Tag: Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin’s Shorts


Image result for philip larkin

 

If I was any good at Photoshop, this picture of poet Philip Larkin would have shown him wearing shorts. Great big baggy shorts and, below them, bare feet. You’d imagine he was just about to go for a paddle and laugh like a drain. But unlike Steve Austin, the Bionic Man – remember him? – we don’t have the technology.

Larkin did – as much as he needed, anyway. He took this proto-selfie using a timer. Behind him rises the steel skeleton of the brand-new university library where he was to serve out his working days as Chief Librarian. The following poem – perhaps his last – was written on an 80th birthday card to the university’s Vice-Chancellor, after whom the new Brynmor Jones Library was named:

By day, a lifted study-storehouse; night
Converts it to a flattened cube of light.
Whichever’s shown, the symbol is the same:
Knowledge; a University; a name.

Contrasting images become resolved in a wider concept. The zoom lens of the poet’s attention moves in and out, shifting its focus, seeking deeper truths within life’s random clutter. Philip Larkin’s shorts – short poems, of course, and not truncated trousers! – resemble his photographs, I think, in that both capture a whole world in a sudden flash of insight.

My favourite Larkin photo has to be this one. I imagine him setting up the timer and then composing himself with canny deliberation for this knowing self-portrait at once serious, gentle, vulnerable, revealing, funny. And above all, like his poems, honest.

 

Related image

 

This is the first thing’

This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.

 

‘To put one brick upon another

To put one brick upon another,
Add a third and then a forth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.

But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven bawl
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.

 

Days 

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Midwinter Waking
Paws there. Snout there as well. Mustiness. Mould.
Darkness; a desire to stretch, to scratch.
Then has the – ? Then is it – ? Nudge the thatch,
Displace the stiffened leaves: look out. How cold,
How dried a stillness. Like a blade on stone,
A wind is scraping, first this way, then that.
Morning, perhaps; but not a proper one.
Turn. Sleep will unshell us, but not yet.
Myxomatosis
Caught in the centre of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
                            I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
First Sight
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold. As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

Home is so sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

As Bad as a Mile

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

 

Take One Home for the Kiddies

On shallow straw, in shadeless glass,
Huddled by empty bowls, they sleep:
No dark, no dam, no earth, no grass –
Mam, get us one of them to keep.

Living toys are something novel,
But it soon wears off somehow.
Fetch the shoebox, fetch the shovel –
Mam, we’re playing funerals now.

 

The Little Lives Of Earth And Form
The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set. And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.
BBC Yorkshire looks through the lens of Philip Larkin ...

Rabbiting On Again

Words.
No shortage, is there?
Words, words.
Dictionaries and thesauruses are full of them.
Words, words, words.
Airwaves are abuzz with them.
Words, words, words, words.
Persuaders, hidden or otherwise, bend our ears and break our spirits.
Words, words, words, words, words …

And so, before contributing a further fourpenny-worth to the existing word-mountain, let’s pause a moment to consult two world-renowned authorities on the higher arts of human communication … Chas ‘n’ Dave … whose cheeky erudition goes some way to excuse a whiff of political incorrectness:

You got more rabbit than Sainsburys … honest to goodness, has a better line of poetry ever been written? And if it has, might it have come from the pen of this cheerful geezer?

Talking in Bed

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 in 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.

by Philip Larkin

Putting two and two together – and probably coming up with five! – it appears that too much rabbit and related background noise from outside can drown out the delicate inner promptings that allow for meaningful human communication. And if you’ll forgive the comparison of blogging into the blank aether with talking in a darkened bedroom, you may also accept the notion that uncertainty about reception can make it hard to string words together online.

As a little kid I had an invisible friend. I only ever confided in him while sitting on the toilet. I called him Naughty Man and his supposed worldly wisdom must have made him an ideal audience for my secret confidences. Perhaps I was aware that the real people around me could only take so much. Communication breakdown begins early and always remains a possibility, which is probably why I (and, may I suggest, we?) need art to bridge the gap. And comedy. Both bring perspective.

Here are some more rabbits if you have the stamina, though a minute or three might be enough to give you the idea!

Unsettling, isn’t it? That bloke Kafka hardly knew what he’d started, shuffling off his mortal coil before most of his work was published and after leaving strict instructions that it should all be burnt!

It’s easy to view the wind out there as cold and unforgiving. So it’s a comfort to know that people whose talents I admire and even envy can also struggle to express themselves. But where I whisper into a zephyr, in the intimacy of a personal blog, they often have to shout into a maelstrom.

Image result for joni mitchell quote on music corporations

Another musician-turned-painter was Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. The short film that follows offers a great insight into what made him tick as an artist – it’s also, at least to my ear, hilariously funny. The wobbly footage shouldn’t impair enjoyment too much.

He dedicates his music to animals and children. How cool is that? If I’d known about Captain Beefheart as a kid, it would certainly be him I’d have confided in! He would have known all about the glory of words as well as understanding their limitations.

Hmm, maybe there’s a connection …

Vault Finding #5

In this raid on the archives, I’ve paired one of my earliest posts with an unpublished draft on the French Situationists. With a bit of luck, you can’t see the join!

Image result for you can't see the join morecambe and wise I find it sad that children today don’t occupy the streets and open spaces like we did when I was young. There have always been risks in such freedom but we made a habit of going around with our friends, rarely if ever alone. We knew the dangers and were able to avoid them. So many kids were out and about, there was safety in numbers. With more adults around, too, we behaved ourselves most of the time because we didn’t want to get into trouble. In this way, we learned how to take responsibility for ourselves.

Sitting alone in your bedroom is not a healthy substitute, especially when you factor in the online risks and bad cyberspace influences that would shock many parents. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, I’m afraid. Let’s make the open air a place for youngsters again, providing proper facilities and a sensible but not stifling adult presence. It would be quite a challenge but I can’t think of a better way to create the communities of the future …

Well, I said we behaved ourselves but we probably weren’t above adding the occasional daft moustache or blackened tooth to advertising hoardings that showed people leading impossibly perfect lives. We might even have changed the odd word here and there … 

That ever-perceptive poet Philip Larkin captured the historical moment much better than I can:

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards.

from ‘Essential Beauty’

That small cube? Oxo, of course, the magic ingredient without which family life was incomplete … nay, inconceivable! 

Image result for oxo advert

Image result for oxo advert

Surrounded by such propaganda, how could us kids have known that while we roamed those 1950s streets a bunch of French intellectuals were turning our natural instincts into a whole new heavyweight philosophy?

We didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia, of course, without which the following mock-academic account could not exist:

With cultural roots in Dadaism and Surrealism – and political roots in Marxism – the Situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly-lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, towards individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.

Another important concept of situationist theory was the need to counteract the spectacle – essentially the mass media that reduces free citizens to passive subjects who  contemplate the world as no more than a consumable resource. The method the situationists adopted was the construction of situations – moments of life deliberately contrived for the purpose of reawakening authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life as adventure and the liberation of everyday existence.

The dérive – a French word meaning ‘drift’ – is a revolutionary strategy originally put forward in 1956 by Guy Debord who defined it as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

It involves an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Though solo dérives are possible, Debord indicates that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions.

The dérive‘s goals include studying the terrain of the city (psychogeography) and emotional disorientation, both of which lead to the potential creation of Situations.

A détournement‘rerouting or hijacking’ in French – is a technique developed in the 1950s and defined in the Situationist International’s inaugural 1958 journal as “the  integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”

It has been defined elsewhere as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” – as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.

Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political hoaxes and stunts, an influential tactic called Situationist Prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the anti-consumerist culture-jamming movement in the late 1980s.

Its opposite is recuperation, in which radical ideas or the social image of people who are viewed negatively are twisted, commodified and absorbed in a more socially acceptable context.

Yeah, don’t get me started on how Tin Pan Alley moguls turned the exciting runaway underground of 1960s sounds into the long slow mogadon-music snooze of the 1970s. You’ll never hear the end of it …

I’ll end with a short clip that shows how people behave online compared with face-to-face!

 

Digging Deeper

So, no more WordPress Daily Prompts!

Like any addict with supply problems, a week in and I’m still wrestling with a cold turkey – feathers everywhere – if you see what I mean. It’s been hell. Sweats, cramps, fevers, insomnia, the works …


Image result for addict

Actually, it’s not been that bad. In fact, I haven’t given it a moment’s thought. It feels like the school holidays have started and I’m climbing trees, having escaped that old bossy-boots of a teacher who kept giving me random things to write about.

Oh yes, the ball’s well and truly in my court! All I have to do is pull back my racquet and let fly … but where to place the shot?

Aarrrggh … decisions! I hear that ball thump into the wire behind me, the derisive laughter of my opponent … curiously familiar, wonder who it is … and now I’ll never know because I’ve just woken up to the sounds of birds and bees, the scents of garden flowers and an unsipped gin-and-tonic in the arm of my reclining chair.

Hmm, reckon I should stop stressing about style and just scramble the ball over the net any old how. As our bewildering world unravels ever faster, it’s too easy to convince yourself nothing you say will make any difference and – the curse of every passionate perfectionist and thwarted idealist – you don’t bother to say anything. Nothing’s your fault, anyway, though Philip Larkin is as perceptive as usual on the subject of luck:

Bad As A Mile

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

I think back three years to when the apple of blogging was still unbitten. Here are my first two posts:

My voyage of exploration begins. I want to recapture the spirit of childhood, when we would set out from home with the deliberate aim of getting hopelessly lost. No point in going over old ground, after all …

freerange

wall-kids-no-rites

I find it sad that children today don’t occupy the streets and open spaces like we did when I was young. There have always been risks in such freedom but we made a habit of going around with our friends, rarely if ever alone. We knew the dangers and were able to avoid them. So many kids were out and about, there was safety in numbers. With more adults around, too, we behaved ourselves most of the time because we didn’t want to get into trouble. In this way, we learned how to take responsibility for ourselves.

Sitting alone in your bedroom is not a healthy substitute, especially when you factor in the online risks and bad cyberspace influences that would shock many parents. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, I’m afraid. Let’s make the open air a place for children again, providing proper facilities and a sensible but not stifling adult presence. It would be quite a challenge but I can’t think of a better way to create the communities of the future …

Back to 2018, I’m struck by the campaigning tone and buoyant optimism above. Plug in to your inner child, I seem to be saying, and everything becomes possible.

Yet here I am, three years on, myself a pitiable victim of those same online risks and bad cyberspace influences … well, aren’t we all, after the surreal horrors of 2016 and their unfolding fake-news consequences? And as for guiding the young, fat chance when the adults appear to lack all direction!

Enough reality already! Or perhaps, less unreality masquerading as reality …

So the other day I was telling my little granddaughter this joke:

There was a vicar who used to visit his parishioners’ homes where they often asked him to stay for tea. They would sometimes serve him baked beans on toast, which he hated but was too polite to refuse. So anxious was he not to cause offence that he always pretended to enjoy them. People would tell each other how much he enjoyed baked beans with the result that he was rarely given anything else.

One day he was given a double helping, so he asked for a glass of water and when his host went into the kitchen he frantically spooned baked beans into the top pocket of his jacket. When the host brought the water, the vicar was licking his lips and polishing his plate with the toast.

On his way out he thanked his host from the bottom of his heart, patting his chest and spurting baked beans everywhere. He ran out in acute embarrassment but his host couldn’t wait to tell the next-door neighbour. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘the vicar likes baked beans so much he keeps a big stash of them in his pocket wherever he goes!’

Squeaky clean and yet silly enough to please any four-year-old, I’d say!

It was one of three jokes my dad insisted on telling at every family gathering. I won’t trouble you with the other two. We’d heard it lots and would always groan, of course, but my granddaughter asked for it again … and again!

It suddenly occurred to me that I was telling it just like my dad did – same intonations, same actions, same everything. Our relationship was always a little uneasy – common, I think, between us post-war kids and our pre-war parents – but this  was one of those moments where the present links up to the past in a flash. Gratitude for my old man welled up in me for the first time in … well, ever, really.

Sad but true.

Tell me about when you were little, she says, a frequent request. This time I tell her about my dad and some of his funny ways. All of a sudden, he’s still here.

There’s an African saying, I believe, that it takes a village to bring up a child. And if there’s one thing that should bring us all together, it’s the welfare of children. There is a very real sense in which nothing else matters.

Here is a positive little film that makes the point better than I can. The apple is always unbitten.

 

 

A Leaf Must Fall

Walter Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. Music plays games with time which may be why it can evoke the past so powerfully. Our first encounters with a song or tune can focus attention in a uniquely memorable way and remain permanently accessible.

Playing a favourite recording is a bit like revisiting a memory although memories, we are told, alter each time they surface and meet the light of day. A little bit of now leaks in which results in our remembrances constantly being rewritten. Wonderfully creative, of course, although it’s worth recalling that ‘being creative with the truth’ is the new euphemism for telling lies!

Music is your only friend until the end, Jim Morrison sang, and in some moods I can’t disagree. Listening to familiar records puts me in touch with who I was but can also show me how I’ve changed. As so often, the poet Philip Larkin has something interesting to say on the subject. The ‘you’ in this poem is his mother.

Reference Back

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique Negroes blew
Our of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.

Truly, though our element is time,
We’re not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

There’s so much in this poem that it’s hard to hold in the mind. It gnaws away at my thoughts, which must be why I keep going back to it. Bit like probing an aching tooth perhaps? I find myself wondering if present unhappiness can damage happy memories. Another poet, TS Eliot, wrote that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Maybe we’re all busy re-editing the past to fit new realities or worse, new virtualities … ha, my spellchecker doesn’t like that word which I’ll take as a signal to stop! Besides, I’m getting out of my depth here …

Sometimes you come across old music you never heard at the time which has a freshness that evokes an era better than some of the stuff from it you keep playing … such a find was The Famous Jug Band’s album Sunshine Possibilities. If there’s a Genius of place, there must be a genius of time. Listen to these two tracks (lyrics provided for the first) and you may find yourself magically transported back to 1969 …

If you must go, go now 
Before the summer fades 
Before the geese have flown
Before the rivers rise 
Or would you take my heart? 
Would you take my mind?

And if they ask where you are 
I'll say that you have flown 
Before you died of cold
And while your wings were strong 
And that I love you still 
And that all will fade. 

And as you fly away 
You'll think no more of me 
For autumn has no tears 
For summer's fading leaves 
And that is how it was 
And how it will be.

My Prayer

FD_19

I reckon being separated from people in life helps to prepare us for their absence in death. And when they die, their lives take on a new shape and significance. Where a life has been full and complete, we can only celebrate it.  We express its value in the currency of contribution, influence, relationship. Where there has been pain and suffering, we view death as a release. Quality of life is valued over mere existence.

And wherever death is unexpected or premature, we value the human potential that has been lost. So often the prematurely bereaved become campaigners and even reformers, honouring the memory of their loved ones by seeking to save others from the same misfortune. Their lives … and deaths, we hear time and again, will not have been in vain.

Avoidable death is a constant spur to human progress. It challenges politics, economics, ethics – to my sceptical ear, diminutives with a sonic similarity to ‘antics’ and ‘frolics’ – by reminding us that within each word there beats a moral heart … respectively liberty, equality, fraternity. And no other human right outguns the right to life.

But whatever the circumstances, death can be the moment that life burns brightest. With our last breath we pass into the collective consciousness, an apotheosis far superior to any egoistic notion of individual transcendence. This is poignantly described in the second verse of Wilfred Owen’s  Anthem For Doomed Youth (quoted below) where the dead can be said to pass into folk memory. Funeral elegies and fond memories held in common can bring us back to life where we really belong, in the hearts and minds of others.

What greater incentive could we have to slip the reins of ego and gallop free of death’s burdensome saddle? What greater reward for a good life could we hope for than to be recalled with a grateful smile? What else could have driven great artists through the present pain of creation but the knowledge that they might live on in their masterpieces?

And my prayer?

Let not humankind curse me for a destroyer but praise me for a creator.

 

“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”   –  Terence

 

‘Days’

What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question brings the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.

Philip Larkin

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen