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.
'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