The toad work

Today was my last day in a job that has furnished our table but not my soul. I haven't been doing it long enough for too much sighing and exclaiming this afternoon, so rather than any grand eulogy, I place upon my empty desk, without bitterness, this pair of poems by Philip Larkin.


Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losers, loblolly-men, louts -
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines -
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Toads, revisited.

Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,

Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses -
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn't suit me.

Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets -

All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,

Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,

Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
Nor friends but empty chairs -

No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,

When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

Still the unresting castles thresh

I can't remember enjoying an essay on a poet by a novelist as much as I enjoyed Martin Amis on Philip Larkin in the Financial Times. Amis's essay is rich, pungent, razor sharp and unshakeably convinced of Larkin's greatness. It's lovely watching him dismantle the criticism that makes Larkin ‘minor’ because of its own misguided snobbery, and kick away some of the rubble of correctness that still litters writerly lore. It's refreshing to read someone interested primarily in literary effect, and mostly regardless of politics, reputation, or canon.

Amis cites the concluding lines of “The Trees” as an example of Larkin's “instantly unforgettable” quality, and his ability as a phrasemaker of many registers. It has a particular resonance this week as the last, yes the very last, week of winter. Cold, naked Canberra is coming into bud; blossoms are blossoming, green shoots are shooting. Amis calls the poem an “onomatopoeic prayer for renewal.” Like other Larkins, it has a demotic simplicity that's deceptive. Rhyme and heavy alliteration disguise the complexity of thought, the deep ambivalence of a primarily ironic cast of mind. He wants to but can't quite believe the promise: the trees almost say, seem to say, that life is renewable, but it's a trick, he knows the truth. But he's caught by beauty anyway, and the trees have the last tantalising word.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Where any-angled light would congregate

I like that Philip Larkin, who likened churchgoing to funereal tourism, can yet imagine a religion, can raise his glass to something infinite.

This is “Water.”

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin and Lucky Jim

In the interview I mentioned, Larkin is asked about his connection with Kingsley Amis, and in particular with Amis' early and hilarious academic spoof Lucky Jim (which I've just reread for about the fifth time). Apparently the novel is thought to be based on Larkin's experience as much as Amis', and Larkin certainly read drafts and made suggestions.

I first read this novel on my first trip to England, in the week following my first academic conference. The resemblance of some of the eccentric, bewildered and priggish caricatures in the book to some of the scholars I had just met was startling. I was about two years into my PhD at that stage, and Dixon's experiences struck forcibly home. His compound of unease and contempt was familiar, likewise his sense that real and worthwhile academic work was no doubt being carried on somewhere by someone, but certainly not by him or anyone he knew.

Throughout my varied and unglamorous academic career, I've cherished this novel and returned to it often for reassurance and private sneering. I think it has a special resonance for anyone in (or out) of academic circles, but I'm sure its comedy has a more universal appeal. I still chuckle over sentences like this:

“Dixon had been expecting a silver-bells laugh from Margaret to follow this remark, but it was still hard to bear when it came.” 

“Where was he going to find this supplementary pabulum? The only answer to this question seemed to be Yes, that's right, where?” 

The real joy of the book is in Dixon's inner monologue, and the contrast between how he acts and how he wants to act. While engaged in pleasant back-and-forth with his imbecile boss, here's what's going on in his mind:

“He pretended to himself that he'd pick up his professor round the waist, squeeze the furry grey-blue waistcoat against him to expel the breath, run heavily with him up the steps, along the corridor to the Staff Cloakroom, and plunge the too-small feet in their capless shoes into a lavatory basin, pulling the plug once, twice, and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet-paper. Thinking of this, he smiled dreamily...” 

Your person, your place

Philip Larkin has, I think, antecendents in the nineteenth century, in writers like Hardy and Swinburne, but he's deeply modern as well, in that bleak, self-pitying, tragic-banal kind of way. This rare interview in the Paris Review in 1982 gives an insight into his character (he was a crabby librarian), and it concludes with this interesting reflection on poetry:  

“You must realize I’ve never had ‘ideas’ about poetry. To me it’s always been a personal, almost physical release or solution to a complex pressure of needs—wanting to create, to justify, to praise, to explain, to externalize, depending on the circumstances. And I’ve never been much interested in other people’s poetry—one reason for writing, of course, is that no one’s written what you want to read.”

Places, Loved Ones

No, I have never found
The place where one could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay;
Nor met my special one
Who has an instant claim
On everything I own
Down to my name;

To find such seems to prove
You want no choice in where
To build, or whom to love;
You ask them to bear
You off irrevocably,
So that it's not your fault
Should the town turn dreary
Or the girl a dolt.

Yet, having missed them, you're
Bound, none the less, to act
As if what you settled for
Mashed you, in fact;
And wiser to keep away
From thinking you still might trace
Uncalled-for to this day
Your person, your place.