“For a chap with a face like a butternut squash, the voice of a clinically depressed I-Speak-Your-Weight machine, the joie de vivre of a Southend clam and the swashbuckling sex appeal of Lord Irvine of Lairg, the late Philip Larkin still manages to generate excitement.”
“the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
Those final two lines from Bishop’s ‘One Art’ stick in my mind with greater adhesive force than perhaps any other couplet in existence. This is partly of course, because it rhymes and is therefore fast-tracked to the memory banks. More importantly however, I have always seen ‘One Art’ as a fascinating and cynical insight to the creative process.
The poem can indeed be interpreted as being about ‘dealing with loss’ and getting over the upset of bereavement (the first draft appears around 8 years after the suicide of her partner of 15 years, Lota de Macedo Soares). However, I have always read the poem as being a more sardonic piece of advice for how to be a Writer™ – Bishop is not telling us how to deal with loss, but rather how to cultivate ‘loss’ as a key ingredient of our lives so that our biographers have something to write about; ‘Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.’
This clearly wasn’t Bishop’s actual take on how to be a good writer, which can probably better be summed up in her letter to Miss Pierson (written the same year as the first draft of ‘One Art’):
“Read a lot of poetry – all the time – and not 20th-century poetry. Read Campion, Herbert, Pope, Tennyson, Coleridge – anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past – until you find out what you really like, by yourself.”
What I think Bishop does hit upon in ‘One Art’ however, is a mantra which will lead you to the lifestyle that we want from our poets and artists in posterity. We want our poets to be ‘nowhere man, living in his nowhere land’, ‘losing farther, losing faster; places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel.’ We want our poets destructive, promiscuous, libertine and obnoxious as they burn out young and hit an untimely death, leaving behind a world that never really understood them.
Consider some of the films that have been made about poets and the slant which they put on their lives:
The Libertine (2004 – dir. Laurence Dunmore)
Johnny Depp is the 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot. He uses his mixture of charisma and poetic ability to go round having it right off with every woman who will stand still long enough to hear a few of his couplets. He is obnoxious, treats his friends awfully, has copious amounts of sex with everyone but his wife and keeps getting banished and given second chances by King Charles. He uses his potent artistic acumen to rear the actress/prostitute Lizzy Barry as a star of the stage whilst having a goodly amount of sex with her. It is also suggested that at some point, he has had sexual dealings with his mother. He dies of syphilis.
Shakespeare in Love (1998 – John Madden)
A young Shakespeare moves to London and has corporeal relationships with more prostitutes than you can shake a quill at. As the film opens however, Shakespeare is wracked with impotence, which should in no way be attributed to feelings of guilt over his wife back in Stratford. Luckily, a sort of Elizabethan psychotherapist helps him get his erection back and as a happy coincidence he ends up writing the greatest love story of all time.
The Edge of Love (2008 – dir. John Maybury)
Dylan Thomas is an obnoxious drunk who goes round poncing money off his mates and having it off with everyone. WWI veteran, William Killick finally has enough of Thomas trying to get his wife Under his Milky Wood and takes a gun to the guy’s house for a good old fashioned game of ‘shooting up the house of the guy that keeps trying to have sex with my missus.’ Rather than leave it there, Thomas tries to get the guy done for attempted murder, unsuccessfully. The film ends with a petulant, defeated Thomas sat in his car, presumably thinking about how to fit in a quick pint and an extra-marital fumble before dinner without his wife noticing.
Sylvia (2003 – dir. Christine Jeffs)
Young American poet, Sylvia Plath becomes increasingly frumpy and nobody really takes her seriously as a poet. Her husband on the other hand – well there’s another story. Everyone loves Ted Hughes and, being a poet, he goes around having it off with everyone. Plath has a bash at living la vida poetica and tries to initiate a bit of sex with Alvarez. Big Al is having none of this however, kicks Plath to the curb and proceeds directly to tell Hughes about what just went down.
Il Postino (1994 – dir. Michael Radford)
Postman, Mario, wants desperately to sweep a beautiful lady from his Italian village off her feet but he just doesn’t have the moves. Luckily for him however, Pablo Neruda shows up and teaches him the ancient art of conning women into finding funny-looking men attractive – poetry. As if to prove this point, we see a few shots of Neruda (who is depicted as a bit like a Hispanic Hitchcock) dancing with his super-hot wife. A few poems later and Mario is well and truly in there with the ladies and manages to land the girl of his dreams.
Gothic (1986 – dir. Ken Russell)
What happens when you get a handful of the most important poets of the Romantic Era together in Lord Byron’s castle? They all take drugs and have sex with each other, obviously.
The problem I have about the weird sub-genre of film – ‘Poet Biopics’ is that cinema and poetry are fiercely at odds with one another in many fundamental ways (although, as Cecil Day Lewis once wrote, cinema and the art of editing has trained generations of readers how to become more skilled at making the leap from one image to the next).
Films are money-spinners; there is no money in poetry. Cinema requires some form of spectacle; reading and writing poetry is just about the quietest, most introspective meditational act imaginable. Films require an audience; poetry’s audience is, relatively speaking, a specialist interest niche. Films require characters; poets often take great pains to remove all traces of their own personality from their work.
With these tensions in mind, no wonder that biography and cinema seems to propagate this image of the male poet as a strange anarchic creature comprised of nothing but an erection and a middle finger, barking abusive comments at everyone he comes across whilst spilling his tortured autistic genius onto the page. I’m thinking here of that bastion of historical accuracy, The Tudors (late noughties BBC costume-porn about Henry VIII and his roving ways). Did anyone else see the bit where Henry and Anne Boleyn are celebrating their much-postponed marriage at court when we are briefly shown a cutaway to Thomas Wyatt sat looking moody at the banquet and muttering to his friend “for the record – I did fuck her!”
With this in mind, I have prepared a brief synopsis of the biopic for the life of Philip Larkin which will hopefully gain more attention to the (impossible to get hold of) BBC piece, Love Again (2003) which made the schoolboy error of going down the ‘honest, understated’ route. Here is where I would go with the project:
Larkin ‘til the Break of Dawn (2012, dir. Phil Brown)
Young, obnoxious and promiscuous poet, Phil Larkin, meets an enchanting exotic dancer in a gentleman’s club called ‘Skunk Hour’. As it transpires, this woman is a lesbian (her name is Lizzy Bishop) but Larkin is able to scribe metaphors so potent and seductive that Lizzy gives up her job as a lesbian stripper and becomes an award-winning poet (under Larkin’s tutelage). Disaster strikes when Larkin is enlisted to fight in the Vietnam war and Bishop’s affections turn to the draft-dodging Robert Lowell. Whilst fighting overseas however, Larkin forms a close friendship with Private Berryman. The two spend their evenings getting stoned and writing poems and learning more about each-other and themselves. Larkin soon falls in love with the Vietnamese prostitute, Emily Dickinson and is distraught when he realises that he is responsible for the destruction of her village in a napalm strike. Returning to New Hull at the end of the conflict, wracked with guilt, Larkin wins critical acclaim by writing The Wasteland.
To avoid the efforts taken in having to do such a dramatic recasting of a life story, could I ask any poets reading this to please do the honourable thing and make sure that your life has involved at least one love-triangle, a traumatic experience and a high-profile world-event at some point. I promise you it isn’t hard to master, even though it may look like disaster.