Category: reflection

‘Water’, Philip Larkin

You can read this poem here.

This poem has a unsentimental but quietly beautiful sense of longing in it, which may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the angrier, more bitter bits of himself which Larkin often shares. I love the idea of him getting ‘called in’ as a religion construction engineer (“Hello, Phil…? We’ve got a job in your area—are you available?”); but who better, perhaps, than him, as someone who, in the absence of faith, finds the contemplation of death so desperately terrifying? It doesn’t seem surprising, either, that he should see religion as as something ‘construct[ed]’. In ‘Aubade’ he refers to it as ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’. A man-made construct: intricate, ornate, dense, beautiful perhaps, but ultimately something fabricated to soften and conceal something starker; something ‘motheaten’, too, which is wearing out; and not something concerned with how we might live, but only with how we might face dying. Eeeek. As so often with Larkin, I move between deep and relieved empathy with configurations of him as glimpsed through the poetry (“we read to know we are not alone…”), and an equal sense of relief that I don’t always feel as he does. I’m interested, too, that in both ‘Aubade’ and ‘Water’ he seems to conflate religion and faith. Surely, Philip, they are different things?

It’s as though this poem is haunted by the ghost of belief, echoing as it is with the significance of water in many spiritual traditions. Stanza two, for instance, evokes Christian’s crossing of the river in The Pilgrim’s Progress; and there are obvious recollections of baptism in the ‘furious devout drench’. I love it that it’s a ‘furious devout drench’: that suggests such passion, such intensity, such need and desperation. And ‘dry, different clothes’ is so economical: ‘dry’ evokes a restoration of comfort, a relief, while ‘different’ acknowledges the absoluteness of the change belief would bring about. He/we would not be the same after this ‘sousing’— could never experience the world, and life, in the same way again.

But these are all conditional verbs: ‘If I were called in…I should… Would entail… would employ…I should raise’. ‘Water’ offers a vision of something beautiful, certainly: ‘any-angled light’ is a dazzling phrase, simple, mysterious and coruscating, like the thing it describes. But though Larkin can conjure this vision so vividly, he cannot, in the end, see it with his heart—cannot give felt assent to it. A teetering thing built on ‘If’ as the opening word, ‘Water’ captures a longing, an impulse which, though powerful, can find nowhere to go. It’s not one of those poems which constructs an argument. It leads nowhere. And in this its form enacts something of its content (which I think much great poetry does). Larkin is articulating something in himself which finds no real issue—a spiritual sense without form to embody it or trust to allow it to flow. There’s an inability to resolve which leaves us hanging, ‘endlessly’. Such yearning, such an absence of what to do with it. Oh, the hole where faith might once have been…

Pass the biscuits, would you? I need my post-Larkin carb-fix…

 

 

thing 3: ‘here are the dogs’: my birthday

A few days before my birthday I was checking out the times for Adult Swimming (less interesting than it sounds!) at the leisure centre and found myself scrolling past a timetable entry which said ‘50+ swim’.

Then scrolling back again. Bloody hell, I thought, this time next week I can go to that. I could feel the flesh starting to dangle (more) from my upper arms even as I looked. (read more…)

thing 2: ‘named by sunlight’: the morning walk

Marooned on a far-away planet, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker, Arthur Dent, wakes up and gives ‘his early morning yell of horror’.

A Martin Amis narrator talks of ‘the difference between cosmic reality and how you sometimes feel when you wake up in the morning’. Doctors (and obsessively-Googled medical sites) refer, more blandly, to ‘diurnal mood variation’. But whatever you call it, how you feel in the morning is not always good.

Or at least, how I feel in the morning. I shouldn’t make assumptions, though I suspect I’m not alone in frequently finding myself struggling, on waking. There’s a greyscale (read more…)

thing 1: middle-aged woman on a beach (part ii)

I’m usually a slow getter-inner, when lake or river swimming in Britain.

I enjoy the gradual acclimatisation process, and the way I eventually reach a point where postponing the gasp-inducing full plunge becomes worse than enduring it. On this beach, however, you have to let go of any vision of strolling casually or lingeringly across white-gold sand into lapping clear blue water as your footprints dissolve beautifully behind you. (read more…)

The Art Of Losing, ed. Kevin Young

This is a wide-raging anthology of verse from a range of different cultures. Taking loss and grieving as its topic, the anthology is arranged into different sections. It doesn’t use the well-known—and sometimes unfairly-maligned—Kubler-Ross five stages of grieving. Instead, it groups the poems under: ‘reckoning’, ‘regret’, ‘remembrance’, ‘ritual’, ‘recovery’ and ‘redemption’. Apart from betraying the editor’s capacity skilfully to use alliteration (!), this grouping is, I think, a useful one, helping the reader to navigate the book and have a better chance of finding the right text for how that particular moment feels.

For me The Art of Losing is more stimulating than other collections of poems about loss and grief simply because every time I pick it up I meet a new author, or new poem, in which I can delight. Perhaps this is, in part, due to its focus on new and contemporary writing: Young explains that while he he has included a few ‘absolutely necessary’ C19th poems, he has ‘tried to stick to poems that are contemporary classics, or soon ought to be’. Other grief anthologies will give you wisdom, heartbreak and love from across the centuries, reminding you of what is universal in human experience over time. Those anthologies have their place: treasure remains treasure no matter how old it is. But Young gives us the chance to uncover new treasures.

There are too many authors included for me to be able to give any kind of representative list. All I can say is: buy this book. Whether you are grieving now, have grieved, work with those who grieve, or simply want to meet some new poems that will find you, then I don’t think this collection will disappoint. Treat yourself to it.