly. Years.

Though written in August, this was published in the Poetry Book Society Christmas Supplement, bringing seasonal good cheer to its readers. 'The shit in the shuttered chateau' is a brilliant image; it always makes me think of Somerset Maugham – which is no doubt unfair.

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