Lark, Hitch, Death, Whine

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m not too keen about weighing in on the deaths of famous men and didn’t think I had anything to say regarding Christopher Hitchens until I read Ross Douthat’s column about him in the Times this Sunday (although what I have to say is not really about Hitchens). Douthat claims the atheist Hitchens as a should-have-been Christian. He ends, “When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that ‘death is no different whined at than withstood.'”

Douthat continues, “Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.”

Yet what makes Larkin a great poet is that he doesn’t give in to despair in his poetry, which is the only part of his life that anyone cares about now. He offers no quotable lines of solace but he follows his arguments to their terrifying end with enormous control and precision of language while the emotions they arouse are so bleak that one can’t help thinking—over and over—so why write? And whatever answer you come up with owes nothing to despair. He didn’t write gaudily about wanting to die, only about struggling to live in an emotional atmosphere very few people could withstand. Yes, he drank a lot, but not enough to kill the poems.

Hitchens was altogether a happier and more charming creature, and if he had, as an atheist, more interest in God than many atheists do, it was surely a result of the fact that God and his various cohorts are everywhere in literature. If you love the masterpieces of the English language—not to mention all the other Indo-European languages—you’ll have Christ, Yahweh, Satan, et al, rattling around in your brain, along with the Greek and Roman Pantheons, other deities, half-deities, and assorted supernatural specimens. And if you’re Hitchens, you won’t know too many people as conversant with them as you are. So, yes, you’d want to talk to religious intellectuals. And you might wish God himself were around to debate.

One way of looking at the human spirit is to say that those who withstand horrific tragedies and remain or become productive, generous, joyful contributors to the world have the most to teach us. But it’s also true that there’s something to be learned from people like Larkin—people without the solace of belief, suffering severe, unending melancholy, but determined to explore and communicate that which they do know, to honor the peculiar shape of their experience without drowning in it.

Christopher Hitchens blessed us with his wit, and Christopher Hitchens was blessed not to be Philip Larkin. We are all blessed that Philip Larkin refused to be anyone else.

And I’ll be damned if I know why I’m strewing these blessings around, since like Christopher I suspect that all joy and pleasure is here, along with every variety of torment. Merry Christmas.

Continuing To Live

Continuing to live – that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries –
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise –
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

–Philip Larkin

Easter, Spring

April 12, 2009 § 2 Comments

bernini-proserpina-730844I was going to write about Easter but I don’t have much to say. My mother used to provide perfect Easter baskets, with lots of chocolate, twined with colored ribbons. Every spring I got an Easter bonnet. My cousins often visited.

As for the religious side, when I first really paid attention to the story of Jesus’s resurrection, I thought: so what? The Greeks and Egyptians thought of that centuries before. The Osiris story is pretty great. And nothing could beat the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the young daughter picking flowers, kidnapped by a chariot driven by Hades himself, tricked into eating 6 pomegranate seeds and so having to spend 6 months of every year in the Land of the Dead while her mother, Goddess of Grain and the Harvest, punishes Earth with winter (Earth was to blame for telling Hades where the girl was picking flowers). That story has meant a lot of things to me over the years, but right from the beginning one fact stood out: Persephone, adored by husband and mother, never gets to decide anything for herself past those initial choices of picking flowers and eating seeds. She’s Queen of the Dead, she’s Beloved Daughter, she’s the reason for the seasons—she never gets to be a woman turning her answering machine off and escaping for a few weeks to the tropics with the kind of man of whom you remember only what he smelled like when he was drunk, and that it amused him to shorten your name to Phony (once you made the mistake of introducing yourself as the Queen of the Dead), and that was just fine.

So, putting Easter aside, here’s a poem about Spring.

 The Trees

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 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

Philip Larkin (9 August 1922 – 2 December 1985) is known as a poet of great dourness and gloom. He wrote a lot of poems about death and old age—starting when he was still what most people would call young—without any romantic or spiritual gloss whatsoever.

And yet he didn’t kill himself, as many more exuberant poets have. He demonstrated the value of life over and over by the discipline and beauty of his work. He was the epitome of the depressive as realist, and the realist as one who is all too aware that life very often isn’t fun or pretty, even among the so-called privileged, but that any sane being, absent excruciating torment, prefers it to nothingness.

Basho, 1644 – November 28, 1694) the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan might have appreciated Larkin’s sensibility. Here’s one of his haiku.

First day of spring—

I keep thinking about

the end of autumn.



December 17th

December 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Last night coming home from dinner, there was snow on the roofs of the cars, a few flakes in the air, and I began to feel winter yearning. Fields of snow, silence, crisp blue air, air the way it was in New Hampshire when I was 18, and a walk across a snow-covered golf course with a boy was full of meaning packed tight…the kind you don’t unravel for years, and maybe shouldn’t at all. It’s not hard for me to feel sorry for myself (in my teens I saw it as a gift, that I could do for myself what I couldn’t ask others for), but now I feel there was a kind of luck in being so lonely. Connection of any sort was astonishing. Moments of intimacy were like stars that I hoarded in memory, wanting to share their brilliance but never knowing how. And once I did become able to talk about them, talk with all the words I knew to someone who wanted to listen, I found that what for me seemed so rare was to other people not uncommon, that they weren’t moved to tears by the idea of a long night’s more and more honest conversation, by the ability to reveal something new.

My nieces have nets of friends such as I couldn’t imagine in youth. I wanted a gang, a group—which many people had—but what exists today seems closer to what I would have asked for, had there been a deity encouraging me to expound on my desire. Friendships with boys and girls, with people from other countries, individuals flitting in and out, around each other like dancers on a stage. I’m not envious of them for being happier: I doubt they are. Happier than I was, maybe—that’s a low bar. But not happier in general. Sex, for one thing, has gotten worse: it’s a competitive sport. How well do you perform? Have you shaved your crotch today? Philip Larkin has a famous poem that begins “Sexual intercourse began in 1963/Which was rather late for me”—1963 being when the pill came out. Larkin was brilliant at self-pity; he turned it into art without making it utterly comic, which is hard to do. In his poem he goes on to muse on how maybe his father had the same envy of his generation, because they weren’t afraid of God and hell. And reading that at 22, I wondered if I would envy the young of the future their newer freedoms. I don’t. It’s not about freedom now. I marvel at their friendships. Even so, given a choice I’d rather be young again in 1975. I miss my dinosaur era, the slowness and silences. Maps you had to draw yourself and nobody at dinner with a telephone. Not that it matters, but I think I’ve made progress: I’ve fully accepted that I’ll never be young in Paris in 1921, that I won’t know everyone great and peculiar and interesting, that my life is and will be more hedged in than I ever imagined. Hardly surprising—I wanted to live in books. They’re not really large enough for a person. I kept not getting that. They seemed large. And now it seems small and sad that I don’t want to live in books anymore, barely even remember what it felt like to want that. I want to live writing books, which is entirely different. It may be that you only become mature as a writer when you can’t live in anyone’s books but your own. You have no choice then. They have to be good.

My Room

My Room

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