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Thursday, 17 April 2008

Poem in Your Pocket Day: Philip Larkin's 'Mr. Bleaney'

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day, at least in New York City it is, and it seemed like the excuse I've been waiting for to highlight my favourite poem. New Yorkers are being encouraged to carry a poem in their pockets and share with family, friends, co-workers and classmates but it seems it's okay to post a poem on your website or blog. That's just my excuse. I'm doing it anyway.

The poem I have chosen is 'Mr. Bleaney' by Philip Larkin.

Mr. Bleaney

'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

I've mentioned this poem in previous blogs. I imagine I will continue to mention it. It means a lot to me. Reading it was a kind of epiphany. Suddenly poetry made sense. I unreservedly accredit this poem with my becoming a poet. I had written poems before I read it but in a directionless, juvenile way. It was about another three years before I started writing consistently decent poetry but this was the spark that ignited the fire.

Born on 9 August 1922, Philip Larkin was 33 when he wrote 'Mr. Bleaney' in May 1955. I first read it when I was 14. I will be 49 this May and the poem has no less effect on me now that it did 35 years ago when I first was made to read it. Because it deals with archetypes it hasn't dated. Only the knowledge that I have subsequently gained about Larkin grounds the piece in the 1950s for me. I wasn't alive back then and so I only appreciate the fifties zeitgeist through the eyes of my parents who were about the same age as Larkin. From what little I know of him my paternal grandfather was something of a 'Mr. Bleaney' finishing his days in a rented room. I have to say up till this minute I'd never consciously made that connection. I never met my grandfather.

The world, England especially, has tended to view Larkin with rose-tinted spectacles and it did not appreciate many of the revelations in Andrew Motion's biography which presented the great man as a misogynistic, racist, misanthropic quasi-fascist. His letters to Kingsley Amis certainly opened my eyes as did the revelations concerning his alcohol dependency and what passed for Larkin as a love life. His supporters have worked hard to defend him – he was a product of his time (my own father's dated attitudes often made me uncomfortable) – but the damage, which the writer Christopher Carduff describes as "vandalism", has been done. Motion's biography has become a map to what poet Tom Paulin calls "the sewer under the national monument Larkin became." 30 years Larkin’s junior, Motion first met the poet in 1976 when he, Motion, was 24 and newly appointed as a lecturer in English at the University of Hull. Larkin by then was 53, and had been the university’s librarian for over 20 years; it had been 2 years since he published his fourth and final collection and his writing career was effectively over. A minor detail: Andrew Motion is the UK's current poet laureate, a position Larkin himself declined when he was offered it.

The question I have to ask is: Now that the man Larkin was and the man he became are no longer a secret, do I feel any differently about his writing? Does knowing his father was a Nazi sympathiser trouble me? The answer is an unequivocal, no. I can't say that I'm not bothered by some of the things I've read but it really only underlines for me what a sad, sad man he was. As I grow older myself and less comfortable in the modern world I often find myself pining for the Britain of my childhood. Intellectually I know all the reasons I wouldn't want to go back there but that's neither here nor there. In Larkin's case the difference between the world in which he was born and the one in which he died in 1985 was so, so different.

C. B. Cox says that his poetry "expresses uncertainty" and evokes "a feeling of rootlessness" rather than out and out despair. In that respect his work differs from my other hero, Beckett, who was never afraid to wrestle with despair, even if despair often looked like it was getting the upper hand. The same can be said for their attitudes to failure. For Larkin, failure was not some grand or metaphysical gesture; he meant failure as ordinary, petty you-and-me failure. Describing the poet a "an old-type fouled-up guy", reviewer Stephen Metcalf recently had this to say about him in a New York Times article: "Where most of us dare only pause, Larkin set up shop – in that state of near-total abjection over the suspicion we're damaged goods." ''The object of writing,'' Larkin once said, ''is to show life as it is, and if you don't see it like that you're in trouble, not life.''

Larkin did not believe poetry should be forbidding – he once insisted any poem demanding more than an ''understanding of the language it was written in, and a feeling heart'' deserved to be ''slapped down'' and this is what attracted me to his work in the first place. He used plain English and somehow managed to infuse it with poetry. It was something I thought about for a very long time indeed before I got it. He didn't write a lot but, as Kingsley Amis said at his funeral, though Larkin ''may not have written many poems, he wrote none that were false or unnecessary.''

In a rare interview in The Paris Review, carried out by letter since he wouldn't submit to a face-to-face encounter, Larkin was asked about certain comments he had made about referencing archaic material in poetry. The initial comments were made in D. J. Enright’s Poets of the Nineteen-Fifties:

As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty. . . . To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots, but dodges the writer’s duty to be original.

to which he added in The Paris Review interview:

My objection to the use in new poems of properties or personae from older poems is not a moral one, but simply because they do not work, either because I have not read the poems in which they appear, or because I have read them and think of them as part of that poem and not a property to be dragged into a new poem as a substitute for securing the effect that is desired. I admit this argument could be pushed to absurd lengths, when a poet could not refer to anything that his readers might not have seen (such as snow, for instance), but in fact poets write for people with the same background and experiences as themselves, which might be taken as a compelling argument in support of provincialism.

'Mr Bleaney' was first published in The Listener on 8 September 1955, and later collected in the book The Whitsun Weddings in 1964. I read a copy probably in 1973 produced on an old Banda machine (a spirit duplicator similar to the mimeograph) – intoxicating stuff! (Anyone who has ever smelled freshly copied pages will know exactly what I mean).

The poem was based on Larkin's own experiences whilst living in a boarding house at 11 Outlands Road, Cottinghamwhere the landlady, Mrs Dowling was "extremely kind and thoughtful", according to Larkin, and the food was "not bad", but "the house was too small" and the family's radio "like a nightmare". Bleaney was originally 'Mr. Grindley'. David Timms has suggested, a combination of "the notions 'bleak' and 'mean' [ending] in a diminutive '-ey'" but I've never read anything by Larkin confirming or denying this.

I'm not going to analyse the poem in great detail. There are links at the end of this post for those who are interested. To my mind it doesn't need any great explanation. It's helpful to know what Larkin meant by 'Bodies' and, if you're not from the UK, an idea of where Frinton and Stoke are might be helpful. (There are actually several). Youngsters who don't appreciate how much the football pools were a part of daily life back then and only think of the National Lottery and scratchcards should probably look up 'the four aways' but the gist of what he's on about is obvious.

The end of the poem is significant but especially when you look at how Larkin's own life ended, a near-blind, half-deaf, drunken, impotent ex-poet. Beckett married his long-time companion to ensure she would have financial security after his death but they lived separately; Larkin let his long-time companion, Monica Jones, move in but, again, it was more a practical arrangement than a romantic one since neither was in particularly good health. Both men wrapped themselves in a cloak of loneliness and wrote less and less towards the ends of their lives.

It's the last sentence that always gets me. Wikipedia reports that Clive James — in a recorded conversation with Peter Porter — has commented that "the last stanza of any Larkin poem is characteristically a bravura display of what the English sentence can do; in its syntax and in its grammar it's screwed up to the tightest possible compression of meaning and effect", and, to my mind, 'Mr. Bleaney' provides the perfect example of this.

Mr. Bleaney never actually appears in the poem. He is remembered by the landlady and imagined by the narrator. All that exists of the character is negative space. The narrator – and it's nigh impossible not to cast Larkin in this role as he is the one of the most autobiographical of poets – finds himself trying to measure up to his predecessor, at least in the eyes of the landlady who seems to have nothing bad to say about the man. She sees him one way but the narrator sees a completely different character, one he doesn't particularly care for.

If Beckett's legacy is a comment on the brevity of human existence – "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps" – then Larkin's is to describe the coffin, "one hired box". That I own my flat doesn't stop it being a 'hired box'. It's not mine in any real sense of the word. It'll exist once I'm gone. It's not as if I can have it buried with me; the people in the flat above might object.

You can't compete with a memory. That is why martyrs are so dangerous. Bleaney has gone and quite possibly to his grave (there is no doubt a metaphor or two dying to attach themselves to Larkin's choice of car manufacturing for the man's employment) and the narrator has moved into his final resting place with the expectation hanging around his neck that one day he'll become Mr. Bleaney. That is why he body swerves passing judgement on his predecessor, because it smacks of judging, if not the man he is (though probably that too), but certainly the man he looks like becoming.

The final sentence reminds me of how James Joyce leaves Gabriel at the end of his short story, 'The Dead'. Gretta, his wife, has been pressed into telling him about someone from her past, a young man who worked in the gasworks, Michael Furey. Afflicted with consumption, Furey dies after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta's window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta confesses to Gabriel, "I think he died for me." Contemplating himself in a mirror, Gabriel, becomes aware of his own pettiness, and it dawns on him that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the close of the story Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Joyce is expressing a poignant truth about the power of memory; but on an even more profound level, Gretta’s love for Michael is a metaphor for Joyce’s vision of Ireland itself. Joyce felt that his native land was a country of the dead; its memories were more alive than its present. I'm not sure how much Larkin meant that in this poem but if his writing as a whole does one thing it tolls the bell for an idealised England that he saw slipping, if not being ripped, away by the irrepressible march of time.

You can find an annotated copy of 'Mr. Bleaney' on the New England and Wales Institute of Higher Education website and there is also a link to some notes although the web is awash with commentaries on the poem.

Unusually for me I would suggest those who have never heard Larkin's lugubrious tones to have a listen to Larkin reading the poem on the Poetry Archive website. I have to say I cannot read a single poem by him nowadays without hearing his world-weary voice.

There are also a number of involved essays available on-line for those who want to know more about him:

Philip Larkin 1922-1985 by Donald Hall.

The Four Aways: Experience and Expectation in the Poetry of Philip Larkin

The Paris Review interview (Robert Phillips, interviewer)

'Just let me put this bastard on the skids': Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin by Christopher Carduff

Eros, Thanatos and the negation of the will-to-live in Larkin's poetry by Spiros Doikas

High Windows and Four-Letter Words: A note on Philip Larkin by Stephen Burt

Larkin's Predicament by Marcus Herold

Sacramentalism in the Poetry of Philip Larkin by Don King.

'Wanking at ten past three': Larkin's posthumous love poetry by Hans Osterwalder

Self Portrait


Rachel Fox said...

I'm glad this is your favourite poem...I like so much of Larkin, almost to the point of not being able to say why. So it's a good job you're more eloquent on the subject! Certainly all you refer to here about showing life, plain English and lack of the false and the unnecessary...that all contributes to what made him different and so very, very good (for me anyway).
I read the Motion biography and it didn't make me like his poems any less. I can't say I even found it surprising. Did anyone ever expect PL to be a friendly, fun guy with an open-minded outlook? It was an interesting read (and reminded me once again why great writers can be such bad boyfriend material!) and it was certainly more interesting than any of Motion's poems that I've read to date (the Laureate business...why do they bother?).
Larkin was bitter, messed up, confusing, incomplete in many ways...but he knew all that himself. That's partly what comes through in the poems (I think).
For me he was just so English (and I am English, though resident further north). wanting to be more at ease with himself and the world but not ever managing it. Did you see the Stephen Fry interview with Pamela Connolly on TV w while back? All that stuff about wanting to dance but being too self-conscious, about stiff, unemotional parents...that's the kind of English I mean. And it can sometimes go hand in hand with prejudice (though not in Fry's case - he's far more easily loveable).
Also on this subject the band Chumbawamba have a song for/about Larkin on their new cd. The song is called 'Hull or Hell'. Well worth seeking out. I was going to blog about it and Larkin in general but no need to now - you've already done it. Lovely post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Julia. It's always nice to see a new name in the comments. I had a look at Teilhard de Chardin's books on Amazon and he looks interesting but not my cup of tea; perhaps he might appeal to some of my other readers though, you never know.

And, Rachel, lots of interesting stuff here. I did see the Stephen Fry interview with Pamela Connolly and enjoyed it a lot. I know I slagged him off a while back but, even when I disagree with him, he's someone I never tire listening too, a bit like the late Kenneth Williams although clearly more comfortable with his sexuality.

I tend to avoid using words like 'English' in my posts – I generally use British – but there is a quality to Larkin's work that is precisely that.

Please feel free to blog about Larkin. I only did an overview. You obviously have your own personal attachment to his work so a different perspective would be interesting. I barely scratched the surface.

Rachel Fox said...

Ah yes, the English/British question...I used English on purpose because in the 6 years I've been in Scotland I've heard Scottish poets very definitely referred to as Scottish so often that it then seems odd to call English poets just British...but it is complicated. Which would Larkin have preferred?
Also some Scottish people may do the uptight-prejudiced routine too but it is a slightly different version. I wouldn't dare to suggest who does it better!

I can't see the other comment you refer to on this post. Has it slipped off or is it just me?

Jim Murdoch said...

We Scots are very proud of our heritage but it's more for the rest of the world particularly the Americans who refer to the UK as 'England' and think Scotland is this village near Newcastle full of the bagpipe-playing, whiskey-quaffing, haggis-bashing, kilted, ginger-headed offspring of a boatload of Vikings.

And the other comment was on a completely differed post. I got mixed up.

Rachel Fox said...

I've never bashed a haggis but I do have ginger-headed offspring. Maybe that's why I feel so at home...


Thanks for Larkin's poem.
I have been a fan of Beckette, Ted Hughes, and Larkin. It was so pleasant to come across a poem that like very much.Thanks for the moment of delight when I read you. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rajan, thanks for dropping by. I always aim to delight or at least entertain and amuse.

Maryanne Stahl said...

Love Larkin. Thanks for this.

Jim Murdoch said...

You're very welcome, Maryanne,

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Dick said...

An excellent post, Jim, extrapolating from the wonderful 'Mr Bleaney' into Larkin-land and then returning to the poem. Thanks for this.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dick. The one thing I don't think I really managed to get across was just how much that poem hit me the first time. It really was the, "I don't know," at the end. At that age all I had were questions.

Rachel Fox said...

Hey Jim!
I did my Larkin post this morning. If I could find an email address on your page I would email you but I can't so I'm telling you in this more public way. You can delete this once you've read really , go on...

Ken Armstrong said...

I took some time-well-spent with 'Mr. Bleaney' on your post.

I didn't know it before, thanks for posting it.

"...and shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature"

Fiendish said...

I had a similar experience with Larkin, if not quite so eye-opening.

I always liked poetry - reading and writing it. I devoured anthologies just because, always favouring short-form free verse. Then one afternoon we did "The Whitsun Weddings" in English class.

Some poets use words like a condiment, scattering them liberally over a poem and drowing out the meaning. Larkin uses language as an instrument, beautiful in its own right and useful as a tool of ideas. Definitely my favourite poem and poet.

Michael Berry said...

Thanks for the post about "Mr. Bleaney." I only know Larkin from "This Be the Verse," but now I'm inspired to explore his work further.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Rachel. I actually thought my e-mail address was viewable under my profile. It is now.

Ken, always nice to see you. Really glad to be able to introduce you to 'Mr. Bleaney'.

Fiendish, very well put. I know exactly what you mean – "words like a condiment" – great.

Michael, thanks for dropping by. I'm glad to be able to point you in the right direction. It's amazing what one can do with plain ordinary words with a bit of care.

hatrabbit said...

Thanks for the great post, 'Mr Bleaney' is one of my favourite Larkin poems. I only came across him a couple of years ago when I bought his 'collected poems'. There are other poems of his that seem to me more noticably brilliant, but this is the poem that just stopped me dead in my tracks. Thanks for the audio link too, it certainly added to my enjoyment of the poem.

After reading the Clive James quote I'll have to pull my copy out and go through the last stanzas to all his poems now!


Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, yes, that's exactly how the poem hit me, it stopped me in my tracks, like none of his others.

zoom56okdavid said...

Wow, it's clear in 10 seconds you're a writer that blogs instead of a blogger trying to write.
Dave from

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that Dave - I do my best. I see from your site you have an interest in comics. You might find my reminiscences about Superman of interest in a recent blog: Thunder storms, blinding lights and soggy toast. I have a lot of time for comics even though I don't collect any more. I reference them often in my posts.

Anonymous said...

I like the stuff you took word for word from the Wikipedia article

Jim Murdoch said...

Anonymous - Wikipedia now acknowledged.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Jim, I have just read "Mr. Bleaney" thank you for pointing this poem out to me. I will read and re-read it many times, it has got its own flavour and strength I feel I want to relish.
As I wrote in an older post in my blog I have re-discovered Larkin very recently and quite by chance.
I am really enjoying his work now for the first time.
"Thaw" and "Coming" are two among his poems which for now I like most.
Best wishes, Davide

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Tommaso - my work is done.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for posting that! What a wonderful post.

I read Larkin and have his collected poems. Aside from "Aubade" I deeply love "An Arundal Tomb," "Church Going", "MCMXIV," "At Grass" and others. I even managed to transform a "science report" (as an undergraduate" into an analysis of "Myxamatosis."

I am sad that so few people read good poetry. I love the idea of "Poem in Your Pocket Day". Unfortunately I live someplace where the only thing like that which would fly would be "golf ball in your pocket".

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, sunt_lacrimae_rerum, and you're quite right. The problem I find it that so many people can't identify good poetry anymore. They start with preconceptions and that's a bad place to start.

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