Friday, December 14, 2012

Philip Larkin: So I look at others

Despite the considerable acclaim that attached to his work, English poet Philip Larkin remained always apart. Never the type of mythic figure in the public consciousness that Auden or Ginsburg became, throughout his career Larkin remained librarian at Hull University, eschewing trappings of fame. This feeling of distance and distrust is highlighted in his work, a sense of exclusion suggesting a slightly bafflement at the world. Though his work appeared primarily in the 1940s through the 70s, its concerns and voice remain vibrantly familiar and continue to have the spark of relevance.

In his poem “Money,” his poetic voice captures this outlook:

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

This stanza evinces multiple points of disconnect. First is the image of the speaker looking at others for cues, trying to understand these implied regular people. Then there is the sense of being unable to share their values: not only is there an absence of intrinsic worth the speaker places in money, but also a lack of sympathy with what money allow. The values of a regular life are what the speaker finds foreign.

Even with changing values, though, Larkin gives voice to a sense of being passed by, as in “Annus Mirabilis,” on his best-known poems:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
A repetition of this stanza at the poems close replaces the parenthetical: “(Though just too late for me).” Society’s changing mores are cast in a favorable light, but the speaker is apart from the change, left out by an accident of time. The change from the tentative “rather” to the definitive” just too late,” speaks to a resigned acceptance of remaining separate from the thick of things happening.

But he does not weigh positively all changing values. His “Homage to a Government” speaks to the silent loss when wars are no longer fought for deep principles, when the responsibilities of beginning a fight are abdicated:

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

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