56: “Why Be Out Here” (Philip Larkin)

“Reasons For Attendance”
                Philip Larkin

The trumpet’s voice, loud and authoritative,
Draws me a moment to the lighted glass
To watch the dancers – all under twenty-five –
Solemnly on the beat of happiness.

– Or so I fancy, sensing the smoke and sweat,
The wonderful feel of girls. Why be out here?
But then, why be in there? Sex, yes, but what
Is sex? Surely to think the lion’s share
Of happiness is found by couples – sheer

Inaccuracy, as far as I’m concerned.
What calls me is that lifted, rough-tongued bell
(Art, if you like) whose individual sound
Insists I too am individual.
It speaks; I hear; others may hear as well,

But not for me, nor I for them; and so
With happiness. Therefor I stay outside,
Believing this, and they maul to and fro,
Believing that; and both are satisfied,
If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.

                Larkin tells the story of walking past a nightclub and hearing the music from inside. I’ve always imagined it as jazz. He looks in, and sees people dancing. For a moment he wonders why he’s out here on the street, instead of in there on the dance floor. (Larkin was famously single for most of his life). The most common reason (he suggests) is sex: the license to touch another warm body, press close, move together. The promise of pairing up into couples. In Larkin’s mind, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the star toward which he grows. There are other lights above us. Trees have only one sun, and they grow toward it all their lives; we get to choose our own. Larkin chooses art: “the individual sound” that “insists I too am individual.” He chooses the experience of mind made into music, made a particular: he wants the ripples and waves of a moment in time made solid as a stone and thrown into the water of the world. This moment, now, singing. That’s what he loves. That’s the star he grows toward.
                When we ask why, why, why in our lives–why do you want to study hard…why do you want to get into a good college…why do you want to marry her–we’re asking for one of the stars we’ve chosen as a guiding point of our growth. If we asked Larkin, he might come back to this: one basic why for him is the pursuit of art. He could choose something else: religion, or sex, or family, or money. We can choose whatever we want, and in pursuing it, perhaps, we’ll be “satisfied”–so long as we choose something that makes room for all our branches, for the depth of our roots. So long as we choose a star that shines on soil where we can truly grow.  Sometimes we misjudge that star: we pick something that seems to shine but will twist us up inside. Sometimes, in trying to imitate another’s life, or scared that we don’t know, we lie. When we do that, our leaves find shadows, our roots find stones.
                I hope we can support each other as we find our own soil. I hope we can help hold the space for those we love to grow. And, having listened to others, having been guided just a bit by their wisdom and their love, I hope we each on our own remember to choose what star we believe is our sun.

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