gall and gumption

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Over at Alicublog, a site that does book chat every once in a while, I stuck my oar into an argument about Philip Larkin:

Here's my comment:

Larkin was, it seems to me, a pretty typical provincial British xenophobe, and he had a perverse streak that went along with it -- he liked to shock people. He has never seemed to me to be an advocate for anything except his own personal quirks and preferences (and public libraries). A lot of his poetry and his other writing are about the fact that he didn't really expect anyone else to share his feelings about anything.

I think the comment was meant to be more about his own taste in jazz than about civil rights. Hate to bring my own carcass into it but as a black woman I've never found Larkin's racist expressions in his letters interfere much with the interest I find in his poems. I'm interested in him as a craftsman and as a person who pays attention to the texture of certain experiences that interest me as well. I haven't seen anything in his writing to suggest that he would find my interest less important than my skin color. Plus, I have a weakness for odd cranky people like him. There's no need to take his privately expressed adolescent clowning on these attitudes personally. Not much of a reader of Andrew Sullivan, I would guess that the first person to laugh at the idea that there was some deeper political subtext to Larkin's remark would probably be Larkin himself.

Larkin's remark was meant to be a joke on the fringes of good taste. That is a realm of humor where the British, for one, are a lot more comfortable than Americans.

As for the idea that there needs to be a political explanation for Larkin's taste in jazz and it must necessarily be bound up with embracing a new political or aesthetic consciousness, per DJH:

It is important to see that Larkin is taking a stance that was typical of the generation of critics that ridiculed the emergent sounds of be-bop and urban blues, in preference for the more familiar harmonies of the earlier eras of jazz and blues.

This stance was marked, not only by its failure to grasp the internal dynamic of development of the musical form taking place before their eyes (ears), but also the intimate connection between the music and its cultural and social context from the very beginning.

Jeebus on a scooter! If I had to put this load of responsibility on all my mere small harmless essential pleasures (listening to old Cuban music or Mozart in my car) my life would be even more depressing than it is. Besides, all the arts work so much more interestingly than that, even the art that DJH is attempting to defend from Larkin; to imply that early jazz was "merely" entertainment" or didn't have political significance seems really strange to me. It's political in a more subtle and effective sense than "message" art. When you hear the trombone positively leering in Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues," you are not hearing a message calling for sexual liberation, you are hearing the sound of liberated sex, it's rubbing up against your ears and inviting you to own up to your own nasty thoughts. This isn't a speech or message, it's the deed, done, the revolution occurring in your own flesh. That's something, I am sure, that Larkin was smart enough to have understood about early jazz. It is not Larkin who is trivializing early jazz as "mere entertainment."

If Larkin couldn't take to new forms of jazz, well, for many people, musical history simply stops somewhere about their mid-twenties. They look back at the music of adolescence and early adulthood as a sort of peak from which it's all downhill thenceforth. Larkin, who held the same job for his entire life and lived in the same residence and never got married and objected to change on just about every single front on which it approached, was not the man to take up a new form and a new sound that brought no pleasure simply because of some obligation to "grasp the internal dynamic." That phrase alone would have brought out his sharpest tools of ridicule. He had views about the use of language, as well as about jazz. A positive preference is not necessarily a failure to grasp something else. It is always a mistake to underestimate the value and significance of pleasure as a component of the experience of any art. It's not the whole thing but there would be no thing at all without it.

The poster DJH whose comments I made rather mild fun of, I thought, responded in shall we say an oh too familiar fashion.

If there is any ridicule to be dispensed here, it is better directed at Larkin himself who is reported (by his good friend Alistair Cook [sic]) to have “called Thelonious Monk ‘the elephant on the keyboard’ " (“Letter from America”, BBC broadcast, 12/24/01).

As for your own taste in music and, for that matter, poetry, feel free to continue to revel in whatever groove gives you your “small harmless essential pleasures”. That really tells us nothing of substance or worthy of note about the broader landscape out there which, in the case of jazz, continues to undergo an extraordinary dynamic of development.

And if you are one of those people for whom, as you seem to admire so much, “musical history simply stops somewhere about their mid-twenties”, then you simply rule yourself out of any informed discussion of the subject.

Actually, it’s telling that you would seek to drag into this discussion your skin color “as a black woman”, as if that somehow provides you a prop of authority on the issues involved here. I, as a black man, would find it quite distasteful to have to rely on that crutch.

Where to begin on something like this? Whether to begin at all? You have to have a lot of educational investment to be dense in this particular way.


At 12:57 AM, Blogger Jessica Klarkson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Bob Blaisdell said...

Dear KP,
I'm glad you're writing again. I like the Larkin piece. Your squawker reminds me of our graduate school fiends. (Yes, "fiends.")
I want to read about anger, but I still can't read Jane Eyre without wanting to run screaming from the room.

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