4.09.2009

The Penny of His Attention

29 May, 1956
Dear Mr. Shakespeare,
I remember promising to send you in writing an account of what I conceive to be the purpose of my poetry, though I think I was possibly over-confident when I did so. Such explanations usually read very heavily. However, put it this way: I have no ideas on what poetry is, in the abstract, but I have sometimes asked myself in the past what exactly I am doing when I write a poem. Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt or perceived. I feel it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation, since one’s deepest impulse in writing (or, I must admit, painting or composing) is to my mind not “I must tell everybody about that” (ie. Responsibility to other people) but “I must stop that from being forgotten if I can” (ie. Responsibility towards subject). When writing a poem I am trying to construct a verbal device or machine which will, upon reading, render up the emotion I originally experienced to as many people as possible for as long as possible. You’ll remember I called it a slot machine into which the reader inserts the penny of his attention. Of course, the process of preservation does imply communication, since that is the only way an experience can be preserved . . .the distinction between communication and preservation is one of motive, and I think the latter word gives a very proper emphasis to the language-as–preserver rather than language-as-communication. In other words it makes it sound harder, which it is! I forget if you asked me whether I thought poetry important: I’m afraid my opinion on it would be about as valuable as that of a beaver upon dams. It’s certainly important to me, but I doubt if the world would miss it much. All the same, I can’t imagine how people exist without practicing some form of art...
Yours sincerely,
Philip Larkin

From The Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 2009

6 comments:

Henry Gould said...

Interesting. Don Share had posted an excerpt from this over on his blog (http://donshare.blogspot.com/), but it wasn't clear, there, that Larkin was writing a note to Shakespeare (nor that he wrote in on my 4th birthday!). Here's a comment I made over on Share's blog :

"Very sensible... Larkin must have been right-handed. Being the contrarian nut everybody takes me for, I have to quibble, though...

Seems to me that a work of art is essentially evocative. Of feelings, of sense impressions, of concepts. & it's not so much the particular emotion, linked to the particular experience, conveyed by the poem, that we remember : it's the POEM ITSELF that we remember.

The poem is a kind of steadfast generator of diverse feelings & thoughts, a perpetual motion machine (Eliot's Chinese vase, still moving in its stillness). In laboring to give birth to a poem, the poet relives, explores & comprehends past experience in new ways. So I think "preservation" is slightly limited as a term to describe the "purpose" of poetry."

Chris Bays said...

Yes,"Preservation" reminds me too much of pickles.

Henry Gould said...

Geoffrey Hill has written some very profound & subtle essays on the relation between poems as, so to speak, artifacts of language, and poems as articulations of personal vision or witness - as results of an ethical laboring to say it right. I'm laboring here just to paraphrase Hill very loosely. "Witness" seems closer to Hill than "preservation" - though the poet is laboring to give an accurate & compelling witness, which will stand up to circumstance & trouble (thus preserving a "testimony").

Geoffrey Hill, too, has a whole range of writings which give a view on this idea of a "middle way" - which means something rather specific in English culture & history.

Mairi said...

Witness certainly seems more appropriate than Larkin's too limited 'preservation,' but I like his desire to go beyond the even more limited 'communication.' 'Witness' seems to give weight to both Larkin's concern for the afterlife of the subject, and to the poet's position in and on the experience. I did like his remark about the readers pennyworth of attention, with it's echo, for me at least, of Joyce's Pomes Pennyeach, and its relevence to earlier posts about how much, exactly, a reader is willing, or should be expected, to bring to the table.

Henry Gould said...

On that, Mairi - seems related to G. Hill essay I was just reading recently, titled "Translating Value" (in book Inventions of Value, also Collected Essays). Toward the end, where he talks about the etymology of the word "purchase".

Hard for me to summarize his essay, but, roughly speaking, he argues that whatever "intrinsic value" inheres in poetry was "purchased" by hard-won labor - a kind of symbiosis of moral struggle & grace, justice & mercy (with reference to GM Hopkins, Ruskin, Wordsworth...).

He takes up that issue which comes to the fore repeatedly - I mean the debate between artistic autonomy (the New Critics, say) & the ethical basis of art (say, Yvor Winters)...

Chris Bays said...

Henry & Mairi -- I have not read any of Geoffrey Hill's critical work, but it sounds like a good read. A more recent critic I have read is Adam Kirsch, who has good discussions about Yvor Winters and Aristotle in his book "The Modern Element". Kirsch appears to be critical of innovation for the sake of innovation. He also leans in the direction of the poet as a hard-working "witness", more from an Aristotelian perspective.
(He does not, however, actually use the word "witness" in his discussions, as far as I can recall).