Death, as with Destruction, is really instructive as to what things we actually need in our lives and what we do not. During my time of mourning, at the beginning of June, I figured out what I really wanted in my life and what I didn’t. I figured out what I really loved and what was just an escape, or rather, a facade for that love, a construction of sorts to keep the monsters at bay (or at least entertained enough to let me get some work done). But those are empty rewards, just like empty promises, the glamor of them wears off and their effectiveness only goes so far and then you find yourself at odds, with a shit ton of undone work and little to show for your life.
I watched a documentary about a “professional” director (notice the quotes? his claim, not mine) who made one movie. He spent a lot of time talking about how he was going to be the Great Director, about all the things he was going to do while in the middle of yet another binge of drinking or drug taking, but the work was slow, sloppy or absent all together. (And he never made the movie, though he did finish one of his shorts – after 6 years.)
I kept thinking about all of my losses and how many of them were self-manufactured. How many times had I put off my “greatness”? (Or, for that matter, mediocreness.) I was forced to ask this during this time of loss. Death has a way of doing that, creating those questions, forcing those realities to surface.
When someone departs our lives, either by relocating, quitting or dying, we wonder what could have been? We wonder why we hadn’t done any of the things we needed to do, or wanted to do. It feels like self-betrayal. Like an empty promise.
Here in the poem “Poetry of Departures”, Philip Larkin uses figures of speech (commonly worded phrases that use images to express emotions or ideas) to pose such questions. Figures of speech are short cuts for explanations to complicated emotional experiences in life. But we must be careful when we use them for they could slide quickly into cliche.
When we say, “he fought tooth and nail for such a policy”, we must understand exactly what this figure of speech, “fought tooth and nail”, means. Are we saying that his battle lost him his teeth and his nails? Was it such a barbaric battle that it could be likened to a creature in the wilderness fighting with its claws and jaws? Or were his the proponents the ones fighting barbarically against him? Without such specific understanding of why this figure of speech was chosen, it is only an empty cliche used solely as a place-marker for a place that could have used a more specific image, or word, that truly and more potently expressed the situation. A missed opportunity for a more impactful statement. This is why cliches must be avoided; they water down art and lose our connection with ourselves to the art and with ourselves to our audience. The distance turns a piece from art to something hackneyed and we lose out on yet another opportunity to experience something unique, something that expresses exactly who we are and what we think.
When Larkin uses his turns of phrase (“he chucked up everything/And just cleared off”, “take that you bastard”), he picks specific things that he has heard people saying during this experience of loss, during all of these departures. He uses them to evoke an emotional feeling that an adjective, adverb, metaphor or image just could not explain. It gives the reader a feeling of the immediacy of the event; we are right there along side him being yelled at, or yelling those things. We think about what emotion would have to be taking place in order to make us say that. We might even trip off to a place and time of that event and experience the sounds, sights and smells of that event making it more real to us.
When in the latter part of the poem we are swaggering, crouching and stubbly (a night of drinking will do that) along the nut-strewn roads (some taverns’ floors are covered in peanut shells), we feel the impact of the anger and sadness of the loss, how much we want to escape it and what we’ve already done to avoid it – “create an object:/Books; china; a life/Reprehensibly perfect.” And yet the loss still comes and that’s when we realize that these things are reprehensible and “a deliberate step backwards”. That’s when we realize all of that avoidance was for nothing; the loss will still come. But I guess the ancient Greeks were right, we’ll never learn until it happens to us.
Poetry of Departures
by Philip Larkin
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
He chuckled up everything
And just cleared off,
And always, the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said
He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’cle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life