Seth’s Favorite Poems, SPECIAL EDITION: Philip Larkin’s “The Old Fools”

Last week, I posted Larkin’s “Home is So Sad” and indicated that it is in a three-way tie for my favorite poem of all time.  I will now post the second poem in that tie, also by Philip Larkin, and it is called “The Old Fools”.  Now, if I was being quite honest with myself and everybody, I’d probably admit that “The Old Fools” is in fact my favorite poem, but I’m not ready for that level of honesty yet.

Why won’t I admit “The Old Fools” is my #1?  I suppose because, like most Larkin, it is extremely cynical.  But I can’t help it; this poem is incredible, and from the first time I read it well over a decade ago, it has influenced my own poetry probably twice as much as any other poem; every poem I write–no matter the subject matter–I judge against “The Old Fools”.  I could write a term paper right here on why it’s so good, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

If you’ve made it this far, may I at least suggest you read the poem a few times, as there’s a lot going on here.  The theme of mortality is interspersed with bits on memory, human frailty, the after-life (or before-life) and various other common Larkin themes (which generally boil down to the general futility of everything).  Each stanza blows my mind in unique ways.

The reason I labelled this a “special edition” is because I felt the need to post the audio of myself reading this poem.  I feel as though I read this poem better than I read any other poem in the world–my own poems included.  I must have read this poem aloud, to myself, hundreds and hundreds of times.  There is so much incredible rhythm and stress and intensity of meaning, it’s more fun to read “The Old Fools” than it is to sing Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumper”.  In addition—and here’s some blasphemy—I think I read it even better than Larkin did.  In the existing recording of his reading, he seems too calm; to me there is a sad urgency (and an extreme judgmentalism) to how this poem is read; he reads it sleepily.  (although there is also an eerie sense of calm and knowing in his reading, too)  So, I have posted the following underneath this paragraph:  the text of the poem, my audio version, and a YouTube audio-only of Larkin himself reading it.  I hope at least one person falls in love with Larkin’s style after this (and somone better, because Lord knows I’ve lifted enough of it into my own style!).  Anyway, here it all is, and we’ll be back to the normal unobtrusive poems with next week’s entry (which will, by the way, will be the third in my three-way tie for favortie poem):

The Old Fools
by Philip Larkin
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 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 you 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.


And here is a recording of ME reading it:

And here is the author himself, Philip Larkin, reading it:

9 Responses to “Seth’s Favorite Poems, SPECIAL EDITION: Philip Larkin’s “The Old Fools””

  1. I haven’t listened to either audio yet–I must say I’m a tad stunned into silence by the poem. Wow.

  2. It is an amazing poem. Listening to both read it…jeez this is an amazing way to start my day. Thank you, Seth.

  3. Exquisite! I can deffinately hear whispers of this poem in your work, and it’s not hard to see why. This poem remarkable for so many reasons. I agree that there is enough going on in these 4 stanzas to write a thesis on. Fear of aging and death is universal, but the thing about this poem that really resonates with me is how Larkin magnifies that emotion so much that he seems almost angry at the elderly for being so. It’s like he’s looking at an old person and seeing his own mortality being reflected back at him, and he can’t stand it. He’s so bothered the fact that the elderly aren’t absolutely flipping the fuck out about being old that he implies that he needs to believe aging must have been a conscious choice they made. I love the intensity with which he rails against their existance in the beginnning, and then gradually tries to understand their experience in the middle, and finally comes to accept the bleak yet unavoidable mystery of death at the end. This poem is one hell of a ride, and you’re right, it needs to be read at least 2 or 3 times. It’s been years since I’d read it, and I’ve never heard it read aloud untill now. There certainly is a veritable shit load of genius going on here. This is the kind of poem that needs to be discussed. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to revisit it!

    • sethdellinger Says:

      wow, I am so pumped that you like it as much as you do!! I definitely hesitated to start posting any Larkin cause I sometimes think his influence on my own style borders on embarassing, but somehow you make me feel OK about that! And you’re spot on about the progression of the poem; oh what a sad genius ye were, Larkin!

      • Oh, I was wondering why you hadn’t included Larkin! I knew you liked him and I think his work, as melancholy as it is, is mind blowing. I wouldn’t worry about it though, i think every artist has that one idol that inspires us so much we worry we’ve ripped them off. It seems glaringly obvious to me in my own work, but no one else seems to notice it. And really, I think if Larkin were to read your work he wouldn’t cry fraud! He would be honored that you shared his vision and made it your own.

  4. WOW!!!! Totally amazing!!! And both readings were fantastic, I wish I had them on CD, I’d listen to you and Larkin read this poem in my car!

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