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Of course a poem. A Philip Larkin poem. Your blogeuse is mad about poetry (Speaking of which: She’ll be giving a series of lectures this April at the Georgetown Public Library on the subject. Dates TBA.), and she agrees with Christopher Hitchens that it’s strange and amazing, the way

[Somehow from Philip Larkin’s drab, resentful life he evolved] his own sour strain and syncopation of Words­worth’s “still, sad music of humanity.”

But let’s not stop at strange and amazing and somehow. Let’s analyze one of his poems! “New Year Poem.” Written not just from the ruins of his life, but from the ruins of Coventry, 1940. The poet has come home for a visit, and he surveys the bombed out city.

Just look carefully at the first few lines to see some of the ways Larkin distills his sour music.

The short afternoon ends, and the year is over;
Above trees at the end of the garden the sky is unchanged,
An endless sky; and the wet streets, as ever,
Between standing houses are empty and unchallenged.

The first thing to notice is the endless use of “end” and variants on associated sounds. Ends, and, end, garden, endless, wet, ever, empty. Eh! That drab shoulder shrugging barely there eh sound resounds in these lines, their mushy muddiness of mood conveyed in the vagueness of that eh, whose opposite can be found in a happy Romantic poem like Wordsworth’s Daffodils, with its bright open vowels, sharp consonants, and exact rhymes. Note that Larkin’s submerged mood can only manage half rhymes, their not-quite-thereness conveying the poet’s self-protective evasion of clarity and sharpness in the face of an emotionally devastating landscape. This is not only the short-afternooned end of a year but the end of an entire humanly constructed world (and there’s more bombing to come). The sky to be sure is “endless,” but this isn’t the visionary firmament of the Romantics. It’s the infinite nothingness that hangs indifferently over an eviscerated, barely standing streetscape.

From roads where men go home I walk apart
–The buses bearing their loads away from works,
Through the dusk the bicycles coming home from bricks–
There evening like a derelict lorry is alone and mute.

“Men” sustains the eh music as this quatrain leads us further into the city, the poet maintaining his safe sense of non-implication in the distress of Coventry (“I walk apart”) as he observes the city’s demoralized unrushed rush hour. And note that the only “I,” the only human with agency in this stanza, is the poet. For the rest, objects – buses, bicycles, lorries – rather than human beings have presence and agency. People are merely the “loads” coming back from a day at the destroyed factories (or are the buses being used not for human transportation, but to transport fragments from the shattered works?), just as the poet in the vague dusk sees “bicycles coming home” from fallen bricks rather than people riding bicycles. The strange simile in the final line (evening is like a derelict lorry) puts one in mind of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting

This hideously mechanized world, with its armaments factories and its bombs raining down on the armament factories, reduces everything to faltering idling machines. And here the poet is implicated; he and the evening and the lorry are “alone and mute.”

These houses are deserted, felt over smashed windows,
No milk on the step, a note pinned to the door
Telling of departure: only shadows
Move when in the day the sun is seen for an hour,
Yet to me this decaying landscape has its uses:
To make me remember, who am always inclined to forget,
That there is always a changing at the root,
And a real world in which time really passes.

I’ve said so many times on this blog that poetry is our dreamworld, poetry marks the fact of our passing so much of our lives in dream, fantasy, unreality. The vista of Coventry forces upon the poet a salutary recognition of, a bracing awakening to, a real world in which time moves forward and dereliction happens. In a Paris Review interview, Larkin says:

I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

Larkin famously stayed in Hull most of his life and never married and never had children and held onto the same job – and this was his way of trying to make time stop. Instead of doing a lot, he did very little – and correctly noted that neither approach works.

So the coincidence of the big shift into a new year and the shock of a new, blasted Coventry has jolted the poet into recognitions he tries to avoid, and this is useful.

For sometimes it is shown to me in dreams
The Eden that all wish to recreate
Out of their living, from their favourite times;
The miraculous play where all the dead take part,
Once more articulate; or the distant ones
They will never forget because of an autumn talk
By a railway, an occasional glimpse in a public park,
Any memory for the most part depending on chance.

Simply an elaboration upon the dreamlife we live, in which time dies away and the dead are restored and even all the small random unforgettable encounters one has had over one’s life are reassembled and rehearsed.

And seeing this through that I know to be wrong,
Knowing by the flower the root that seemed so harmless
Dangerous; and all must take their warning
From those brief dreams of unsuccessful charms,
Their aloof visions of delight, where Desire
And Fear work hand-in-glove like medicals
To produce the same results. The bells
That we used to await will not be rung this year.

Like the poet who tries to maintain apartness as he walks through a setting that shrieks TIME CHANGE DERELICTION, we elaborate throughout our lives “aloof visions of delight,” where things never change (“the same results”). But this is “wrong.” Coventry Cathedral’s bells will not ring this year. It is a mute ruin.

So it is better to sleep and leave the bottle unopened;
Tomorrow in the offices the year on the stamps will be altered;
Tomorrow new diaries consulted, new calendars stand;
With such small adjustments life will again move forward
Implicating us all; and the voice of the living be heard:
“It is to us that you should turn your straying attention;
Us who need you, and are affected by your fortune;
Us you should love and to whom you should give your word.”

Forget the bubbly – no champagne this year. Just sleep. Changed time doesn’t need us to mark it – all the small, and all the large, alterations will happen regardless.

And now, in his final stanza, the poet admits his implication in all of this, the impossibility of aloofness: “life will again move forward / Implicating us all.” Very much like Derek Mahon’s famous “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” Larkin will end by turning not to buses and lorries and bicycles and phantoms but to the actual people all of these things convey. Don’t evade us, with your straying attention, your “intricate evasions of as.” Write about us as we suffer time and dereliction – give us your word.

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