My uncle is dying. I come back from sitting with him to find novels, essays, plays, biographies strangely unsatisfying. This is one of the few spaces left in our lives still reserved for poems. Two have been sustaining me over the past few weeks. They face the subject head-on and are both rigorously formal, but where they end up, and the men who wrote them, couldn’t be more different.
The first is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” As with all of Larkin’s longer poems, what fascinates me is its narrative quality, five stanzas containing the movement and mystery of an entire novel. Yet in no sense is the verse subordinated to mere telling. It’s not one of those hybrid novels-in-verse. How Larkin does this is a mystery, and one of the reasons I return to his work again and again. The “story,” to adopt this approach, concerns the poet coming home from work, getting drunk, and waking in the middle of the night to face what he has been averting his gaze from all evening: “unresting death, a whole day nearer now.” This fear is not argued away but heightened and reinforced as he methodically disputes the traditional consolations offered by Western thought. Religion (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade”), philosophy, stoicism are considered and dismissed. There’s a beautiful music born of the tension between the complex, masterfully handled formrhymes of ababcceffe, with never a stumble or awkwardnessand the poet’s deliberately unheroic stance, that of a child in the dark scaring himself senseless.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
The novelistic “turn” comes in the last stanza. Night has passed. We have felt it pass. (How? No clue. I still haven’t pried loose Larkin’s secret.) With dawn, the plainness of objects reasserts itself. He sees the day, next in a series of unchanging trials, taking shape before him. What lukewarm comfort he finds is in the very physicality of the world, to which his physical beingvisible now along with the “wardrobe” and “telephones” and other materially verifiable factsstill belongs. It’s hardly a trumpet blare of victory but rather a deeply human and moving recognition that he is still, in some sense, supposed to be here. Then, in the poem’s strange, lingering, final image, “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” The postmen, Larkin explained elsewhere, are delivering letters, evidence of tenuous human connection, somewhat assuaging our isolation. But the picture of an army of doctors fanning out, tending to the doomed as if this were a song written in plague-time, undercuts whatever comforts the benign thought of a mailman may bring.
While “Aubade” is irresistibly quotable, an obvious keeper in the canon, if ever there was one, it is hardly delivered from on-high by some priest-like Augustan poet. The gloomy, at times almost whining voice is all too uncomfortably familiar to most readers. It’s us at four a.m., bleary, petulant, and so very afraid, a part of ourselves rarely shown in art yet one we instantly acknowledge and respond to. I suppose the deeper consolation the poem offers is its own existence, that our degrading fears and selfish despair can provide a fit subject for art.
The second poem is by Thom Gunn, whom Larkin detested. He “privately mocked” him and managed to accidentally omit a big chunk of Gunn’s “The Byrnies” when compiling The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse. One can see why there would be little sympathy between the two. While the Hermit of Hull wrote of sexual frustration and an inability to rid himself of guilt and terror, Gunn left England and moved to San Francisco, where he dropped acid, celebrated hedonism, and seemed to live in a pan-sexual bubble. But that’s a very superficial reading of his work. “Lament,” written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, performs the same utilitarian function as “Aubade.” It takes us through death, keeping our eyes wide open, though setting us down in a very different place.
Composed in couplets, “Lament” follows with remorseless detachment a friend’s decline as he is taken by disease.
Your dying was a difficult enterprise.
First, petty things took up your energies,
The small but clustering duties of the sick,
Irritant as the cough’s dry rhetoric.
This “dry rhetoric” extends to the poem as well, with its insistent half- and off-rhymes. Their not-quite-chiming creates an atmosphere, a voice, as distinct as Larkin’s but one far less public, less plangent and crowd-pleasing.
Just as Larkin dispenses with the clichés of consolation, so Gunn stubbornly refuses to sentimentalize his friend’s disintegration. Rather, he is a reporter, forcing us to confront the mundane process of dying with no gorgeous music or distancing metaphor. Details, which only appear at the end of “Aubade,” are what this poem largely consists of. Hospital equipment, symptoms, nurses, drugs. Why? Supposedly he’s talking to his friend, who is dead now and when alive knew all this far better than he. I suspect it was to dispel the mystery and taboo surrounding a largely unacknowledged slaughter. Rather than join the hysteria, Gunn adopts a tone of unbearable quiet. It’s poetry delivered through gritted teeth. He has been summoned, unwillingly, to perform an act of duty, of witness.
Such scrupulous lack of emotion is necessary, not just in self-defense, the way we instinctively recoil from the sick, but to achieve the artistic synthesis he is aiming for. The more wrenching the encounter, the cooler its depiction, as if an imbalance must be corrected. Gunn seems to address this when summarizing why his friend never achieved great recognition in life:
You lacked the necessary ruthlessness,
The soaring meanness that pinpoints success.
Here, the ruthlessness art demands is in full evidence, so much so that the end, when it finally comes, is almost an aside, a foregone conclusion no longer capable of bearing dramatic weight. A lesser writer would have felt compelled to adorn it with all sorts of hyped-up significance, but here the friend slips away, unnoticed. Instead, we are left with the poet in his garden, “delivered into time again,” reviewing this “difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.” Tedious! Again, as in Larkin’s admission of fear, we glimpse an aspect of our nature too often ignored or denied, that it is tedious to die, that death is more often wearing, even boring, than momentous. There’s a great deal of pain in this admission. This is grief, but grief restrained and minutely observed, the tragedy being that life, so brilliantly paid homage to earlier, has been rendered colorless, leaving the poet with nothing in return except, once again, a poem. While Larkin permits himself a note of fragile, dawn-thin hope as reward for making it through another night, Gunn’s assessment of our predicament is more grim. Surviving another’s passing, he seems to say, only brings into question exactly what it is one has survived. Death, once truly encountered, is never truly left behind.
I come home and make dinner for my family. During the evening, I jot down notes of possible topics to bring up with my uncle when I see him next, so the conversation will not lag and the silences yawn. I think how unbridgeable the gap is between any two people, particularly people who care for each other. I read these and other poems obsessively, compulsively. Perhaps what they offer is proof that attempting to bridge the gap, to try and communicate, however doomed to failure such an attempt may ultimately be, is important, is paramount, if we are to remain emotionally alive. Perhaps. For whatever reason, they provide comfort, when nothing else does. Then I go to bed.
Thomas Rayfiel is the author of five novels, most recently Time Among the Dead.