Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 29 August 2008

4am, Reading Larkin

"Life? Don't talk to me about life!" – Marvin (The Paranoid Android)

I don't sleep well. I'd put it down to my age but the truth is I've never slept especially well. I could blame it on a guilty conscience but we'll stick with the dickey bladder if it's all the same to you. I used to have a favourite time to wake up but it's pretty much a hit and miss affair these days, usually anything after 2am is up for grabs. This morning it was 4:20 and it wasn't a desperate need to answer the call of nature unless belching is one of the sub-categories. I blame the egg sandwich we had for supper.

Actually, do people have suppers these days? There was a time when people had breakfast, lunch, tea and supper – not forgetting elevenses, of course, and the afternoon tea-break. I was never quite sure where 'dinner' fitted into the equation. I never had 'dinner' growing up and the expression still confuses me a bit. And don't get me started on brunches.

But I digress.

I've always liked getting up in the middle of the night. I've always regarded it as my time and thankfully Carrie learned early on in our marriage that there's no need to get up and check on me; if I'm dead then I'll be just as dead in the morning and at least then she'll be refreshed and better able to deal with the situation then. My dad died in the early hours of the morning. My mum phoned, explained how it had happened, and then asked if I was going back to bed. I told her I didn't know, my dad hadn't died before and I wasn't sure what protocol demanded of me. As it happens I didn't and was on the first train out of Glasgow a couple of hours later.

I used to write a lot in the early hours. Now I prefer to read.

I have a fish, a goldfish. I've probably mentioned him before. When I bought him he had a little black moustache and I was going to call him Charlie but within a week the 'tache vanished and he's been Fishy ever since. He's a fantail, the pudgiest fantail you could imagine unless you have a really, really good imagination. I'm supposed to feed him twice a day. He lurks at the front of the bowl waiting on me – he knows the times to expect me – and as soon as he sees me there he is doing his wee dance and begging to be fed. He does not do his dance for Carrie; he's learned that she never feeds him. Me being a softie – and because he really puts on a good show – I've started giving him an extra food stick when I go to bed, just the one (he normally devours three or four in a single mouthful).

Anyway, this June morning I got up at about 4am and as soon as the office light went on there he was begging like a little yippy dog – he has no pride whatsoever. So, I fixed myself a cup of coffee (decaffeinated), selected a chochie bickie and settled down to read in my rather comfy chair that we got from Ikea. This particular morning, for reasons unbeknownst to me, I picked up Larkin's Collected Poems and began thumbing through it. Four in the morning is perhaps not the best time in the world to read poems, even familiar poems, and I found myself reading three or four lines and then moving onto another one.

As I'm doing this Fishy is swimming around frantically trying to get my attention as he does. After a bit, realising that I was not going to give in, he gave up and started rooting around in the rocks at the bottom of his bowl. And that's when it all came together in my head and I put my Larkin aside, switched on the PC and wrote '4am, Reading Larkin', which has just been published by Origami Condom. (Seriously, how could one not submit some poems to a site with a name like that?) It's on page 27.

I have always acknowledged my debt to Larkin. I'm also quite possessive of him. I've never especially gone out of my way to imitate him though. I did write a poem when I was at school to see if I could emulate the rhyme scheme in 'Mr. Bleaney' but that was about it. I just loved the idea of a poem written in full rhyme that didn't rhyme when you read it properly.

In 1997 I tried to write a poem tipping my hat to him and this was what I ended up with:


(for Philip Larkin)

In order to correct for small differences in his makeup
he kept himself alone for much of the time. It's wrong

to be different. At least that is what he maintained was
the case. So he only thought things through so far and

no farther and that became his official view rather than
try and cope with the truth about himself. Nothing true

meant nothing wrong and so he avoided life and life in
turn avoided him. It was all quite amicable, antiseptic

and as safe as houses, houses with high windows out of
which he could watch the world and ask himself why he

felt so trapped without having to worry about finding an
answer he might be able to live with. I don't know why.

13 November 1997

I sent it out once and it got rejected tout de suite. The editor was even a bit scathing about the structure of the piece; he didn't get it. I'm really a lousy judge of my own work but I don’t think it's a very good poem despite its good intentions. It was probably among the last poems I ever sent out until last year.

'4am, Reading Larkin' is a much better poem. It was inspired by Larkin's late poem 'Aubade' which begins:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

and also 'Sad Steps' which opens with:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this

The structure is 5-4-4-4 until the very last stanza where I drop a beat on the punch line, something I'm quite fond of doing. In the poem the narrator feeds the fish of course. I did this because I wanted to include the whole gamut of my relationship with my fish. The simple fact is, if I just kept dropping in pellets, he'd just keep eating them until he burst; he really is stupid that way.

Of course the fish in his globe is a metaphor for the man in his world even though we learn next to nothing about him other than the fact he's a coffee drinking insomniac who own a collection of Larkin's poetry and a greedy fish.

The three poems weren't chosen as randomly as you might think: the narrator in 'Mr. Bleaney' lives in a one-room bedsit, in effect a goldfish bowl (and there's nothing to suggest that the narrator in my poem doesn't); 'Toads' evokes work and again we see someone questioning their existence; 'Church Going' covers the whole range, birth to death. Within the three poems, Larkin questions life as we know it, where we live, what we do for a living, and what our lives are all about.

If anything the fish has a positive take on life. It's almost as if he's saying: "If's that's all that's available to me then I'm going to be the best swimmer, eater and shitter that I can be. Now feed me. Feed me now."

What I feel the best of Larkin does is leave you with that feeling that someone has just opened a door and a cold draught has caught you by surprise but you look around and you've no idea where that door is. It's an uncomfortable feeling. I'll be honest I don't think I quite pull it off in '4am, Reading Larkin' but it's not bad. Someone tell me it's not bad.


Rachel Fox said...

The bit of your poem that jumps out at me (from the bowl?) first is the 'Nothing goes in' stanza. 'but I have loads/ of time to waste.' is certainly in the Larkin has the feel of him. Even more so though is your bit in the post about the draught (and all that stuff about suppers...).

Anonymous said...

Jim, this was a great post. I do not know much about Larking but this post made me want to look for more, a couple of his poems here are really excellent. Just when I was reading the second one, a postman ringed and brought me your book.

Dave King said...

I thought the poem inspired by Aubade was excellent. I agree it was much better than the first.
As a fellow nocturnal wanderer I am envious of your ability to read poetry at that hour. 2am to 4.30 is my time of night also. I do sometimes have a line or so come to me for a poem I have been working on, but that's the extent of it.

Anonymous said...

Jim, it's not bad.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Rachel, what I didn't explain in the post is, of course, that 'waste' is 'shit'. The narrator is doing what the fish is doing. And what does 'shit' come in but 'loads'?

Jasko, glad the book arrived. There are a couple of Larkin references you can look out for. He's a poet I like very much because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he wrote poetry that the ordinary man in the street can get, and still does. And yet it is still poetry of a high order and benefits from multiple readings. With me though his poetry does what the right chord progression does, it makes my hair stand on end, metaphorically at least. No other poet comes close for me.

Dave, the thing about 'Poem Under Glass' is that I was trying to write a poem. It's contrived and ham-fisted. The reason I include it in the article is that I think a lot can be learned from bad poetry in the right context. Why does '4am, Reading Larkin' work and the other doesn't? I wasn't that young when I wrote the first one so that's not an excuse. I think the main reason is that I was trying to force the words into a shape I had in my head and not allow them to take on their own form. It's why I never plot a story or a novel up front, that's a contrivance as far as I'm concerned and the same goes for poetry only so much more so.

As for reading poetry in the early hours, that is a rarity. At the moment I'm reading Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon because it's nice and straightforward and has the tiniest of chapters. I would really love to be able to write like that, chapters of just a few hundred words. I'm trying that with the book I'm working on just now, shorter chapters at least; it's hard, trimming the words down to a bare minimum but it feels right.

And, Allen, what can I say? High praise indeed, sir.

Jena Isle said...

These poems are different. Do they write poems like that? I don't know much about Larkin and I won't pretend I know all about the 5-5-? you're talking about. But I like the poems. Thanks for sharing.

Ken Armstrong said...

We share a goldfish and late-night-sojourns.

I once wrote a play called 'To Sleep' all about being awake when you're better half is busy snoozing.

I like the way you sound as if you treasure your insomnia - I'll have to work on that a bit.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jena, I'm glad you liked the poems. The 5-4-4-4 refers to the syllable count for each stanza. I don't pay much interest in shape when I'm writing a poem at first but once I have the words down I then see if there's an underlying structure to the piece. In most cases with a tweak here and there it comes to me quite easily.

And, Ken, I've been waking up in the early hours for years now. It's always struck me as time reclaimed. I've always resented sleeping a third of my life away.

Angela said...

I not sure that I know what good or bad poetry even is, but I don't think that "Poem Under Glass" is a bad poem. I especially like the last two stanzas.
This was a fun post. I enjoyed reading it!
Take care:)

Rachel Fox said...

I imagine your problem Ken is partly that insomnia and young children are not a great need your full strength to keep up with them!

Dave King said...

I, too, have always found that forcing words into a pre-ordained shape doesn't work - certainly for me, it doesn't work. The words always strike me as wooden soldiers on parade, nothing about it flows. I have been inclined to think, though, that it is just me.

Ani Smith said...

I take it that is not a picture of Mr Pudgy Fantail (does he have a name?) himself?

Regarding your poem, surely you want a little more than just 'not bad', eh? Do you think one can actually objectively judge writing 'bad' or 'good'?

goooooood girl said...

So good......

Jim Murdoch said...

Angel, that's a topic for another blog – one I'm not sure I'm up to writing – but there are many reasons why poetry can be 'bad'; there are poems where the poet uses poetic symbolism in a ham-fisted manner, without subtlety, but in 'Poem Under Glass' its weakness is that it is contrived and it lacks the natural flow of the later poem. You've clocked onto that, Dave. The central idea is fine but it should've been put away for a few months and looked at again with a clear head.

Ani, no that's not Fishy – that's as much of a name as he has - but if you want to see a long-shot of him (and indeed my workspace) click here.

As for whether a poem is 'good' or 'bad', as I said above, the elements that make up a poem can be handled with or without finesse. The Model T worked, it got people from A to B and many are still in working order to this day but most people would consider it a car only in the loosest of terms. It has been improved on considerably over the years. It was good for its time and so was the first poem I ever wrote, I was a good poem and it showed promise but now I see how amateurish it was and obvious.

Oh, and, Goooooood Girl, good to have you drop by.

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