Wednesday 24 November 2021

'The tattered cordage of my will'

 On this day in 1965, Larkin wrote, or signed off on, this one, 'How Distant' –

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling.

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning,
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

I realise, having checked, that I've written about it before – here – but I make no apologies for posting it again, as I believe it is one of Larkin's finest short poems, evoking a lost world ('how distant') with a precise perfection of touch. It is moving too, in a similar way to the more famous 'MCMXIV'. 
  The 'salt-white cordage' in the third line puts me in mind of a very different poem by a very different poet (and probably the best he wrote) – Frank O'Hara's 'To the Harbormaster':

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught   
in some moorings. I am always tying up   
and then deciding to depart. In storms and   
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide   
around my fathomless arms, I am unable   
to understand the forms of my vanity   
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder   
in my hand and the sun sinking. To   
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage   
of my will. The terrible channels where   
the wind drives me against the brown lips   
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet   
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and   
if it sinks, it may well be in answer   
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

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