Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The greatest conservative poem, ever, maybe.

Well, that would be Phillip Larkin's "Breadfruit", which is so short it can be posted here without difficulties. I know I regularly overlook the "poetry" element of this blog, mainly because it's been an open question in my mind whether poetry has died or not. The following seems to live. I will explain my view afterward...


Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are,
As bribes to teach them how to execute
Sixteen sexual positions on the sand;
This makes them join (the boys) the tennis club,
Jive at the Mecca, use deodorants, and
On Saturdays squire ex-schoolgirls to the pub
By private car.

Such uncorrected visions end in church
Or registrar:
A mortgaged semi- with a silver birch;
Nippers; the widowed mum; having to scheme
With money; illness; age. So absolute
Maturity falls, when old men sit and dream
Of naked native girls who bring breadfruit
Whatever they are.

This poem has all Larkin's typical laughing irony and serious ambiguity. The irony, for example of dignifying the boys' fantasies as "uncorrected visions", which is itself an oxymoron. The serious ambiguity of "absolute maturity falls"- what does this mean, exactly? Just the end of life, burbling in an old people's home. I don't think so, actually, and for me that's the most interesting thing. While Larkin undoubtedly mocks the cheap pleasures of working class youths, he seems to be saying that those cheap pleasures at least had the virtue of gradually imposing the discipline of experience. The open ended question is what happens when "church or registrar" etc. no longer operates. To borrow from another Larkin poem, High Windows, it seems to me that the ending sets itself similarly, pointing to "the thought of high windows:/The sun-comprehending glass,/And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless."

In a cleverly muted way, Larkin is again the social conservative, questioning "everyone young going down the long slide". In the debate over youth and maturity, Larkin got there before any of us- a sentence I am sure he would find satisfyingly ambiguous.

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