Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Like Something Almost Being Said"

As some long-time readers may recall, I make it a habit to visit two particular poems in May and November of each year.  My November poem is Wallace Stevens's "The Region November."  My May poem is "The Trees" by Philip Larkin.

Why revisit a poem that we know quite well?

At the outset, let's be clear:  poetry is not life.  (Likewise, art is not life and books are not life.)  We do not read poems in order to live.

But, at the risk of sounding highfalutin', I will go out on a limb and suggest that a good poem can do two things.  First, it can help us to understand what it means to be a human being amidst other human beings.  Second, it can give us an inkling of how we, as human beings, fit into the World -- the earthly paradise that surrounds us.  A good poem puts us in our place. Thus, it makes sense to pay it a visit now and then.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Ashley Burn, Spring"

                 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.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

I have no doubt that "The Trees" is well-loved by many people.  But those of us who love it do so for reasons that are peculiar to each of us.  Many of us may find the same phrases in the poem beautiful and moving:  "Like something almost being said" or "Their greenness is a kind of grief" or "Yet still the unresting castles thresh" or (of course) "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  But how we feel about those words arises out of our own separate lives.

Hence, any attempt to articulate the reasons for our love of the poem is doomed to failure.  Our love is inextricably bound up with our life.  Should you be so lucky as to cross the path of someone who tells you that they love "The Trees," it is best to say "Yes, I know what you mean" and leave it at that.

Besides, as I have often said, explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  If someone attempted to explain to me that the beauty of "The Trees" lies in this-or-that aspect of its meter or in this-or-that aspect of its rhyme, I would regard them as the Grim Reaper of poetry.

I would instruct them to step outside, in May, and have a look at the trees.

James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I have always been a little ambivalent about Larkin, some of his poetry I think is quite brilliant,some other pieces I quite dislike. Perhaps the same could be said of many poets. I can think of some I don't read at all and others I would not be without, yet Larkin always makes me feel this way, perhaps the fault is mine.
However The Trees is wonderful. I particularly like the first verse and the way the last line comes as something of a shock after the beautiful opening, and as you say we all love it for reasons peculiar to ourselves. I also agree with you wholeheartedly when you say " explanation and explication are the death of poetry"
A belated thank you too for the De La Mare poems you posted on Monday, the first in particular was unfamiliar to me. I do own his Complete Poems, but it is, as you probably know a huge volume and impossible to know every poem it contains, and equally a book one can never tire of.

Nige said...

Hear hear!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I respect your feelings about Larkin's poetry: there are some poets about whom, for one reason or another, we have the ambivalence you speak of. For whatever reason, I've always felt an affinity with Larkin's poetry -- some find him "gloomy", but he always cheers me up! (Which may say something alarming about me, I suppose.)

I agree with you about reading de la Mare's collected poems. It is like reading the collected poems of Thomas Hardy or Christina Rossetti: no matter how many years you've been reading them, something new and wonderful always seems to pop up.

As always, I appreciate hearing from you. Thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nige: it is very nice to hear from you again.

As I recall, you have written about "The Trees" either on Nigeness or The Dabbler, or perhaps both. I agree with you: "Hear hear!"

I suspect that you and I share the view that those who caricature Larkin haven't worked their way around to "The Trees," "Cut Grass," "At Grass," and others.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Cathy said...

Ah . . .so much to say in response to your delightful and provocative post. So glad I googled my way here as I was looking for a line in Frost's "Onset".

I agree that Larkin can be cheering. For me it is because he shares, in piercing lines, that we are not alone with our longings and apprehensions.

I shall enjoy perusing your website.

Here is my November poem. It's more upbeat than I usually manage.


Leave us something of yourself,
sweet trees, indifferent bees,
spiders wrapping up a summer’s job,
now listless in the chilly breeze.
Leave us something of yourself.

Do not forget these eyes that traced
your dewy webs and pollened toes
and watched you love the sky’s bright face
with fingertips that airily rose
to brush the clouds with leafy lace.

Leave us here believing
in the hills aglow, again,
and in a churning freshet searching
for what it cannot know,
but then, again,

It is this season’s yearnings
that foretell Spring’s bright returnings.


Anonymous said...

My husband & I walked in a famous huge cemetary, Woodlawn in the Bronx, today. I have never seen such a collection of enormous, magnificent trees -- and all, of course, in new leaf. Profound -- & fine to come back & read your entry on "The Trees".
Susan in NYC

Stephen Pentz said...

Cathy: thank you very much for visiting. I'm glad that you found your here.

Thank you as well for your poem: it is a good way to look at the sometimes dark days of November.

I agree with you about Larkin: what might seem "gloominess" to some is truth-telling for those of us in whom he strikes a chord. As you say, he can be "piercing," but he is always faithful to our experiences as humans.

Thank you again. I hope that you will return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: it's good to hear from you again.

Woodlawn sounds like a wonderful (and thought-provoking) place for a spring walk. In a brief Internet search, I discovered that Herman Melville (among approximately 300,000 others!) rests there. Yes, "The Trees" would provide a nice coda to your visit.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.