April 22, 2012

Collected Poems

Philip Larkin statue, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England.
The statue, by sculptor Martin Jennings, was unveiled on the Hull Paragon Station concourse
on 2 December 2010, 25 years to the day after the poet Philip Larkin died.

A book review I read this weekend got me thinking about all of our "collected poems." By that I mean our "total" output of poems. I have been writing with some degree of seriousness for three decades. There are hundreds of poems. But when I started the editing process for my first book, I had trouble selecting the 70 I wanted to use.

It's not that there were only 70 good poems. There were many more I wanted included, but there were also many early ones that I did not even consider.

Philip Larkin’s The Complete Poems is 730 pages. Only 90 of those pages are poems that Larkin saw fit to collect in his lifetime.

Paul Muldoon, reviewing the volume in The New York Times, said:

Hardly worth even a first look are any of the page after page of “poems not published in the poet’s lifetime.” These include such drolleries as the couplet “Walt Whitman / Was certainly no titman.” Isn’t it worth asking why these poems were unpublished in the poet’s lifetime? Might it be that they were, and are, a “load of crap”? Like Bishop, Larkin is not particularly well served by having every napkin- or matchbook-jotting published. Almost none of these matchbook-jottings illuminate the essential core of Larkin’s work in the way that “Inventions of the March Hare,” say, casts significant light on early Eliot. In the end, though, such is the strength and solidity of that essential core that Larkin’s reputation as the archetypical English poet of the second half of the 20th century should persist well into the 21st.

That's rough. But maybe Philip Larkin would agree.

I write many of my poems longhand first in bound blank books. I have, for example, one book with about a hundred short poems (haiku and other short forms and short free verse). I don't know that I would ever publish more than a handful of them, and I'm sure that I wouldn't be thrilled to have the entire collection published.

Some writers are known for having destroyed their own writing to protect their reputation. Others leave it all to some institution to archive and perhaps hope that some of it will find an audience when they are gone (and don't have to read the reviews).

What do you do with your collected poems?

What do you want to happen to them when you are gone?

Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

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