Sunday, March 19, 2006

Talking in Bed

Philip Larkin


Talking in bed ought to be easiest
Lying together there goes back so far
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside the wind's incomplete unrest
builds and disperses clouds about the sky.

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind
Or not untrue and not unkind.

All his life (Martin Amis informs me [1]) Philip Larkin was a miser - a fact that Larkin himself, with characteristic honesty, acknowledges elsewhere. Yet a trait that is unattractive in a person can make for good, even great poetry, and Larkin's miserliness, it seems to me, is the key to the genius of his poems. It's the sparseness, the austerity of his work that first strikes you: this is a man who was (IMHO) one of the best poets of his century, and yet his collected poems take up little more than a 150 pages, and include only about ten dozen poems. By the end of his life (Amis again) Larkin was writing little more than one poem a year.

And reading the poems themselves (like this one here) you can see why. These are poems picked as bare as meaning will allow, skeletons of poems from which everything but the essential bones have been picked clean by Larkin's scavenging talent. Every word is carefully chosen and reluctantly offered, you can almost feel the pain Larkin feels with every extra line he has to put in.

And yet there is no compromise here - Larkin says exactly what he means (even going back, in that glorious last stanza, to correct a possible overstatement) and is able to create both sense and image with the pithiest, most concise phrasing ("dark towns heap up on the horizon"). This is an incredibly sad, incredibly weary, incredibly beautiful poem, a poem that comes to you from a "unique distance from isolation", and, like much of Larkin's other work, defeats you entirely by involving you in the confession of its own surrender.

[1] Amis' essay on Larkin, originally published in the New Yorker in 1993, can be found in The War Against Cliche - a brilliant collection of Amis' essays and criticisms.



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