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The New York Times reviews David Orr’s book about the experience of really seriously loving poetry. The reviewer notes the universal opiate pull of Philip Larkin’s poetry …

Regular UD readers know that UD was hooked on Larkin decades ago… She likes both of his modes — the timid depressive realist, harshly self-appraising and defensively cynical; and the supremely sensitive lyricist, singing an insinuating cosmos.

Everybody can recite lines from the first mode (They fuck you up, your mum and dad…), but UD prefers the second — which is, in fact, quite druggy, since it’s about evoking haunted, depleted, distorted forms of consciousness… Consciousness trying and trying and failing to assimilate a fugitive, enigmatic world.

Out of a sheaf of life-is-but-a-dream poems by Larkin, look at two: Absences, and Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel. Here’s the first:

Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.

Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries;
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!

*********************************

A person stands on a beach on a rainy day and ponders the immensity of nothingness that is the earth, a nothingness whose most striking feature is its indifference, in its massive heedless workings, to the absence of the speaker. There are no ships, no shallows – there are no objects at all in this view. And yet there is a world, tirelessly at play in a kind of autistic redundancy. All of the play of the world goes on without me — all of it, and all I’ve got to say for myself is my consciousness of it.

My consciousness of the earth seems in itself a massive thing, though.

After all, it’s the only thing, for me. I may be insignificant like hell, but my human mind is a power, and a power that matters, since the world can’t be said to exist self-consciously, as it were, without my thinking self at work on it, giving it words, meanings, understandings…

The speaker shifts his perspective from the sea to the sky, and here things are even emptier. At least the ocean has a shore, a sandy point of definition, a boundary that offers a shape of some sort; up there, it’s a yet more shoreless day (there’s an echo of even less sure day).

Just as the water is chaotically tumbled by enigmatic forces, so enigmatic (riddled) forces tumble the day into chaos and disintegration. We can trace a certain narrative – of disintegration – by watching clouds which, like evaporating ships, reveal galleries, and then ribbing, and then nothing at all.

The ribbing evokes the body of the speaker as well – his at best skeletal presence in a churning, self-consuming, reconstituting drama.

Now the second poem.

************************************

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages
.


******************************

From her travels through Europe with her parents and siblings when she was eight, UD has retained an image eerily similar to this poem’s image. She recalls being in a large empty hotel in the evening. She recalls glancing into its empty dining room – many white clustered curtained tables, weak ceiling lights, a frightening and depressing atmosphere.

I suppose it’s the atmosphere, above all, that UD has retained with such emotional and even visceral clarity – the tense, hopeful, hopeless expectation of that room, its existence as an elaborated space meant to be filled. Forks meant to be lifted sat flat on linens. This place should have been filled with life, with people — not with the fraught waiting-for-something that now permeated it.

I suppose UD sensed the extraction of the human – such absences! – from that room… Maybe it was her first encounter with her irrelevance, even in some horrible sense her invisibility… The startle of nothing – I encountered this phrase in a poem ages ago. I’ve never been able to recall who wrote it. The phrase haunts me.

So in the Royal Station Hotel poem it’s not nature that prompts a sort of lucid dreaming about life as mere dream; it’s culture. The almost-extinguished traces of the human – ashes in the ashtrays – left in the abandoned hotel prompt the poet to feel our exile, our having-been, our occasional presence in the corridors of the world, but mainly our flickering transience in regard to it. We are elsewhere, exiled from fullness of being.

And always we are menaced by death (Waves fold behind villages…).

The poet confers a kind of life on the objects left in the dining room; they, not we, have solidity, agency, existence. The dining-room declares. The lights burn.

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5 Responses to “‘Orr came to poetry as a sophomore in college, when he bought Philip Larkin’s book “The Whitsun Weddings” by mistake. (It seems as though half of the poetry addicts out there got started on Larkin; somebody really needs to look into the role of his poems as a gateway drug.)’”

  1. Michael Tinkler Says:

    For me it’s Church Going

  2. jim Says:

    all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds

    This is a place even less enticing than Leeds.

  3. dmf Says:

    http://www.zero-inch.com/artist/Philip_Larkin/track/Absences/186908

  4. Mr Punch Says:

    “shoeless corridors”
    we used to leave our shoes out to be cleaned of course

  5. University Diaries » Verbal Consciousness Says:

    […] is Philip Larkin, finding sure verbal footing in a shoreless world, creating a verbal awareness of there being […]

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