The Poetics of Unbelief

riting about not believing is not easy.  We are accustomed to poems about neurotic seizures, personal crisis, lost love and suicidal consequences, but the big questions of belief and religion have more commonly been objects for satire.

Let me call attention to two exceptions.

Philip Larkin (d 1985) was a soft-spoken intellectual, quietly angry young and middle-aged man, who hated the limelight and preferred ridicule and mild eroticism (he was a defender of soft porn) to the intellectual poetry of his era.  He was encouraged in what he liked to do best– jabbing at the hypocrisies of religion, politics and family life–by writers like Kingsley Amis and imitated Yeats and Hardy before developing his own mid-century “symbolist” vocabulary:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself. (“This be the Verse” 1946)


As for religion he lamented among other things the debasing effect of worship on Christian believers:

[who] kneel upon the stone,

For we have tried

All courages on these despairs,
And are required lastly to give up pride,
And the last difficult pride in being humble.  
(“Come then to Prayers,” 1946)

The atheism in Larkin’s work gives free rein to the despair and fatalism of 1970’s British politics:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
(Aubade 1977)

As a matter of taste, I have never liked Larkin’s poetry because it seems stuck in its era: damp London streets in November and the smell of hard- coal fires that seep back into the parlour and leave their traces on coats and scarves.  It is the poetry of a uniformly asthmatic post-war generation. What Larkin ridicules probably deserved his wit, and his attention.  But just when he catches you with jape or his tone, he disappoints you with his low view of human nature:

”And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up/Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.” (Administration, 1986)

y personal choice for the best poet of unbelief is the incredibly lyrical Katha Pollitt, who manages to write clear and concise essays, magazine, and op-ed pieces with an unfailing sense of language.

In “Cities of the Plain,”  (New Yorker, 27 Februrary 2004) Pollitt looks on as God decides to eradicate Sodom and Gomorrah.  She assumes the role of a casual observer, recording the event like an “embedded” reporter. Only at the end does she comment on the nature of the primary actor: “…being God, he wouldn’t permit himself regrets.”

The poem is an extended synecdoche.  This one happening says everything that needs to be said about the justice of God, making doctrine, theology and explanatory preaching unnecessary:

After he vaporized the pleasure gardens,
The temples of Luck and Mirrors, the striped
Tents of the fortune-tellers,
After he rained down sulfur
On the turquoise bathes, the peacock market,
The street of painted boys,
Obliterated the city, with all its people,
Down to the last stray cat and curious stink,
He missed them. Killing them
Made him want to kill them again —

How cleverly they escaped him,
Hiding in the corners and laughing
Just out of sight!

Being God, he wouldn’t permit himself regrets.
There would be other cities, just as wicked.
But none like Sodom, none like Gomorrah.
Probably He has been angry ever since —
Angry and lonely.

The difference between the two poets is partly tonal, but I think Larkin is the product of  a lonely and antisocial period where religion could not make things better—has it ever?–and so had to be discharged in the only way a poet can kill anything–with words.  Pollitt–as Harvard as Larkin was Oxford–takes higher ground:  The people are not lonely, defeated and miserable–they are clever, they hide, they laugh, and God is a murderer (“Killing them made him want to kill again”) who has been angry and lonely ever since.

It is the juxtaposition of cruelty and intellect, Prometheus and Zeus all over again.

6 thoughts on “The Poetics of Unbelief

  1. the irony is perfectly beautiful… Anne Sexton, in consecrating mother, declared “I stand before the sea, and it rolls and rolls in its green blood saying, ‘Do not give up one god for I have a handful.'”

  2. Larkin, the librarian, never liked him – the irony is complete. Crude, course, crass, tedious, shallow, smug, sententious, and emotionally dead. Zeus conquers Prometheus and Katha Pollitt breathes the cultural spirit of humanity with language of passion, subtlety, intuitive sensitivity and spirited finesse.

  3. Fantastic contrast of two different voices !

    You said,

    I think Larkin is the product of a lonely and antisocial period where religion could not make things better—has it ever?–and so had to be discharged in the only way a poet can kill anything–with words.

    But I wonder if it is more a matter of temperament interacting with local up-bringing than it was an entire “antisocial period”.
    The two poets had clearly different temperaments more than they came in different periods of history. For we still hear these different voices even today.

  4. Joseph, I guess from the post you have read Larkin, so you know he is not in need of comparison.
    I have followed your blog for the last year or so, initially as a direct foil from Coyne and Myers, and then independently.
    Always interesting

  5. Pingback: Cities of the Plain | On the way to Ithaca

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