Friday, December 5, 2014
Vendler On Larkin
“Art, if it knows how to wait, wins out,” Clive James perceptively wrote, twenty-five years ago, in “Somewhere Becoming Rain” (The New Yorker, July 17, 1989; included in his excellent 2002 collection Reliable Essays), an absorbing review of Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. After years of bruising attacks on his personal reputation, it seems Larkin’s art is now beginning to win out. Perhaps the strongest evidence of this turnaround is Helen Vendler’s recent piece, "Why aren't they screaming?" (London Review of Books, November 6, 2014), a review of James Booth’s biography Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. Vendler says, “Essays on Larkin have proliferated in journals and edited collections, but we lack a variety of impartial books focusing on the poetry itself.” She proceeds to provide brilliant stylistic analysis of two Larkin poems – “Counting” and “The Old Fools.”
As a lead-in to her consideration of “Counting,” Vendler says of Larkin’s poetry, “But the lines he constructs can seem artless, so devoid are they of the visible accouterments of art.” In so saying, she touches on one of the qualities that draws me to Larkin’s work – its rich simplicity. Regarding “Counting,” she says it “austerely allows itself only small words; small lines (of two beats or three); small units (couplets); small rhymes (monosyllables, all but one); invariant and insistent appearances of the baleful word ‘one’; and – a tour de force – the tiny simultaneous appearance and disappearance of the wishful word ‘two.’ ” Here’s the poem:
Thinking in terms of one
Is easily done –
One room, one bed, one chair,
One person there,
Makes perfect sense; one set
Of wishes can be met,
One coffin filled.
But counting up to two
Is harder to do;
For one must be denied
Before its tried.
So good is Vendler’s commentary on “Counting,” I can’t resist quoting another paragraph of it:
It’s only by looking for it that the art can be found: it hides itself in the sinisterly unpartnered and unrhymed line “One coffin filled”; in the way the “co” of “coffin” loops the word immediately to the next line’s “counting” and to the “Counting” of the title; in the magnetic antonymic attraction that clasps together “Thinking” and “Counting,” and “easily” and “harder”; and in the ineluctable logic of the final rhyme as “denied” undoes “tried” – and undoes it without even permitting the trying. Such little links – not omitting the white space between the one coffin and the stifled attempt at “two” – give the sting of aesthetic fulfilment as the prose in the letter doesn’t.
That last line is a reference to a letter that Larkin wrote in 1946, in which he talks about his opposition to marriage. Vendler, in another of her inspired analytic moves, compares the writing in the letter to the writing in “Counting” to highlight the latter’s artful minimalism.
Vendler’s consideration of “The Old Fools” is equally illuminating. At one point, she says of it, “After its amplitude, every stanza flings a knife in its final words, mutilating the expected conclusive pentameter into two beats: ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’ ” That “flings a knife in its final words” is marvelously fine, getting at another aspect of Larkin’s writing that I admire immensely – his cutting frankness. Vendler’s vivid language is a clear sign of her deep engagement with the poem. She not only calls for criticism focusing on the work itself; she shows the way.
Credit: The above portrait of Philip Larkin is by Gerald Scarfe; it appears in the July 12, 1993 New Yorker, as an illustration for Martin Amis’s “Don Juan in Hull.”