Poetry editor Nicole Grimaldi reflects on the pleasures of rereading Philip Larkin's "Sad Steps." Though nothing can truly recreate the first experience of reading our early influences, of the poem "digested raw, while one still lacks ... deciphering poetic consciousness," we can still find "glimpses" of those first encounters in every rereading.
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.
Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)
High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
I’ve heard several artists claim that the literature they deem “definitive” or inextricable from their own creative cultivation consists principally of the literature read when they were young. Many contend that the books or poems found and loved in one’s youth are among the primary works an artist engages with and returns to again and again. Perhaps these works become prominent enough, even, to impact an artist’s creative interests, so that they spend a lifetime responding, or failing to respond to, their early influences. It seems to me that clinging to one’s early influences has to do with something besides just the affecting quality of the work. Beyond what the specific content or form or style of a given piece provokes in a young reader, the works discovered in youth also represent, more largely, a period of self-discovery—a coming-to-consciousness, an early recognition about what literature can do, and a bafflement regarding the question of how literature does what it can do. Casting back to the poems that have been important to me, I find this cliché to be rather true of my experience. Not that there aren’t poems I’ve discovered recently that I appreciate and that inform my work. And of course, as one’s critical apparatus fortifies, the experience of reading and interpreting a poem becomes a more complicated, considerate operation. Still, perhaps the poems of one’s youth are all the more startling in part because they are digested raw, while one still lacks this deciphering poetic consciousness. Not knowing how a poem works certainly imbues it with a sort of mystery, a sort of magic. Before becoming privy to how the musicality, meter, and various rhetorical devices are orchestrated in the balancing-act of poetic choice-making, or before this becomes explicit, the act of reading a poem is so much more felt than form.
In the spirit of honouring the poems that contributed to my early love of literature, I recently revisited Philip Larkin’s “Sad Steps.” This is a poem I first read in high school, and was forced to memorize and recite as an undergraduate student. It occupies, along with another few Larkin poems (“High Windows” and “The Whitsun Weddings” among them) a small, ever-advising space in my brain. Interestingly, I’ve never thought too hard about the poem critically—it always felt like a violent act to parse apart or discuss it. But looking at it now, I recognize the simultaneous loss and gain that comes with perceiving a long-loved poem with newly-acquired editor eyes: a deepened appreciation for its brilliant nuances, and the cruel inability to not inquire into every stylistic choice and ask oneself “is this working, and if so, why?”
The first stanza of “Sad Steps” begins in an ambiguous space. There is the initial Larkinian hook—the “groping back to bed after a piss”— which almost always sets his poems up for what I’d dub (personally, non-critically) a “transcendental movement,” beginning with an image of the crude quotidian and permitting a poetic reach which nearly always proffers a form of eventual redemptive meditation (usually culminating in one climactic swoop toward the end of the poem). In catching sight of the sky outside, he is “startled,” but it isn’t clear if the nature of this shock is positive or negative, painful or enjoyable. Shock tends to serve this function in poems I’ve read of late—in momentarily suspending the thought and the feeling, it permits the poem to offer several reactions as possibilities before deciding (or not deciding) the tone. “The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness” resonates (for reasons of our tradition, likely) as an aesthetically pleasing image, but we are nonetheless dangling in a space that is at once the degraded human (“Groping back to bed after a piss”) and the celestial awe-inspiring (“The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness”), waiting to follow the speaker down one path or the other. The speaker comes down in the next stanza to subvert the more Romantic suggestion, calling the scene “laughable.” (Aside: I find the compound “wind-picked” very interesting; it is as though the sky is depleted somehow, picked over by wind. Wind, even as an element of nature bound to the sky, is somehow distinct enough from it to tax or overwork it. It captures the sort of boredom, the tedium of a cavernous sky turned on itself, exhausted even in its natural, non-human wonder). This laughable element is the speaker’s driving force: it guides him through the poem and like a knife insists on hacking up the scene’s agreeability, much like the “rapid clouds,” loose “cannon-smoke,” and “wedge-shadowed gardens” do the sky and ground.
The “cannon-smoke” simile suggests that the speaker imposes a sort of violence on the landscape, as though he wishes to vitiate it; he wants (needs?) to find it laughable. I think we are meant to feel the tension between the speaker’s insistence that the scene is laughable, and his incapacity to see it as such—or perhaps his tendency to see it as beautiful. He works to eschew the Romantic impulse to worship the sky, to stand in awe of it, but then appropriates the Romantics’ stylistic conventions (the superfluous metaphor, the grand address) in a tongue-in-cheek way that doesn’t detract entirely from his choice to employ them. Or perhaps it’s a suggestion about the way we can’t slough off such traditions and the way we are always, to some degree, imprisoned by them.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker claims we are divorced from the moon, not one with it. It is “high and… separate” but also “preposterous”! Next come the stronger, aggrandized addresses (“Lozenge of love! Medallion of art! / O wolves of memory! Immensements!”)—at this point so ironic as to nearly negate the irony upon utterance, leaving a strained sincerity. I’m not sure an argument can be made for this, but to regress for a moment to a child’s-eye view of the poem, that’s how I feel about it—that the poem gestures to a place where the weight of irony cannot support itself any longer, and collapses into a vulnerability: an inadvertent expression. The fourth stanza is representative of this. It is so desperately spoofish that it cuts past its own irony, revealing the depth of the speaker’s desperate desire to ridicule the scene even while feeling a growing meditation or poetic recognition due to it.
The use of the term “Immensements” interests me because it is not technically an English word. There is the French word, “immensément,”—an adverb meaning “immensely.” Larkin thus nouns a French adverb. If we nouned the English adverb, it would read: “Immenselies” (provocative in its own right). I’m sure critics have made more “sense” of this choice, but it reads to me like a stylistic one—a semantic bend to evoke the precise connotation, music, or feeling sought by the poet. Further, “Immensements!” has a fitting mock-authority about it, especially as a stand-alone exclamation. Directly after this catalogue of addresses follows a haunting line break: “No, / One shivers slightly…” I occasionally wonder how long Larkin hung over that comma. My sense is that he sat there for ages deciding whether or not to put it down. Ideally, it would flicker. I think about that sometimes; poets should be permitted flickering punctuation points. I suppose that’s quite possible, these days.
This ambiguous line-break can mean two things: 1) “No,” I hereby negate all that came before and affirm that “One shivers slightly…” or 2) I hereby claim, elusively, that “No, / One shivers slightly, looking up there.” Except, wait, shush. The young! They do. And it is for them, and not the jaded-speaker, that the scene means. For the speaker it is a husk, no longer offering him the strength of feeling, or the pain of feeling. It means for him only insofar that he recognizes it means for others, those for whom it is not “gone” but for whom it is “undiminished somewhere.” And so, the poem asserts an even greater irony, maybe in the truer sense of the word— in knowing by not feeling what those, who are feeling, do not know. The poem thus embodies a tense dynamic, capturing a state of awareness and unawareness simultaneously: the poem’s consciousness has youth’s unconsciousness nested within it.
Finally, once the speaker is divorced or removed from that instantaneous feeling that the young experience when looking up at the moon (be it the fullness of strength or pain), a palpable wistfulness drowns the space between speaker and landscape. We feel the prescient power of the speaker’s recognition of the feeling, won only in his distance from and longing for the feeling.
In reading the poem as an adult, I doubly feel the speaker’s nostalgia. My increasing consciousness about the poem’s operations is still undergirded by my early reading of the poem, before I was aware of all its nuances and tricks. My youth’s full, feeling, forgiving unconsciousness is diminished now, but I recall a glimpse of it in every rereading, including its very different reasons for liking this poem. The poem becomes a gathering place for my past and present selves, much like the poem itself becomes a gathering place for the speaker’s past and present selves as he negotiates the divide between youth and adulthood. My two selves meet in the poem, though, in a space of shared passion—as I still love the poem as much now as I did then.
Philip Larkin's full biography and poems can be found on the website of The Poetry Foundation.
Nicole Grimaldi is a poetry editor for echolocation. She writes poetry and fiction, and will graduate with an MA in English with a Creative Writing Thesis from the University of Toronto this June.