LYRIC COMPANIONS Larkin “The Card Players”

CONTEXT There is a second aspect: not only the porosity as an open field of interplay but also the determinacy of being enfleshed—this too is an embodied singularization of being between. What is to be stressed is the communicability with otherness in that embodiment itself. This is already there in the happening of the aesthetic environment, but we know this more intimately in ourselves, though not in any sense separable from aesthetics of happening as such. Flesh is the porosity on the threshold of wording. In the flesh the porosity of being comes to aesthetic wording. William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 255.

Milosz’s headnote contrasts Larkin’s misanthropy and the unalloyed good humor of this poem. Is that a stretch? Misanthropy may seem self-indulgent during a pandemic; on the other hand, perhaps it’s a protest against the ravaging of flesh by the virus.

Flesh has become a symbolic word in contemporary thought, and Desmond is no exception. Flesh opens the threshold to communication. Larkin’s poem is full of fleshy bits. Pissing and farting. The tavern is a reconfiguration of Plato’s cave in The Republic: it is a way into the wet flowing luminous darkness of the human self. Larkin’s misanthropy is fed by an incognito Puritanism.

The flesh is a porous between, , to use Desmond’s phenomenological terminology. The poem starts with the names as expressions of his vision. Hogspeuw. Dogstoerd. Prijck.

Larkin’s signature craft is itself a ground of this abyss. His narrative follows the lyric narrative through its Augustinian twists and turns, out to in, down to up, in a spiral that takes us to the edge of this particular between and, surprisingly beyond.

Outside there’s rain, more rain, and mud. And piss. Inside, there’s more beer making more piss; there’s smoke and heat and the sonorities of scraps, animal songs, belching, snoring. Love songs reach the rafters as the lyric narrative makes its way up and maybe out. Inside, the human pastime of cards; outside, in an expansive image typical of Larkin’s choreography, “Wet century-wide trees/Clash in surrounding starlessness above/This lamplit cave” reminding us once again of the foundations of the lyric in Plato’s myth.

The lyric narrative doesn’t leave us where it finds us. Taking us to the edge of things, Larkin elegantly summarizes Jan’s world, then goes one better.

Yes the elements, “Rain, wind and fire!” But there’s more: “The secret, beastial peace!” Hyperbolic exclamation marks illuminate like sporadic lightning on that dark night a vision of the intimate universal, parodic perhaps of the Platonic and Augustinian and Dantesque Other Love but not incoherent, not dark but luminous. In Milosz’s words, “It’s just humor, not irony or sarcasm, and that is good.”

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: