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Father’s Day; Church Going

June 17, 2011 | by

Dear Lorin:
Father’s Day is coming up, and this year I want to get my dad something he’ll actually read. The last three books I am certain he has read are: something by George Pelecanos,
Lush Life by Richard Price, and certainly something by Sue Grafton. What would be something different, but not too different?

Bryant? My long-lost half-brother? Can it really be you?

On the theory that our fathers are the same person, I would recommend Pete Dexter, Scott Spencer, the oft-mentioned-in-this-column Elmore Leonard, and maybe most of all The Main, by Trevanian, about which I remember almost nothing except that Dad lent it to me once when I was home sick and said it was really good. (And that I liked it, too.)

Dear Paris Review,
I have been struggling to understand the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” for a month or so. The more I think about it, the more I doubt my thoughts. Could someone please help give an explication of the stanza? I’m having problems answering bigger and smaller questions—for example, why is the air “blent”? Who is recognizing “our compulsions”? And why are they “robed as destinies”? And by whom are they robed? And to what is “that” referring in the line “that much can never be obsolete”? The final two lines baffle me as well. I’m sorry. Usually I am a very good close reader, but I have failed with this one. Please help. —Caroline Grey

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

P.S. It wouldn’t hurt to remind your readers how to read poetry well. Consider this a general service, too.

Thank you for sending me back to “Church Going.” I enjoyed rereading it and thinking about it again. I’m afraid these (very rudimentary, very literal-minded) answers will have occurred to you, but here is where I’d start:

1) The air is blended in the sense that it holds, in solution, a mixture of smells and associations (see stanza five). But why “blent”? Why such an archaic, literary word? At the very beginning of the poem, when the speaker walks into the church, he finds a “tense, musty, unignorable silence / Brewed God knows how long.” (Get it, God knows?) By the end of the poem, that defensive, jokey tone is gone. The speaker is trying to make his language live up to the dignity he sees in the church. That’s how it strikes me, anyway.

(Here and throughout, Larkin makes a big deal of the church as container. He starts off by wondering about the roof, how old it is and whether it’s in good repair. He associates the end of “superstition” with the caving-in of the roof, when all that’s left is “Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.” He calls the church a “special shell,” and so on.)

2) Who is recognizing our compulsions? Yes. Exactly. I think this question goes straight to the heart of the poem. If there is no one in the church (no God, no clergy, no belief, no superstition), then there is no one to recognize our compulsions. There is no one to call them sins and forgive them. No one to take them seriously. No promise that we will be rewarded or punished for what we do or given a “destiny” that is special to ourselves.

3) Why “robed”? We tend to think of robes as royal or ceremonial garments and as symbols of redemption: “Lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-10). To take our compulsions (a quasimedical term borrowed from psychiatry) and robe them as destinies is to ... well, you can decide what that might mean, no?

4) By “that much,” I think Larkin means the feeling that the church is “a serious house on serious earth.” In the last lines of the poem he tries to explain this feeling—or at least say where it comes from.

Again, these are just places you might start. My next question would probably have to do with the tone of that last stanza. Is there something not quite serious about that line “A serious house on serious earth it is”? Is there something wishful, and ironic, about “blent”? And so on. Another reader might ask how much the last lines had to do with churches and how much with poems about churches. Both readers would be asking questions, not just about what’s on the page, but about their own biases and interests and ... compulsions.

So, as for your most general question—how to read poetry well—I have no idea, except to pay attention to the specific words on the page, and the implied tone of voice, and to think about what you read. Just what you’re doing. It sounds childish to say, but one thing I like about poems is that you are allowed to stare at them, and think about them, for as long as you like. In this sense, they resemble slow movies, or portraits, or nudes, or most of what we think of as art: poems give you permission to pay attention to a degree that would be rude or embarrassing face to face with, for example, a person.

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  1. Lorin Stein | June 19, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    P.S. I just realized I never tried to answer your last question, about the poem’s last lines. I suspect that what’s confusing you is the word “ground”: it is odd to talk about growing wise “in” some ground.

    Larkin is using “ground” in a few ways at once. Mainly by “ground” he means the church — as if to say the church will keep being a church, even after it does lose roof and walls. I think he is also using the word in a more abstract sense — “ground” in the sense of starting point, or matrix; in the sense of being (spiritually) grounded. Finally, it seems to me, he means ground in the sense of earth: the stuff the dead “lie round” in, the stuff we all go back to.

    If, however, you are confused by that very last line — if you want to know why having a graveyard on hand might help people grow wise — then I think your confusion has led you, once again, deep into the poem (and beyond my pay grade)!

  2. Dyspeptic Owl | June 20, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Philip Larkin writing about the poem in a letter to Monica Jones, 10 August 1954:

    “The most important emotion [of the poem] — the church as a place where people came to be serious, were _always_ serious, & all their different forms of seriousness came to be intermingled, so that a christening reminded of a funeral & a funeral of a wedding: nowadays these things happen in different buildings & the marvellous ‘blent air’ of a church is growing rarer — this emotion I feel does not come out nearly strong enough. However, I don’t know what can be done about it now.”

  3. jsc | June 27, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Dear Lorin:

    I like these answers. A church no longer amply populated by devout parishioners is no less amply populated by questions and compulsion, hungers, echoes.

    What makes a house a church, and not just an empty building? How can the emptiness resonate like a holy container, rather than the absence of crowds?

    The words that prompt Caroline’s questions seem perhaps designed to resonate these shifts and transformations in an understated way. They put us in a drama of blent air, robed participants, recognitions (all of which would have been there literally, differently, in the past), make us register the difference in the present (compulsions & questions instead of embodied church goers) — but also encourage us to see what persists both in spite and because of that change.

    It moves us from the architectural space of the church to the internal space of the “hunger in himself.”

    It reminds me a bit of Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons.” Also set in a seemingly empty church, wondering about the transformations in the air. “When it comes, the Landscape listens– / Shadows — hold their breath — / When it goes, ’tis like the Distance / On the look of Death –”

    That “Distance” is both absence and amplitude.

    Does this make sense?


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