The Ship That Never Comes In: Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please”

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 straw men and women crash to the ground, 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.

NEXT, PLEASE

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.”

Birdless!

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”…)

Philip Larkin

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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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Small photo of figurines in queue near top of page by “all this is true” https://www.flickr.com/people/52833230@N07/

Ship coming into dry dock by Bruno Sousa via Unsplash

Philip Larkin photo and graphic courtesy of the Philip Larkin Group on Flickr  https://www.flickr.com/groups/philiplarkin/

6 comments to The Ship That Never Comes In: Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please”

  • David Jolly  says:

    Andrew, the poem is wonderful, and for that very reason, you could argue that its creation contradicts Larkin’s basic premise. Here’s a different take on the black-sailed unfamiliar and the huge, birdless silence it tows:

    A Prayer That Will Be Answered
    Anna Kamienska

    Lord let me suffer much
    and then die

    Let me walk through silence
    and leave nothing behind not even fear

    Make the world continue
    let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

    Let the grass stay green
    so that the frogs can hide in it

    so that someone can bury his face in it
    and sob out his love

    Make the day rise brightly
    as if there were no more pain

    And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
    bumped by a bumblebee’s head

    —tr. by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well David, that is certainly the hope, isn’t it—and not only of poets! That they throw their work into the maw of existence and it means something, affects someone, leaves a trail, however faint, saying that someone came through here once, watching, thinking, feeling, saying something about what they saw. Something that moves not only them in the creative act itself, but someone else in the reception of it. For many artists, it’s a survival tactic, allowing them to adequately shake off or at least keep in the background the various emotional torments and afflictions that come with hyper-sensitivity. But as we know, they are varyingly successful in that quest, their great artistic works notwithstanding.

      I love this poem you shared and am unfamiliar with the poet; there seems to be a surfeit of Eastern European/Russian poets named Anna! But I tell you, it is one of the delights of this endeavor of mine that so many readers share works in turn that have moved them, and which are new to me. Thank you very much for this latest contribution!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Several years ago, I went back to Carlinville, the small town in southern Illinois where I was born and spent the first decade of my life. When I saw the town square, which was really round, it was much smaller than I imagined. The fences in the Little League diamond, which once seemed unreachable, were now just a mere poke away. Perhaps even a half swing. My elementary school was replaced by a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell. I don’t think I was disappointed that my memories didn’t reflect the present reality. It was just another reminder of my own mortality. It’s perhaps why I’ve never gone to a class reunion. However, I must admit those few days in April when we, the Moon Wagoneers, strolled along Venice (not Italy) or watched Dodgers how easy it was to pick up where we left off some 50 years ago. Of course, there were changes. After all, 70 is around the corner. We were all orphans. Some had siblings pass away. There were grandchildren (more for me than anyone else). Less hair (I won that category, too). We seemed to know what day of the week it was by our 7 day release pill box. Despite it all, what remained the same was the single most important thing of all: friendship As I think about time and its passage, I recall this wonderful little poem written by the photographer Gordon Parks.

    “The Funeral”

    After many snows I was home again,
    Time had whittled down to mere hills the great mountains of my childhood.
    Raging rivers I once swam trickled now like gentle streams
    and the wide road curving on to China, Kansas City or perhaps Calcutta
    had withered to a crooked path of dust,
    ending abruptly at the county burial ground.
    Only the giant that was my father remained the same.
    A hundred strong men strained beneath his coffin
    when they bore him to his grave.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That looking back at how one thought things were and how they actually are upon further reflection and inspection is a most interesting flipside to this discussion, Robert. Worthy of another reflection, which I am very glad you offered up here not only from yourself, but from Mr. Parks as well. Again, a piece I had never seen before, such riches, oh my…

      I would also note here that Parks’s “The Learning Tree” had a huge impact on me when I came across it, I think in high school, if memory serves. Read it right in a bunch with the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Fire Next Time,” and a few others that permanently changed the way I view our mournful racial history in this country. Thank you for this!

  • kirkthill  says:

    The Happiest Country

    Today I have things to do.
    An efficient to do list lays in the passenger seat.
    While planning my day I come upon two cars stopped side by side.
    Both drivers arms waving in joyful conversation.
    Intermittent glances back at me reveal smiling faces.

    I wait.
    At first impatiently.
    With one question on my mind.
    “Why don’t they move so I can pass by?”
    And then, “Don’t they realize the consequences of their actions?”
    And then, “how rude to keep me waiting.”

    My Dad would tell me, “Think Ahead”
    Or in frustration, “What were you thinking?”
    (I was playing behind Dairy Queen, I got hot,
    took off my brand new jacket, and left it.)
    He taught me the magic of the prioritized to do list.
    And 2 decades later I came upon the Coup de Grâce, The Franklin Day Panner.

    So I sit, exercizing my patience routine.
    Aaaauuuum, full lotus position, (I can’t even touch my toes).
    Be here now. Live in the Now.

    Ahhhh Haaaaa!! Not the past, not the future.
    Right now they are talking. Being friendly, expressing love.

    And I realize that this is so much more important than my to do list.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Perspective and choice, eh, Kirk? I’m always curious about the triggers & controls that allow us to unleash a long trail of invective at one provocation but sit serenely in others, calmly waiting it out. Why can we be King Mellow one day and indulge a Jack Nicholson-style tirade the next, in similar circumstances?

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