Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reprehensibly perfect

Whenever I go to the bathroom in the night I think of Larkin's poem "Sad Steps," or a misremembered version of it anyway. This essay by Michael Wood reminded me of the title and prompted me to look up the whole poem. Here it is:
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
The last lines recall the last words of "The Whitsun Weddings" ("somewhere becoming rain"), with the echo of somewhere and the words that rhyme with rain. There is strength and pain, too, in the arrow-shower that Larkin imagines turning into rain. The real action, or life, takes place elsewhere, of course. He presents his life as a sequence of events that didn't happen, and he seems to regard the non-event almost as a duty.

This comes out in another poem that Wood quotes, "Poetry of Departures":
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It's specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.
Two types of perfection are contrasted here, the detested life "in perfect order" (like the sentences of ordinary language (see Investigations 98)!--incidentally, searching for the relevant passage led me to this paper on "Wittgenstein, Ethics and Therapy," which I must read) and the reprehensibly perfect artificial life of someone who runs away from home. Home is full of junk, albeit specially chosen, which is not the same as well chosen. Larkin once said that he disliked or distrusted homes without junk, without tasteless souvenirs on display because of love of the place or person they came from. Staying at home is not audacious (is it cowardly?), impure, not elemental (so is it molecular, synthetic, characterized by aggregation or accumulation?), but always what we have to do. It is a kind of burden, a messy or unclear one. But the bold move is both phony (or is it willful?) and retrograde. At least I think that's what he is saying.

I can't help but connect all this with religion, which might be one of the laughable immensements of "Sad Steps," and with Samuel Beckett, who seems to have some similar interests in the ordinary and in junk. (I'm going by this article, which reads like a sort of collage of quotations to me, but probably because I don't know Beckett well enough). Not that religious belief is always artificial or retrograde. But I think that for some of us it would be. Our job is to stay in our room, however detested, and to lie in the good bed we have made.

Wood writes that in Larkin's verse:
The ordinary becomes poetry but not “poetic.” “I don’t want to transcend the commonplace,” Larkin said, “I love the commonplace.” He loves it enough to get it into his verse, and also enough to allow it its own unruly life. 
Which is good, I think. It's too bad that Wood ends with the ending of the poem about an Arundel tomb, which is a little too commonplace now, but it's a useful and refreshing review all the same.

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