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Amis and Larkin on death

October 12, 2011

Two poems

Here’s a good poem by Kingsley Amis.  The topic is sex, illicit sex, and the details autobiographical – his friend Robert Conquest really did lend him his London flat for affairs and on one occasion wired up the light switch to a tape machine which spoke the words “lucky sod” when he turned it off!   Amis the adulterer tells it like it is, although the details reflect badly on him – the cover story, “till six … quite long enough”, and the crude anticipation of the woman’s physical attributes.  But of course the poem is actually about his fears.  At first left unclear – no more than a sort of sense of being on the wrong track, or missing the goal somehow, and not even knowing quite why, until the “the different style of caller at my back … but just as set on me”, removes all doubt – this is death calling.

Nothing to Fear

All fixed: early arrival at the flat
Lent by a friend, whose note says Lucky sod;
Drinks on the tray, the cover-story pat
And quite uncheckable; her husband off
Somewhere with all the kids till six o’clock
(Which ought to be quite long enough);
And all worth while: face really beautiful,
Good legs and hips, and as for breasts – my God.
What about guilt, compunction and such stuff?
I’ve had my fill of all that cock;
It’ll wear off, as usual.

Yes, all fixed. Then why this slight trembling;
Dry mouth, quick pulse-rate, sweaty hands,
As though she were the first? No, not impatience,
Nor fear of failure, thank you, Jack.
Beauty, they tell me, is a dangerous thing,
Whose touch will burn, but I’m asbestos, see?
All worth while – its a dead coincidence
That sitting here, a bag of glands
Tuned up to concert pitch, I seem to sense
A different style of caller at my back,
As cold as ice, but just as set on me.

Compare it with a Larkin poem on the same topic.  There are plenty to choose from of course, but let’s take a relatively minor poem, Days.

Days

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

A masterpiece. No labouring to describe emotion, no “cold as ice” cliches.  It shows up Amis’s best line “just as set on me” for what it is, a clever pun.

Larkin leaves all life’s happiness, sadness, friendship, and loneliness for the reader to fill in.  And when the days of our life run out, he has no answers.  All he offers are the priest and the doctor, running over vast fields, in the cold roaring wind, with only their long coats to protect them. They seem so small. They don’t understand either, which is frightening.  Death is frightening.  But it’s all unsaid. The reader can fear and despair, or trust and wonder. Larkin hasn’t said the question can’t be answered, just that we don’t seem to have solved it yet.

I love Amis the novelist, but he was only a good poet.  His reputation will fade.  Larkin will speak to us for ever.

Jim Thornton

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