Larkin Out Loud
As with so much else—England, foreign countries, children, grownup people, a great deal of literature, and a great deal of life—Philip Larkin didn’t care for poetry readings. Listening to poetry read aloud, complained Larkin, one never knows how far away the ending is; all sense of stanzaic form disappears; and this is to say nothing of all the tiny misunderstandings that chip away at our ability to concentrate, the “theirs” being taken for “there’s.” I don’t much like poetry readings either, and I would add to Larkin’s list of grievances the fact that most people aren’t very good at reading poetry aloud.
The greatest offense is usually simply that of reading a poem as though it were a poem, in a boomingly uniform incantation that obscures nuance and texture. Fortunately, there were few such performances on display on Tuesday night at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where the Poetry Society of America had organized a tribute to Philip Larkin, England’s greatest post-Second World War poet, to coincide with the publication of “Complete Poems,” a clear improvement on the earlier editions, which includes each of Larkin’s collections in their original order, along with a section of uncollected and previously unpublished work, and a staggeringly thorough commentary. Like the clientele of a hyper-exclusive café, the evening’s readers—James Fenton, Saskia Hamilton, Mary Karr, Nick Laird, Katha Pollitt, Paul Simon, and Zadie Smith among them—sat in threes around small tables up on stage and took turns approaching the lectern to read a Larkin poem of choice.
To mix things up—and Larkin was all for variety (he said he always put a lot of thought into the order of poems in a collection: “I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls”)—the floor was intermittently ceded to the Queens College Louis Armstrong Ensemble, who played several of Larkin’s favorite Sidney Bechet numbers. (The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik did a fine job with Larkin’s poem to Bechet, where he exclaims, “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous Yes.”)
Many of Larkin’s best poems follow the same structure. First, the poet is arrested by something seemingly mundane—an invitation to a party, the sight of a young couple passing in the street—and begins to turn it over in his mind. As the poem gathers steam, these meditations take on a metaphysical cast and are expressed in an increasingly lavish diction. Then, almost bashfully, Larkin seems to overhear himself and to reject conventional poetic speech and sentiment in favor of a more grounded, clear-eyed vision of the world, one that his experience has verified.
“Sad Steps” is probably my favorite Larkin poem, and it is also one of his most characteristic. The poem’s modulations—grogginess (“Groping back to bed after a piss”), quickened thought (“There’s something laughable about this”), a somewhat confected awe (“Lozenge of love!”), self-correction (“No”), and final clarity—were expertly captured by J. D. McClatchy, who spoke the lines as though they were only at that moment occurring to him, and thereby restored to them a welcome freshness and spontaneity:
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 stareIs a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
Zadie Smith’s voice, which is at once musical and strangely affectless, was well suited to “The Old Fools,” with its brutal catalogue of uncomprehending questions. Many of the people in the audience looked to be the wrong side of eighty, and there was an almost unbearable tension in the hall as Smith asked, matter-of-factly,
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning?
What saves the poem—and saved the reading—from seeming merely hectoring is the last line, when Larkin, having taken in the grotesque spectacle of old age, as it were, turns the camera on himself (and by extension, all of us who are not yet old). Smith spoke the last five words unimprovably, with just the right tone of grim anticipation:
Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
The audience chuckled and gasped simultaneously. There was no question about it: Larkin had come through.