This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.
I ran out of books to read while I was in Australia, so I did something I haven’t done in years – went to the library! I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated libraries quite so much before. There wasn’t a huge selection in the Bright local, but I did find these two.
Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite)
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
(-from ‘This Be The Verse’)
It was nice to read a poetry collection for a change; it’s not something I usually do. I chose Larkin because I remembered the line “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad, they may not mean to, but they do.” I love the rhythm of it, the honesty, the twist of humour. This collection is more of the same.
Larkin is a beautifully quiet writer, and his poems carry so much weight. They feel so close to reality, to the raw truth of human experience. Larkin worked as a librarian for over forty years, and wasn’t interested in fame. I like to think he was reading and writing for himself, for the truth that art allows us to get at and better understand. That’s what it feels, to me, like Larkin is doing in his work: noticing the inherent chaos and sadness in the world, and striving to structure it. To give it meaning, and beauty. He certainly succeeds. His work is piercingly insightful – he doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties (relationships, age, and death are big themes), and the way he renders them is wonderfully bittersweet.
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
(-from ‘Next, Please’)
I found a lot of the poems in this collection very moving. There are touches of humour, but sadness, too. I read this over a bit of an emotional period, and shed a few tears. I finished it in a crowded V-line train carriage on the way to Melbourne.
[W]e should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
(-from ‘The Mower’)
I gravitated towards Ali Smith because of how much I loved her novel The Accidental. Her writing style in that novel is so different, and there are some rhythms and themes that I really connected with. These stories are also quite unique, but I didn’t connect with them as much (I was surprised to discover that this collection actually came after The Accidental – to me these stories seem less mature, less sure of themselves).
The First Person is experimental: the focus is much more on symbolism, form, and theme than plot. In many ways this is a collection of writing about writing – in particular, about the short story and what it is, what it can achieve. One question central to these stories seems to be about identity (the four quotes that open the collection all certainly point in this direction) – the identity of the characters, as well as the identity of the medium they find themselves in. Smith seems to reach the same conclusion as many other great writers before her (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield): that identity is fragmented, constantly shifting.
There are a lot of wonderful ideas in this collection: a talking baby; a disturbing package; a conversation with a fourteen-year-old self. I suppose idea-based (rather than plot driven) writing works better in short story form. I did, however, find some moments repetitive, and felt a bit lost in the swirling stream of consciousness style. I think Christopher Tayler sums The First Person up well in this review from The Guardian: “lively and inventive but dreamily absorbed in the protocols of its own making.”
I finished the stories quickly (waiting for a friend at a Kensington dental clinic, in bed, and in the park by the river on a sunny early spring afternoon). Not too many of them stayed with me, to be honest. I might try another novel of Smith’s, next time.
So the overall moral of this blog post … libraries! Don’t take them for granted; like many things, it’s hard to appreciate just how wonderful they are until you don’t have access to them anymore.
Philip Larkin died in 1985. This edition of his collected poems was published in 2004.
Ali Smith was born in Inverness and currently lives in Cambridge. The First Person and Other Stories was published in 2008.