In January of 2011, while scanning the paid obituary/memorial notices in The New York Times, I came across one in which the author had included a short poem by Philip Larkin, one of Britain’s preeminent post-war poets. It made an immediate impression on me, and I scissored it from the paper and tucked it into the blotter on my desk, alongside other clippings. I read it often over the next days and weeks; in time, it disappeared from view in the always-morphing topography of my desk.
Flash forward to several days ago, when I watched 56 Up, the latest installment in Michael Apted’s extraordinary documentary series that began in 1964. One of the DVD’s extras was an interview that the late Roger Ebert had done with Apted in 2006, at the time 49 Up was released. During the course of the conversation, Ebert quoted the opening lines of Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis. His mention of Larkin sparked a memory of the poem I’d cut out of the paper. Did I still have it?, I wondered. I rooted through the miscellany on my desk, and there it was.
Larkin was, by all accounts, a complicated character, inspiring strong opinions, both pro and con, among his peers. He has been called, among other things, a curmudgeon, a misogynist, a racist. In an essay in The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens referred to him as ‘the impossible man’, but then went on to observe, “It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one.” Larkin’s output was relatively small compared to that of other writers; among his best-known poems are An Arundel Tomb, the aforementioned Annus Mirabilis, Aubade, and The Whitsun Weddings.
In June of 2002, 17 years after he died, someone rummaging around in a dumpster found a notebook containing drafts of two of his late poems. Also found was a free-standing quatrain that was not recognized by various scholars. In a 2003 article in Slate Eric McHenry noted, “When a columnist for the Guardian sneered that the quatrain was, in fact, rubbish, and implied that it might not even be Larkin’s, an elderly Betty Mackereth came forward with the complete poem, at which point all sneering ceased.”
Mackereth had been Larkin’s secretary for many years, and in 1975, when both were in their 50’s, they began a 5-year long affair. Larkin had, it turned out, written the previously unknown poem for her, and sent it to her in February 1976. It was this poem, about two people finding each other late in the ‘party of life’, that I happened upon in the paper two and a half years ago. (The lines highlighted in blue are the ones I found particularly arresting).
We met at the end of the party
When all the drinks were dead
And all the glasses dirty:
‘Have this that’s left’, you said.
We walked through the last of summer,
When shadows reached long and blue
Across days that were growing shorter:
You said: ‘There’s autumn too’.
Always for you what’s finished
Is nothing, and what survives
Cancels the failed, the famished,
As if we had fresh lives
From that night on, and just living
Could make me unaware
Of June, and the guests arriving,
And I not there.