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The Old Fools -- Philip Larkin

Guest poem submitted by Radhika Gowaikar:
(Poem #1968) The Old Fools
 What do they think has happened, the old fools,
 To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
 It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
 And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
 Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
 They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
 Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
 Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
 And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
 Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
 Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
                        Why aren't they screaming?

 At death you break up: the bits that were you
 Start speeding away from each other for ever
 With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
 We had it before, but then it was going to end,
 And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
 To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
 Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
 There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
 Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
 Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
 Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
                        How can they ignore it?

 Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
 Inside your head, and people in them, acting
 People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
 Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
 Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
 A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
 The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
 The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
 Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
 Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
 Not here and now, but where all happened once.
                        This is why they give

 An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
 Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
 Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
 Of taken breath, and them crouching below
 Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
 How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
 The peak that stays in view wherever we go
 For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
 What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
 Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
 The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
                        We shall find out.
-- Philip Larkin
The last two poems brought to mind this one. As in some of his other
poems, Larkin starts brashly, perhaps even offensively. But by the time
he is done we are given an intimate view of what it must be like to
"have lighted rooms / Inside your head" and "trying to be there / Yet
being here." The analogy of death with a "peak" is quite unusual (I am
sure I have never seen it before) and works perfectly with "the constant
wear and tear / Of taken breath." The last line is pure Larkin. It is
rather a long poem, but we are in good hands. Do read it aloud.

--
radhika.

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