Ancrene Wiseass

A would-be medievalist holds forth on academia, teaching, gender politics, blogging, pop culture, critters, and whatever else comes her way.

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Yes, this really is yet another blog by a disillusioned grad student. I sympathize, but that's just the way it has to be. For hints as to what my bizarre alias means, click here and here and, if needed, here and here. To get a sense of what I'm up to, feel free to check out the sections called "Toward a Wiseass Creed" and "Showings: Some Introductory Wiseassery" in my main blog's left-hand sidebar. Please be aware that spamming, harassing, or otherwise obnoxious comments will be deleted and traced.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging 1: Philip Larkin

So, I am very late to jump on this particular bandwagon. That's because I have an inferiority complex when it comes to poetry.

Poetry, especially the more modern kind, has not come easily to me. I haven't read all that much of it, because I didn't really "get" it for a long, long time. My formative influences with people who taught poetry also were not very good, starting with my first-grade teacher who refused to let us read poems out loud because they had to be read "in a special way" that was apparently too arcane for mere amateurs.

Fortunately, having to teach poetry has forced me to get my head around it a bit more, and I'm finally starting to understand what all the fuss is about. Becoming poetry-friendly so late in my career does, at least, have the salutory effect of rendering me very sympathetic to my students when I teach scansion and they look at me like I am asking them to split atoms using a pair of pliers.

Even when I was taking my dreadful modern poetry class as a callow undergraduate, though, I really liked Philip Larkin. In fact, I liked him so much that I went out and bought an expensive volume of his collected poetry and read things which weren't on the syllabus. I love his biting sense of humor, his gruffness, his self-deprecation, his flashes of anger, his compassion. Whenever I'd begin to think he'd irretrievably shocked me into frustration with his curmudgeonliness, he'd promptly take my breath away with his candor and tenderness.

He was one of the first modern poets who made me think, "You know, I'd really like to have met that guy." So I'll make my first Friday Poetry Blogging entry in his honor.

Take it away, Mr. Larkin.

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.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.


Photo found at "Today in Literature."