Thursday, July 14, 2011

Poem of the Week 7/14/2011: To Failure

To Failure

You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne,
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That’s seen, some mornings, running down a lawn.

It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Instal you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.

Philip Larkin

For this week's PotW, a few brief notes will do. The title, "To Failure," sets up a poem that is somewhat of a letter to failure, discussing what the speaker expected it to be and then what it may actually be. This he does in an Italian sonnet that is tweaked just slightly (slant rhyme and rhyme patterns).

The first eight lines, the first half of the Italian sonnet, present a view of failure that is not, but that seems real. This failure is mythic (heroic even), evoking dragons, ghosts, and some kind objective ledger in the world. The first stanza, in its active, dreamy, engaged world, implies that in a life lived with too much intensity, one's failure has some kind of meaning, either with the bite of a dragon or the slow squeeze of losing all one's money. This failure is life lived fully, mistakes that attack, or that haunt a person, or demand something of them, include a contract and meaning.

The next stanza, which is failure itself, offers nothing other-worldly -- just chestnut trees "caked with silence," a stale smell, the quiet vision of a life in tatters. The contrast here lies at the heart of the poem, for me. Because failure is not adventure, torture, being haunted by the past. Failure, according to Larkin, is nothing. It's a slow decay of life, stillness, staleness, deadness. Blake writes, "expect poison from the standing water," and this seems to me ENTIRELY apt for Larkin's view of failure. Water that sits becomes poison, just as a life that sits, is too passive, is too stale, is a decayed failure.

Indeed! It raises the question of a life well lived! Because is a failure something done wrong, something that tortures a person or demands something of them, or is failure never experiencing that, never going under the nozzle of suffering, mistakes, problems, situations?

Thanks for reading these brief notes. The poem is simple, yes, but much in the way an arrow is simple, going straight to the point! Good night everybody.