Adam Phillips Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart) Success

Poetry Koan #11: Writing by Philip Larkin


Quarterly, is it, writing reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of attention and good looks,
You could get them still by writing a few books.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a publisher, good friends, and a wife:
Clearly writing has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t get writing carefree with all you desire,
And however you bank your scrawl, the writing you save
Won’t in the end make you less of a slave to it.

I listen to my writing singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.


Writing and keeping count (of money, ideas, goods and services) emerged at the same time in our history: about 5,000 years ago. Both were a response to information overload, rather than as a means for sharing stories, ideas, hopes and dreams with other human beings.

While we still lived in small hunter-gatherer communities of no more than a hundred people, these needs could be met verbally. Just as this morning I might not necessarily sit down to write this if a tribe of human apes were amenable to chewing on and digesting the utterances I presented to them. Twitter is now our haphazard, etiolated shadow of this paleolithic social ideal. Once, my ideas, stories, and beliefs would be added to the collective mythos, just as foodstuffs I’d found or hunted would be shared by the tribe. But with complex communities and the need to communicate with others separate from us in time and space, writing as we know it came about.

“It is telling that the first recorded name in history [Kushim] belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, presenting to us one of the first pieces of writing we know of: a receipt acknowledging that 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months.

This was 5,000 years ago. The information, as you can see in the photograph of this example of proto-writing, was imprinted onto a clay tablet in what is now known as partial script. Partial script would not allow you to write anything resembling poetry or an essay. To do this, we would have to wait for “full script” (cuneiform) to evolve, which today we might recognise as something akin to the writing you’re reading here.

How did we get to the position where we would find our writing “reproaching us”? Perhaps for not publishing, and so failing to adequately meet that primal need that we share with all our hominid ancestors: to have our thoughts and feelings heard and acknowledged (i.e. read)?

Larkin would seem to be suggest that our writing has become a kind of stand-in or a place-holder for privation or our own deficiencies. In this we find ourselves forever falling short of the fantasy of abundance and sufficiency, and so we console ourselves with this proxy of prosperity. “Writing is pure potentiality,” Neil Roberts reminds us in his essay “Philip Larkin and The Importance of Elsewhere”, “as long as you hold on to it, your existence is underwritten by the elsewhere of where your work has yet to be published.”

We indulge in the fantasy that achievements in this field (writing, but any human activity might be substituted here) will result in being rewarded with those things we yearn for. As great apes what we crave most intensely are communal rewards: recognition, social validation, as well as stimulating and loving allies (friends, romantic partners). But also reliable channels through which we can be heard (read) and acknowledged, channels such as books, journals, or newspapers that help us to disseminate our own response to being alive.

Last weekend, walking near Ivinghoe Beacon, trying to memorise this poem, my mind a little super-silver-hazy, it attempted to speak back to Larkin’s poetic downers with a non-deprivatory rejoinder: “Yeah, but why sweat it? Isn’t writing just moving stuff (abstractions) around? We writers are no more than data-mongers really, no more special or important than literate dung beetles.”

It continued to lecture me:

“Wikipedia is the perfect paradigm for this. Nobody -neither prince, pauper, nor university professor- gets their own byline. As one of the top five websites on the internet, it is nothing more (but who would want more?) than a written repository of all that we know. Maybe “fine” writing, as in “fine dining”, is just somebody taking that repository and others like it, and serving it up to us in ways that are aesthetically appealing, thus gaining extra kudos by doing so.

But the ingredients don’t change, and so maybe we should learn to drop some of the consummate, ego-driven significance we attach to this activity? Just as with the relation of food to excrement, all the data we possess about ourselves and our world flows through our minds, spills out of our mouths/pens/keyboards, and is then swilled around in books, on screens, in songs, treatises, and poems. And just like food or excrement, this existential bounty is fed into other mouths, digested by other systems and released back into the world to fertilise and thus keep on feeding other entities? Which is all good and fine, but nothing to write home about.”

“Like Karl Marx,” writes the critic James Booth, “poets are alert to the distinction between life as an end in itself, and life abstracted to a medium of exchange: the paradoxically inhuman resource of writing. Writing may be necessary, but only those sad people who have no real life to speak of live in terms of writing. As Schopenhauer put it: ‘Writing is human happiness in abstracto, consequently he who is no longer capable of happiness in concreto sets his whole heart on writing. It is clear, surely, where Larkin, the poet of ‘living’, must stand on this issue.”

But is it clear? Learning the poem by heart, I am forced to pay particular attention to the three things out of many thousands of things that Larkin could have chosen to mindfully, expansively dwell on in the provincial town where he and we find ourselves situated at the end of the poem:

I listen to my writing singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Why slums, the canal, and churches? All three perhaps have some relation to writing. Slums are symbols of deprivation. Canals carry and disseminate those things we need to live and prosper such as water, food, and information. Churches contain some of our most ardently held belief systems: the foundational rules and regulations upon which our Western culture is based. They are ornate architecturally, as well as liturgically, but why mad? Perhaps because the crepuscular interior of churches is derived to some extent from the irrational penumbra that emanates from us when we kneel down to pray to our invisible sky gods.

But no less “mad” than literary festivals where we go to worship or pay homage to our information-disseminators. There are no festivals celebrating builders, or people who sell cooked and flavoured corn on street corners. But we celebrate writers. And for this reason, for those who feel compelled to write, we also open ourselves to frustration when we are engaged in an activity where the symbolic stakes have been set so high. Hence also the peculiar, almost intimate disappointment of finding ourselves the celebrant but never the celebrated, the bridgegroom never the bride.

Larkin uses the word “sad” to describe this state of affairs, but another word for this, even if opening ourselves to accusations of hyperbole, might be “tragic”. Adam Phillips in his essay “On Frustration” begins with the assertion that:

“Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic. In comedies people get something of what they want, but in tragedies people often discover that their wanting doesn’t work, and as the story unfolds they get less and less of what they thought they wanted. Indeed, both what they want and how they go about wanting it wreaks havoc and ultimately destroys the so-called tragic hero and, of course, his enemies and accomplices. Whether it is called ambition, the quest for love, or the search for truth, tragedies expose, to put it as simply as possible, what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like…. Tragic heroes are failed pragmatists. Their ends are unrealistic and their means are impractical.”

Phillips is very good on how this state affairs might hold within it the plangent sadness that Larkin so exquisitely captures at the end of this poem:

“Lives are tragic not merely when people can’t have everything they want but when their wanting mutilates them; when what they want entails an unbearable loss.”

One gets the sense, which is often the case with Larkin, that his frustrations have “mutilated” him to some degree, that there is “an unbearable loss” which he, and perhaps we who identify with the poem, don’t entirely understand. Perhaps this is because “it is extremely difficult to feel one’s frustration, to locate, however approximately, what it might be that one is frustrated by or about”. To dwell on or in our frustrations as Larkin does in “Writing” is to often come across to others as carping or infantile. Which perhaps hints at the developmental challenge we all face with regard to writing, money, sex, or whatever else it is that frustrates us.

Phillips as ever, turns to literature (King Lear) and Freud (‘Formulations on the Two Principles of Psychic Functioning’) to make sense of this.

In Freud’s 1911 essay, he presents an image of the psyche in a state of equilibrium which then becomes “disrupted” by the urgent demands of inner needs which unsettle and disturb us. The infant, aware of its hunger, fantasises that which might satisfy its hunger. She discovers however, when the wished for meal is eaten -the book or article written and published- that it is often only an approximation of what she dreamt up in her fantasy. It is this disillusionment though which leads us to making a somewhat uneasy peace with reality, which some would say denotes psychological maturity. Freud called this state of affairs The Reality Principle.

Phillips singles out three consecutive frustrations that lead potentially to The Reality Principle: “the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasised satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasised satisfaction. Three frustrations, three disturbances, and two disillusionments. It is, what has been called in a different context, a cumulative trauma; the cumulative trauma of desire. And this is when it works.”

Intensely sad? Yes, and whether “intensely” so or not probably depends on all sorts of other factors. But it is also “intensely real”. ““And reality matters,” argues Phillips, “because it is the only thing that can satisfy us. We are tempted, initially, to be self-satisfying creatures, to live in a fantasy world, to live in our minds, but the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality, which are themselves frustrating; but only in the sense that they are disparate from, not in accord with, our wished-for satisfactions (the most satisfying pleasures are the surprising ones, the ones that can’t be engineered).”

Phillips then says something which I think curmedgeonly Larkin would have loved him for writing. I certainly love him for writing this, for the validating balm of his response when applied to all our frustrated, not-getting-what-we-want petulance: “How could we ever be anything other than permanently enraged?”

This also points to why Larkin poetry will continue to be read, regardless of the “unwoke” reputation that has now been assigned to him. Larkin’s poetry will persist because he resists in this poem and others the standard narrative of the twentieth century, and of my profession too, which is that you can change yourself from the inside out and vice-versa if only you make the right kind of effort to do so.

Larkin was once asked if he might have been happier, to which he answered: “Yes, but not without being somebody else.” One senses that the intense sadness he experiences at the end of the poem is not however going to result in him establishing a fundamentally different relationship to his writing or himself, but that rather he has decided to throw in his lot with the Freudian reality principle, and so take his chances with “common unhappiness” rather than “hysterical misery”: pragmatically, regretfully, maybe even a little tragically, but with open eyes.


Oh, and by the way, just in case you’re not a Larkin aficionado, Phillip Larkin never wrote a poem called Writing. He did however write a poem called Money. But as I am not as frustrated by the symbolic fiction of money as I am by writing (Harari: “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, or writing, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”) I altered a couple of words to make it more applicable to my own frustrations. I don’t think if Larkin were he here today, he would have terribly minded, do you?