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 →

On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

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Countee Cullen Harlem Renaissaince

Countee Cullen. Image via FindAGrave.

After a LONG time out of print, Library Of America finally released Countee Cullen’s Collected Poems a couple of years ago. To those who know literature, this was a big deal- mostly because Cullen is one of the 3 or 4 greatest black poets to have ever written, even as (as per all great writing) he was quite free from the stereotypes of ‘blackness’, or whatever other limit artists typically impose upon themselves. An almost Constantine The Great-like Christian- just note the syncretism of the titular poem- he never gave a simple answer on politics, religion, or race, even arguing with Langston Hughes that he was above all a poet, first, and a black man second. In other words, while Hughes would sometimes dip into mere agitprop, Countee Cullen was less interested in canned answers- nor did he think that he necessarily had them in the first place. This made for mysterious sonnets, strange messages, and of course- having modeled himself on the Romantic poet John Keats- great lyricism, witty lines, and memorable inversions:

For John Keats, Apostle Of Beauty

Not writ in stone, nor in mist,
Sweet lyric throat, thy name;
Thy singing lips that cold death kissed
Have seared his own with flame.

Although I’d argue Cullen had a number of truly great poems, it is really “Heritage” that is special- on a deeper level- in my own life. I recall how, as a kid, after I’d decided to start reading with purpose, I first came across Countee Cullen’s work in a Harlem Renaissance anthology. I was 16 at the time and really had no knowledge of what made for good writing. Yet there was the feeling that Cullen’s work was somehow better than most of the pieces being represented. It was more subtle- it took quite a few readings to really know what was going on, even when the poems felt simple. The book featured small pieces, mostly, and while they ranged from good to great, it was really “Heritage” that made me want to UNDERSTAND poetry- as well as learn how to craft my own. My guess is that it simply came at the right time. I was intellectually maturing, I was getting ready to leave my Orthodox Christian faith, and I was- by way of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, among other works- diverging from the limits of ‘my’ world into the boundaries of another’s. And while there were many poets greater than Cullen that I’d initially sampled- John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane- they were completely inaccessible to a child. They are, for lack of a better term, more or less useless when first learning the craft- unless one realizes that their work is something to be conquered in time, and not merely put aside. Yet Cullen didn’t need to be awaited. He was always there:

Heritage

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed … Continue reading →

Review: On The Now-Forgotten Poetry Of Robert Francis

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Robert Francis, an excellent poet once championed by Robert Frost. Image via UMass Amherst.

Robert Francis, an excellent poet once championed by Robert Frost. Image via UMass Amherst.

As with Hazel Hall before him, Robert Francis was a pretty good ‘classical’ poet who, although better known while still alive, is now mostly forgotten in favor of bad New Formalist writing that afflicts so much of the poetry world. Thus, he is usually known as the ‘other’ New England poet, having spent much of his life in Amherst, MA, and using Robert Frost as both a personal mentor and poetic model. It’s an interesting relationship because, while never quite hitting Robert Frost’s highs (think Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, the great dramatic poems), he didn’t share his lows, either, for even Robert Francis’s longer poems can’t be said to go on too long, with the best ones topping out at 20-30 lines, and many more under a dozen. This is because Robert Francis was a poet of moments as opposed to larger, over-arching ideas, and while this implies a ceiling that greater poets are unafflicted by, it also means that he is quite memorable, as individual lines tend to crop up in the mind long after a poem is read. No, he is not “better than John Berryman,” as the abysmal Donald Hall claims in the back matter to Francis’s Collected Poems, but this is irrelevant to the fact that he deserves a much wider readership, and the opportunity to influence younger writers.

Let us consider a few of his poems, and why they work so well on technical and intellectual grounds:

Cloud In Woodcut

Make a woodcut of a cloud.
Polish the wood. Point the knife.
But let your pointed knife be wise.
Let your wilful cloud retain
Evidence of woody grain.
Teach your knife to compromise.
Let your cloud be cloud — and wood.
Grained in the art let there be life.

This is the prototypical Robert Francis poem: short, cutting, and able to distill 1-2 ideas in a way that neither obfuscates, nor ever becomes prosaic. Just look at the first line: a well-musicked command that ‘hooks’ the reader right away, for it gives just enough to act as a spring-board for some deeper examination later. The next line refines the narrative but without really forcing the reader into a strong philosophical post just yet — an example of good pacing, which is usually seen as a way to give a reader ‘breathing space,’ but can be better defined as a way for the artist to build a little trust before doing whatever it is that he wants to do, merely by first lulling him into a sense of complacency. (Art is deceit, remember?) Line 3 finally brings the first deeper thrust: “But let your pointed knife be wise,” another hook, again, that implies this idea will be expanded upon, and subtly changing the meaning of the commands that came before. The next 2 lines mirror the poem’s first 2, yet deepens their meaning, while the next … Continue reading →

On Bruegel’s “Icarus,” W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, And “Painting” Poetry

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Pieter Bruegel's Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus (1560s)

Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus (1560s)

As I’ve written elsewhere, Bruegel the Elder was, at his best, a great painter. No, he was not a technical master, like Caravaggio, nor diverse as some later artists, but he still had one disadvantage that later painters did not: he started at the bottom. And I don’t mean this in the typical socioeconomic sense, just that, excepting Hieronymous Bosch, who died a few years before the artist’s birth, and served as a kind of model, there was remarkably little depth in the art world, as a whole. Yes, the Renaissance Masters have some argument for greatness, in their very best work, but conceptually, the Renaissance was exactly what the term means: a “re-birth,” but of older ideas, decidedly un-modern except in a few details (Christianity, for instance, replaced Roman religion), and were, therefore, stuck in the past, even as one part attuned itself to the future. So, Bruegel had to depend upon himself – at least ideationally – in the same way that later artists would grow to depend upon Bruegel, showing, as he did, new ways to interpret ancient myths, and a subtler, less didactic means of treating religion.

One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings, Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus, illustrates the above quite well. No, it is not, on a purely technical level, on par with later, better paintings by others — just consider its flat, almost medieval-like quality — but on the plus side, while it could have been handicapped by its almost clichéd mythological subject, it subverts not only its own topic, but the very genre of landscape painting as a whole. Note, for instance, the simple pastoral scene, a shepherd casually looking up (a forgettable gesture, that), a fisherman, a ship, the indifferent backdrop, by the mountains… Yet the painting purports to be of Icarus, a subject that, in virtually every interpretation of the myth, from writing to visual art, would put HIS misfortune to the front. In fact, it takes a long time to even notice the boy’s legs (the only part of him that’s visible), which, once seen, really change’s the nature of the painting. The indifference of the farmer with his horse, or the fisherman’s complete lack of notice reveals how utterly small this event must be to everyone else involved — for even the shepherd, the lone person to even glance up, will, most likely, second-guess himself in the end, turn his face back to his sheep, and move along. The subject, then, is not REALLY Icarus (although the viewer expects him to be), but patterns of human interaction, and the loneliness such events usually engender. One can’t say too much for the technical depths, within, yet the medieval style works MUCH better for the subject, anyway, and the ideational depths — really, Bosch’s and Bruegel’s primary strength — would come to define artistic modernism at a time when few seemed to really care for such.… Continue reading →

Review: 3 Poems By Hazel Hall

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Hazel Hall

Hazel Hall (1886-1924), via Wikipedia.

Today, Hazel Hall is an almost-forgotten poet, but in the early 20th century, she’d written for some of the biggest publications of her day: Harper’s, The New Republic, The Boston Evening Transcript, The Nation, and others. Residing in Portland, Oregon, and sickly from adolescence (reminiscent, in that sense, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning), she spent much of her life paralytically confined to room and window, watching, as she would, all else around her birr. Thus, her subjects tended towards people (or rather, their images), sewing, and moments that, had she the opportunity to experience things a little differently, might have been larger, deeper, more expansive.

But such wondering is pointless, and Hazel Hall is quite good despite it all — excellent, even, in her best poems, with the occasional great flourish that reads like a classic what-if? moment. Yes, her poems are usually too ‘small,’ both in subject and accomplishment, to ever be called visionary, in the deeper sense, but they do have a kind of small-v vision, a way of looking at the world that, when compounded over time, is uniquely Hall’s. That’s because so much of her content is, rather than mere repetition, closer to being a slightly new angle from which to view the same basic idea. Loneliness, for instance, is treated sadly, or given a sinister edge, or a hopeful one, depending on the poem; people are interesting, and living fully, or pitiful and ignorant of such, refracting Hall’s own moods; sewing needles can be weapons in one poem, or almost personified as a ‘seeker’ in another, to the point that the narrator, being a seeker, herself, implicitly casts doubt on her own knowledge of things. Thus, after reading a few dozen or so of her poems, they really get condensed by the mind into 2-3 larger ideas. You may take that as a flaw or boon, but it’s undeniable that even her lesser work has a way of insinuating into the reader, even if some of the specifics are ultimately forgotten.

Hazel Hall, then, is an example of an artist who, barred from most kinds of life experiences, still had enough of an inner life to extrapolate into the rest of the world, and richly, at that. This is both uncommon and instructive, for it sheds light on talent in a way that strips away any real context, proving that, for all the silly attempts critics often make in ‘understanding’ a writer’s life to get to the bottom of WHY the art was able to be created, in the first place, talent (and its expression, really) is a mere crap-shoot, and knows NOTHING of its entry and egress, into or from whomever ultimately gets to indulge it.

It’s also interesting that, after many decades’ time, Hazel Hall is still very much a niche poet, affecting, as she does, only the occasional women’s studies course, and other academic events. She has not entered into the public … Continue reading →