A friend was telling me recently that she had hosted a childhood friend for a weekend visit, and in the runup to it she had greatly looked forward to the time they were to spend together. As it turned out, she beamed, it was wonderful and all she had hoped for. Which, she noted, was a great relief, because “It doesn’t always turn out that way.”
Inded it doesn’t.
In his much-anthologized poem, “Next, Please,” English poet Philip Larkin, a brooding sort as perhaps a majority of poets this side of Mary Oliver are, suggested that it almost never does, and that this human penchant for almost giddy anticipation and “expectancy” is doomed to suffer when it collides with reality.
It’s as if our imaginations sabotage us, outpacing our ability to create or at least appreciate the emotional experiences we had been so eagerly anticipating.
Or, as Paul McCartney’s mama told him in three short words that he managed to turn into the sale of several million records, ‘Let it be.’
Float our dreams of the wondrous connection, the ravishing date, the one true love, the best-ever job, the all-wise and effective leader, and too often for Larkin’s taste, we watch every one of those ships run aground, unable to match the monument to them we had unwittingly constructed in our own minds.
It remains to Larkin’s poetic genius to dress these themes with the stultifying, mechanical voice of a bored clerk summoning the “next” person to the “next” experience that will disappoint and bore them just as all the previous ones have.
Picture Lily Tomlin in a darkly comic sendup, uttering a nasal “Next, please…” at the DMV while never looking up from fussing with the papers on her desk, right next to the half-filled coffee cup that somehow survived the morning.
Larkin explores this theme with an exquisitely chiseled 24 lines across six stanzas, anchoring them in the archetypal image of a ship coming into port—our Port of Hope and Expectancy, where we can finally say, “My ship has come in!”
Here’s the poem en toto.
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,
Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!
Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last
We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
So much to savor here!
A “Sparkling armada of promises” heading toward us with agonizing slowness. Do we really have to wait forever to finally be compensated for our struggles, our hard work, our patience and faith?
Even, as many religions tell us, all the way into the next life?
Come on, you old ship—you’re killin’ me!
Born in 1922, Larkin came to prominence in a culture and poetry community that was inclined to diminished expectations and a kind of spiritual torpor following the devastations of World War II. Death and deprivation had been everywhere, and Larkin and his contemporaries eschewed any notion of an energetic phoenix ready to hoist them on its wings with a collective rise from the ashes.
Fancying himself a realist, Larkin employed tightly structured verse forms and straightforward language without the often obscure literary allusions that had made the poetry of his immediate predecessors T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound a sometimes daunting interpretive task.
His imagery is both vivid and original, leaving us “holding wretched stalks of disappointment” as we watch the ship’s gaudy “figurehead with golden tits” sailing past us, its promised cargo of joy destined for other ports, or, more truthfully, for no ports at all.
This is the human fate, Larkin suggests: a stop-and-gone of hope followed by disappointment followed by hope again, on and on till the whole tiring sequence stops altogether with our demise.
Larkin gets at this—his long-running obsession with mortality—in the stirring dark lines of his final stanza, with its “one ship…seeking us…a black-sailed unfamiliar” followed by “a huge and birdless silence.”
That is surely one feature of death—it will almost certainly be birdless there in the empty hereafter—and Larkin’s choice of that image is both devastatingly bleak and astoundingly fresh, showing us just what a poet can do in the matter of evocation.
This is what makes a poet a poet, and not just some schmo down the bar whining, “Things just never seem to work out for me as I hoped!” (Though given poets’ historical drinking habits, there’s every chance the schmo’s whine would have garnered a response: “I wrote a poem about that once”…)
And however dark this poem or Larkin’s general orientation was toward life, and however much it may or may not accord with our own sensibilities, his stature and sheer skill as a poet should make us glad for his life and the true passion he brought to expressing what its deepest currents suggested to him.
And then the final line: “No waters breed or break.”
No renewal, no refreshment of rain or incoming tide, no anything.
Just a birdless silence as the ship—the one that was finally meant for us—sails silently off with our remains.
That all said, with Larkin’s point and his poetic skill in driving it home duly acknowledged, we might also consider an addendum, an alternative, to the essential bleakness of this poem.
Neither Larkin’s life nor his perspective need be ours. The eastern religions in particular offer us a kind of guide on two fronts, it seems.
One is in the admonition to simply stop desiring so darn much. Temper those expectations!
Or, as Paul McCartney’s mama told him in three short words that he managed to turn into the sale of several million records, “Let it be.”
Foregoing your desire might seem like a self-deluding ruse to sidestep your disappointment at missing the ship that was supposed to come in for your life. But this classic Eastern perspective really requires its fraternal twin to achieve its full power.
Which is: Pay attention! Be here now! Not in a tangle of your hopes and expectations for some magical experience or person that will finally give you your due.
Fail to be truly present and you’ll miss the reality that is right in front of you, beckoning.
The additional point here is that focusing your attention doesn’t merely allow you to better appreciate whatever experience you’re having. Just as or more important is that it transforms the experience itself.
Paying attention, fully inhabiting your body, your moment, your fellow travelers in this life, makes for its own reward. This is a variation on the physics phenomenon called the “observer effect,” which has shown that our mere observation changes the thing being observed.
When we observe with open and loving attention, it enhances everything, makes us see things truer, deeper, in all their dimensionality. (With some notable exceptions—such as observing Giants closers blowing yet another 9th inning lead…)
In the end, there’s not all that much we can do to quell the hope for a better life and richer experiences ahead. As Larkin’s 18th century English predecessor Alexander Pope observed, that hope thing “springs eternal.”
But we can temper its excesses and flat-out delusions. (No, that Maserati will not imbue my life with meaning, and alas, I will never come to the rescue as the Giants closer…)
And in bringing true attention to bear on the lives and moments we do have, it turns out we don’t mind that ship coming toward us at its own pokey pace, all the better to savor its beauty against the infinite horizon.
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