Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Philip Larkin

Evidence suggests that Philip Larkin was a pretty miserable human being. A never-married librarian, he carried on simultaneous long-term affairs with several women, some of them his coworkers. He was misogynistic and racist – his extant letters are full of repugnant condemnations of blacks and immigrants – and apparently quite the collector of pornographic images, large stashes of which were found among his belongings upon his death. You can see it in his picture, too; he might as well be holding a big placard that says “I am a perv!”

I wouldn’t be posting this if he weren’t also a phenomenal writer, albeit one who illustrates almost too well that admirable personal qualities and poetic brilliance are weakly, if ever, correlated.

The poem that follows has particular resonance for me because I don’t think in pictures; I think almost exclusively in language. When I was a child, people would read my essays and school work and say “you write exactly like you talk!” This would confuse me – how else could you write – and I didn’t realize until I was a teenager that for other people, image is the primary medium of reality, and transforming those images into something like language requires effort, concentration, and exactitude.

Thinking in words has its benefits, but it also makes me feel as if I’m missing out on something. Because I don’t remember faces (though I have no trouble recognizing people), I pore over old photo albums obsessively. Without pictures, the images of the people I love fade from my mind within a week. This allows me to be ruthless toward those whom I want to forget; once I throw away their pictures, they dissolve to blankness.

Pictures of myself are the most baffling of all. I can never make out the relationship between that face, with its hair and features, and myself. I try to put myself in the frame of mind I was in when they were taken, but that makes them feel even more distant. As lost as I would be without them, I’m never convinced the photographs have much to do with me.
Lines On A Young Lady's Photograph Album

At last you yielded up the album, which
Once open, sent me distracted. All your ages
Matt and glossy on the thick black pages!
Too much confectionery, too rich:
I choke on such nutritious images.

My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose --
In pigtails, clutching a reluctant cat;
Or furred yourself, a sweet girl-graduate;
Or lifting a heavy-headed rose
Beneath a trellis, or in a trilby-hat

(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways) --
From every side you strike at my control,
Not least through those these disquieting chaps who loll
At ease about your earlier days:
Not quite your class, I'd say, dear, on the whole.

But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Hall's-Distemper boards,

But shows a cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is, what grace
Your candour thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,

In every sense empirically true!
Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being you; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.

Yes, true; but in the end, surely, we cry
Not only at exclusion, but because
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was
Won't call on us to justify
Our grief, however hard we yowl across

The gap from eye to page. So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you'd spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,

In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.

Philip Larkin on Wikipedia

Philip Larkin on


  1. sounds like prosopagnosia in a way

  2. I think I'm just very language-oriented. I never have the slightest trouble actually recognizing faces, even those of people I haven't seen in a very long time.