An Analysis Of Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”

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Philip Larkin Church GoingAlthough Philip Larkin is one of those writers best read in abridgment, one can’t deny that he has written some excellent poems at his best. More, Larkin is a great poet to read when young: that is, when poetry still feels like a second language, as he is not only easy to ‘get’ line by line, but is still technically competent even in his worst material. This means that Larkin can always be probed a bit more deeply…even if, coming out on the other end, one realizes it was all surface.

Although Larkin’s “Church Going” is one of my favorite poems, I can’t really argue that it’s a great one, or even Larkin’s best. That it fails in some spots, however, makes it especially ripe for analysis, and becomes – paradoxically – easier to argue for its immanent qualities given how quickly they bubble to the surface. By contrast, a poem like “High Windows” is cordoned off unless you know what to look for, and even then it is a bit harder to explain its successes. Not here, however, as “Church Going” maps its own trajectory in a way that’s less demanding of the reader:

Church Going

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

A good introductory stanza, and one that gets better as the poem goes on. It sets the scene, rhythmically, with solemn pauses (the first sentence; the use of lists and colons which nicely lend themselves to rest-stops) and does not hammer you with its deeper purpose outright. So far, it could be a theological poem or something else altogether, thus giving an opportunity for both poet and reader to meander a bit before settling into its actual narrative. No, there are no great lines here, but there are little details that do worm into one’s memory: casually baptizing the iconic portion of a church as “the holy end”, for one, or the neglect of church flowers as a small metaphor for what comes. More, the language creates – especially by the end of stanza 2 – a definite impression to play off of, which not only paces Larkin’s argument but also makes it easier to swallow when it does finally show itself.

One website incorrectly writes in a period after the stanza’s last word. Yet notice the negative effect this would have:

…Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

There is a finality here which locks the poem into a trajectory it does not have. Further, one expects more scene-setting – perhaps an addition to the first stanza’s lists – before the task of commenting on the scene itself. This is an issue of … Continue reading →

The Russian Hacks Are Distracting You From The Real Problem

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Russian soldiers in Soviet uniform
One of the most disturbing outcomes of this election has nothing to do with who was elected. It has nothing to do with who could have been elected, and nothing to do with the policies — rarely discussed now — that the electorate presumably fears. No, what’s alarming today is how quickly both sides of the Trump/Clinton divide seem to have coalesced around a losing strategy, assuring themselves of things that simply are not so at the expense of their own futures. It’s a gamble that is often made for a quick but quickly-dissolving advantage, and one that empowers anyone cynical enough to game it. And it just so happens that, this year, the cynic won, as both his critics and supporters wallow in distractions to take attention away from their own nullification.

There’s a lot to be said about this, but a few examples should suffice. On Donald Trump’s side, for instance, voters have already signaled that they’re willing to give him a free pass as Trump backs down from key campaign promises, laughably insisting on a ‘mandate’ to govern all the while denying even the possibility of Russian cyberattacks meant to throw the election in Trump’s favor. Meanwhile, Trump himself has been gas-lighting his own base for several weeks now, slowly inoculating them with positions — gay marriage, the Iran deal — they have in fact voted against. And on Hillary’s side, you have an outright denial of her worst flaws as Democrats go on to blame everything from sexism to James Comey for last month’s defeat, with the Russian hacks serving as the latest diversion from what, in hindsight, ought to have been a rote and predictable outcome.

In other words, neither side — as usual — really cares to see what’s going on. Conservatives deride liberals for their political correctness and identity politics, yet engage in much the same. Today, they’re arguing from personal insecurity, and assume that granting the obvious — such as Russia’s hacks — will erode support for their own side. Of course, they are right to worry, given Trump’s ever-widening gap in the popular vote and the sense that he’ll always be just one lawsuit away from impeachment: facts which cannot be undone no matter what Trump does, even if — and this is a big if — he ends up doing some good. But while the Republican Party slowly implodes, Democrats are trying to reassert themselves in the wrong way, courting the same donor money that failed them in 2016 while insisting on the same leadership. And although Democrats feign outrage at Russia’s behavior, they are in fact using these events to justify their own refusal to adopt the progressive agenda both sides thought they voted for. Ironically, Russia has become the party’s savior, even as the Democrats guarantee more losses in the future by not honestly dealing with their own flaws.

As a result, both parties have whipped up hysteria to unprecedented levels both before and after … Continue reading →

Why Donald Trump Might Be Good For America

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Why Donald Trump Might Be Good For America

Image via Gage Skidmore.

It has now been some weeks since the election, and it’s clear that this thing is not turning out like anyone expected. There are the results, for one, which put a supremely un-vetted TV star with questionable judgment, unprecedented business entanglements, and a string of sex abuse allegations into the White House. There’s Hillary, an ‘untouchable’ party hack who lost to one of the most hated and divisive figures in American history. There’s Trump, himself, who has already turned his back on his constituents by reneging on the very promises that once stirred them into a mob. And then there’s the reality that both sides are now giving passes to ‘their’ side, whether it’s Trump supporters ignoring the fact that he’s not the guy they think they voted for, or Clinton fans lashing out against their own nullification, blaming the media, sexism, dumb rural voters, anything, really, all to avoid the fact that Clinton was one of the most toxic and candidates to ever run for high office.

As I’ve argued before, it’s not so much that Trump won. Rather, it is that Clinton lost, and lost to a puerile sex maniac whose competence has been questioned by virtually every political scientist in the world. Yet as strange as it sounds, Trump’s tepid victory might very well turn out to be a great thing for American liberalism if – and this is a big if – genuine liberals do right. And this is not because America has veered conservative like so many have argued, but rather that America, as a rule, is simply restless, responding to calls for change no matter what direction they come from. The fact is, both parties – at least as we’ve come to know them – are done. Yes, Republicans are now in control of the House, Senate, and Executive Branch, but this is little more than an illusion. Recall that Trump, who is decidedly un-Republican and reviled by his own party, was still able to become their leader by a very comfortable margin. Yet the GOP assumes that, come 2020, the Trump ‘wave’ will be over, and they can return to business as usual with a few more victories under their belt. In short, they haven’t quite figured out what’s changed, and are likely banking on yet another Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan to wrest control. They see a mere bump in the road, even as this election marks the end of the Christian Right, voting, as it did, for a lifelong hedonist with no religious grounding. More, it might even be the end of the illusion of fiscal austerity, two cornerstones of Republican ideology that have been around longer than I’ve been alive.

Yet the Democrats, having already self-destructed, are likely in a much better position now than they’ve ever been. The Obama years signaled a new set of liberal norms, but they were also marked by a disengagement from the rural moderates (who might have … Continue reading →

Why Hillary Clinton Lost: An Addendum To 2020

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Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Stone Cold Steve AustinSo. The polls were wrong. Clinton got the popular vote by a little, and lost the electoral college by a lot. To Trump’s supporters, Trump won. Yet a more accurate conclusion is that Hillary Clinton lost: lost the young voters, lost the confidence of her own party, shook off the notion – a kind of meme until now – that one could merely procure the presidency with entitlement alone. She lost precisely because this was an election that should have been un-losable, what with an experienced career politician running against a TV star who was caught, on video, describing what was perceived to be sexual assault, with a dozen or so women coming forward to corroborate this. To be sure, both are still extremely unpopular, scandal-prone figures. Neither managed to win the majority of the electorate, whipped up, at each side, by hatred for and fear of the other side. Their antics ensured the rise of Third Party candidates, and even put Bernie Sanders, a life-long Independent, socialist, atheist, and Jew, into the spotlight as the ‘spirit’ of America’s populist wing, with a reasonable chance of being President, today, had he been the nominee. One candidate promised mass disturbances if the other side won. Then, that other side lost, ushering in a wave of protests that questioned the new president’s legitimacy, replete with petitions to get the electoral college to do the Left’s bidding, an ironic little twist that’s lost on the protesters, and the entire Democratic Party, really, which is still trying to figure out what went wrong.

Yet the question of why Hillary Clinton lost is not a very complex one. One merely needs to look at her behavior over the last thirty years, and the superficially unique alternative Donald Trump offered. Whereas Clinton had been entrenched in a terrible establishment for decades, Trump presented himself as an ‘outsider’ ready to “drain the swamp” of political life. Of course, Trump has already filled the new administration with Washington insiders, with hardly a protest from his supporters, but that doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that he’s now turning his back on other, key campaign promises as well. The “great, big, beautiful wall” that Mexico would pay for has become a “fence extension” with “a double layer,” that his poorest voters will now pay for, which was, ironically, Hillary’s own proposal. Obamacare, once a “total disaster” which needed to be “completely repealed,” will – if Trump has his way – be preserved at its core due to the popularity of its individual parts. Jamie Dimon, whom Trump has criticized for even being considered for Secretary of the Treasury by Clinton, has now been extended the same invitation by the Trump team. The mass deportation of illegal aliens, another Trump cornerstone, is not really a priority, now. The Iran deal, which he vowed to “rip up”, will pretty much remain the same. And when asked about the mass registration of American Muslims, as … Continue reading →

Against Hillary: Notes On The Future Of 2016

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Against Hillary Clinton

Image via PolitiFact.

In 1954, a now-forgotten study was conducted that, looking back, reveals more about political thought than most voters care to admit. At a time when the debate surrounding human nature was not so imbued with meaning for ordinary folks, psychologist Muzafer Sherif wanted to see what human competition – and its evolutionary analogue, cooperation – might look like in its ‘purest’ state. Of course, this is impossible to truly test, for a variety of reasons, but it is possible to get clues, or at least be nudged a little closer towards them, if one merely puts one’s biases aside and looks at things anew.

Perhaps the hidden purpose of Sherif’s study was to look at group bonding over seemingly trivial things – emphasis on ‘seemingly’, as there’s an inner reason to words, rituals, and motifs which is frequently ignored. For the first portion of this test, he organized two groups of children in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, into a kind of summer camp, yet run in such a way that one group couldn’t guess the other group’s existence…at least not for a while. They were both supervised, but not excessively so, and thus left to find their own meaning. Despite being thought of as ordinary children, each group quickly developed an identity, a set of ‘arbitrary’ values, an agreed-upon hierarchy, and in-group cooperation as they staked out territory and passed the time hiking, swimming, and playing games. One group thought of itself as fighters who never cried. The other group adopted an almost puritanical refusal to use foul language. They both had rituals, songs, games, and territories they’d patrol, enjoy, or simply mull over. Yet as soon as the groups learned of each other’s existence, they quickly became even more tribal, growing upset when ‘their’ land was infringed upon, further emphasizing their own rituals, challenging the interlopers, and even starting fights with weapons that had to be taken away by the adults.

Now, it could be said that at least a part of all this was ritual war: an extension of men’s competitiveness into realms that only symbolized violence, thus serving as a safe outlet for ordinary urges. Or it could be said to be an example of something far more sinister, which, had the adults not been involved, would have led to the pointless attrition one sees in tribal groups today. At any rate, something in the kids ‘knew’ to behave in ways quite like the more well-known, violent specimens in the anthropological record. To be clear, these were not children who were competing over precious resources. They were not pressured by the environment to do this or that. They were not raised without culture, but came from families who at that point in human history had seen some of the lowest rates of violence ever known. Moreover, they were screened for good health and psychological standing, meaning, they could not easily be called sociopathic, or be manipulated by one or two sociopaths … Continue reading →