Orders Away!

Yes indeed, our initial book order has been placed, and 4,000 lovely volumes will soon be making their way toward us in snugly packed cartons. Box-cutters (and Band-Aids) at the ready, Team Malvern! Other items crossed off the To Do list this week will include phone, internet, and an alarm system (so don’t be coming around Malvern looking to knock off a few pallets of Serbian poetry… not going to happen, my friend!)

Blue wall

Meanwhile, our poor perfectionist painter has been driven half bats in his attempt to recreate our glorious banner (as you see at the top of this page) on the store’s back wall (pictured above—and no, that’s not a Barnett Newman hanging on the green side wall; it’s actually a window looking into the blue storage room). He painted the wall once, was unhappy with the way the text looked, painted it again, announced himself satisfied, then warned us that we must never attempt to clean or even touch the wall. At all. Ever. This was a bit of a problem, for although we fully intend to give the evil eye to any customer in possession of a leaky beverage/child, we nonetheless anticipate the possibility of spills at Malvern Books. And, in the event of such a crushing disaster, we would like the option to go to town on our wall with a roll of Bounty and a bottle of Windex. Noticing our alarm—or perhaps noticing our general propensity for making disgusting messes—he decided to spray-paint some kind of durable blue something-or-other all over the wall. Alas, this created an odd checkerboard effect. “Ah well,” we said, sensing his distress, “who needs words anyway!” We assured him that the lettering had been but a foolish dream, the daft and pointless preoccupation of decorating rubes, and then we left him alone with his wall and his roller and his soul-searching gaze off into the distance. When we returned the next day, the wall was white. Completely white. We feared he’d gone mad, but he promised us it was merely a layer of primer upon which he would daub his final coat of blue. And so he did, and the blue looked splendid. “It’s washable,” he said. We breathed a sigh of relief and dribbled coffee down our shirts in celebration. And then he added, “I shall return in ten days to do the lettering.” It sounded rather like a threat…


From wall to floor: we couldn’t resist playing peekaboo with our marmoleum river! (If linoleum is abbreviated as lino, is this… marmo? I do hope so.) We hadn’t seen the stuff in so long, we were starting to doubt its existence. But it’s still there, all blue and squiggly, waiting patiently to be walked upon by the good people of Austin.

Poetry, L

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

L is for Larkin, Philip

Philip Larkin. Sigh. What do we do about Philip Larkin? I want to devote the letter L to Larkin, whose poetry I adore, and yet there’s just so much… awfulness.

Larkin cartoon

Larkin was never an especially lovable geezer—gloomy, grumpy, and looking, as he described it, “like a balding salmon”—but prior to the publication of his Selected Letters, it was still possible to feel somewhat fond of ol’ Phil. He was just your standard British bachelor-curmudgeon-librarian, keen for a quiet life, fond of rain and queues and animals. Describing his daily routine to the Paris Review in 1982, he wrote:

My life is as simple as I can make it. Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way—making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

The man liked to put on his egg-stained cardigan and watch a spot of telly. Nothing wrong with that! And although his most famous poem addresses the horrors of family life, there’s nothing especially strange or sinister in questioning the cycle of generational misery: the popularity of This Be the Verse suggests we all know exactly what he’s talking about.

But with the publication of the Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion’s biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, the following year, it became clear that Larkin was not just playing the role of the cantankerous old fogey who liked to insist “I loathe abroad.” The letters made plain his rabidly right-wing political views, his misogyny, and his racism: he calls for the “stringing up” of striking miners, for instance, and adds that “the lower-class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm.” He also writes of a “terrifying” future in which “we shall all be cowering under our beds as hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.”

It was repulsive stuff indeed, and people were quick to take sides. There was a lot of quotes-at-dawn carry on. One critic insisted that Larkin couldn’t possibly be a racist because he once wrote this:

The American Negro is trying to take a step forward that can be compared only to the ending of slavery in the nineteenth century. And despite the dogs, the hosepipes and the burnings, advances have already been made towards giving the Negro his civil rights that would have been inconceivable when Louis Armstrong was a young man. These advances will doubtless continue. They will end only when the Negro is as well-housed, educated and medically cared for as the white man.

And another immediately countered with Larkin at his most vile:

We don’t go to [cricket] Test matches now, too many fucking niggers about.

Poet and critic Tom Paulin described the Letters as a “revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals the sewer under the national monument that Larkin became” and Professor Lisa Jardine referred to Larkin as a “casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist” and noted that “we don’t tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English. The Little Englandism he celebrates sits uneasily within our revised curriculum.” Others made excuses. Martin Amis, whose father was great pals with Larkin, suggested the letters merely reveal “a tendency for Larkin to tailor his words according to the recipient.” In his letters to Amis père, Larkin always signed off with some variation of the word bumC. H. Sisson bum; Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry bum—but it’s rather a leap to suggest that adding an impish bum to the end of a letter is akin to chucking about a few n-words. Yes, we all write things in confidence that we would never say in public, but I’m pretty sure most of us have never written a letter to anyone (not even to Racist Aunt Gladys) in which we refer to “hordes” or “lower-classes.” Some might insist that such sentiments were commonplace back then, to which I would gleefully reply, well, then fuck the lot of them, the mid-century toerags. In any case, this it was different back then stuff is a load of nonsense—the language Larkin used may have read as slightly less shocking at the time, but there’s no denying that his remarks were considered racist by his contemporaries. Many of Larkin’s friends were horrified by the opinions he expressed in private, and Motion says that Larkin was “very unrepentant about his attitudes” and made no special effort to avoid discussing them, even when it was clear they offended the listener.

Philip LarkinSo, what to make of it all? Do we simply dismiss Larkin as a hateful racist? Or do we ignore the personal (“hey, he wasn’t as bad as Pound!”) and concentrate on the poetry? Motion writes that “the beautiful flower of art grows on a long stem out of often murky material,” and this kind of uneasy admission is perhaps the best we can do. And yet—it doesn’t seem quite enough to say “Okay, yes, Larkin was a bit of a racist; now here are some lovely poems!” Much of Larkin’s appeal comes from his ability to capture the oppressive, dreary pointlessness of life in a post-war England that has lost its faith—that is, ordinary life, lived by ordinary people. As poet X. J. Kennedy states in the New Criterion, Larkin gives us “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” But who are these ordinary people Larkin writes for and about? If he’s racist, misogynistic, and a snob, are his “ordinary people” all middle-class white men? Is he writing for me, too? Do I really want to read a “deeply moving” poem by someone who perhaps suspects that significantly more than half the population is incapable (or undeserving?) of being moved? When I picture Kingsley Amis and Larkin writing sniggery, right-wing, posh-voiced bums to each other, I want to punch them both hard in their ruddy little noses. And yet—

Here I am joining the “Larkin was a bit of a racist; now here are some lovely poems!” chorus, and feeling, yes, very uneasy about it. The best I can do to mitigate the queasiness is present the two Mr. Larkins side by side:

If you skip to the 43:50 mark of Life and Death in Hull (a mildly interesting doco), you can listen to Larkin and his girlfriend singing a little Larkin ditty. If you hear this and still wish to defend Larkin on the grounds that this was done in private (but recorded, do note), or that it’s just meant to be, you know, funny, well, you might not want to invite me to your next dinner party, because I’m not going to laugh at your jokes.

And now here’s the other Larkin, the one I like very much. I’ll leave it to you to try and reconcile the two.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

* * *

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 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.

* * *


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.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Thursday Three #9

American poet Theodore Roethke died fifty years ago today. He had a heart attack at the age of fifty-five while swimming in a pool on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. Legend has it he’d lined the poolside with mint juleps and was rewarding himself with a drink after each lap. Let’s dedicate today’s Thursday Three—our weekly assortment of literary loveliness in triplicate—to three of his best poems.

Roethke1. Roethke’s father was a market gardener in Saginaw, Michigan, and much of Roethke’s childhood was spent mucking about in his father’s twenty-five-acre greenhouse, which sounds rather idyllic, if you like humidity and gardening. Many years later, Roethke published a series of poems known as “the greenhouse poems” (found in his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems, 1948), and this series came to be regarded by critics as Roethke’s artistic breakthrough. Roethke himself said that his first collection was “too wary,” and that the greenhouse poems were intended to have “greater intensity and symbolic depth.” The poems are distinguished from your usual soppy nature poems by their celebration of human effort—beauty is not always something that happens by chance—and by their wonder at even the most mundane and repellent of natural processes.

Big Wind

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?—
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

2. Roethke avoided the tedium of office work—he dropped out of law school to study literature–but institutions were familiar to him: he was hospitalized on several occasions for bipolar disorder. “Dolor” (also from The Lost Son) reminds me of Larkin, who was surely rather familiar with the sadness of pencils.


I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

3. “The Far Field” is the title poem from Roethke’s final collection, published posthumously in 1964. A year before his death, Roethke told a friend that The Far Field would probably be his final book, and the collection does have “a strange air of unconscious preparation” and a greater sense of mysticism than his earlier work. I especially love the final stanza, a calm and tender catalog of “finite things.”

The Far Field

I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.

At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,—
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud,
      all one morning,
And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes,—
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean,— 
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his dead tree in the chicken-yard.

—Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland,— 
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plain,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers,— 
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.

The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,— 
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.

A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude: 
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree:
The pure serene of memory in one man,—
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.