As Bad As a Mile

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September 2014

Nomination: As Bad As a Mile [9 February 1960. From The Whitsun Weddings]

In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup, sports journalist Barney Ronay in his Monday Guardian column cited the first four lines of this poem as a pretty fair summary of the England team’s performance over the years: not so much misfortune (‘it went over the line, ref!’) as endemic incapacity to play well. We can have another shy in four years’ time but we’ll end up skidding across the floor.

Delighted, as always, to see Larkin once again become part of normal discourse, I rushed back to remind myself of the rest of the poem, a tiny perfection shaped for contemplation, tempting repeated consumption and all that despite the whimsy of a title which promises so little. For the last month, I’ve revisited the poem daily half-hoping that I’ve found the equivalent of Timothy Clark’s experiment with Poussin’s Landscape with a Calm and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. Clark records his almost daily visit to look at Poussin’s paintings exhibited in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in an experiment in art writing. The poem has become a companion. I’ve interrupted chatter over a pub meal to ask what friends would expect from a poem with such a title. It’s contagious too: my son in a weekly phone call asked me why Larkin used ‘shied’ rather than ‘thrown’. His own research on cognitive approaches to reading literature has become grist to my mill: how does our brain react to the kinesis of the opening two lines? Do we feel a ghostly emulation of the act of trying to land the apple core in the basket? And do we feel bodily calm as the poem closes in stasis, the rewound video closing on the potent symbolism of perfection at (wo)mankind’s moment of choice?

Last weekend, an email from the PLS webmaster urged me to urge others to contribute to Poem of the Month. ‘As Bad as a Mile’ had been exactly that for me. I had forgotten that two other contributors had already chosen it, Christopher Ricks in 2004 and Ben Wilkinson in 2007, and I fell upon their reasons for the choice. Ricks wants to respect and mime its succinctness in his short paragraph, and simply exhorts the reader to consume the poem/apple. Wilkinson goes deeper and sees the poem as Larkin’s greatest poetic achievement, capturing ‘a fundamental existential crisis’. Ricks thinks the title is simply bad, ‘spot off’; Wilkinson thinks the change from the original title ‘As Good as a Mile’ is inspired and ‘may be seen to suggest that the poem holds language as its foremost issue’. Something to feed into my next pub meal.

For me, the title risks jokiness but at a price worth paying. It takes a proverb (‘a miss is as good as a mile’) but shortens it. You might even argue that the proverb itself is an ellipsis of ‘a miss by an inch is as good as a miss by a mile’. Its compression and succinctness set the model. All good proverbs have by definition attained authoritative status and unalterable form, so you know what is missing – something is missing and not just the apple core. For the same reason, you know that violence has been done to that sacrosanct form through the replacement of ‘good’ by ‘bad’. (It is akin to Dylan Thomas’s ‘once below a time’ discussed on a recorded programme on Thomas that I watched last night with my wife.) But there is another subversion at work here. Like the proverb, the form of the simile, as x as a y, is meant to acknowledge authority: nothing is stronger than an ox or meeker than a lamb. Yet ‘as good as a mile’ misleads in its form; a mile is not the epitome of goodness. The locution ‘as good as’ carries with it the sense of ‘nearly’ as in ‘he was as good as dead’. The alteration from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ destroys this ‘nearliness’ and introduces a moral dimension that is finally confirmed in the journey from the trivial throwing of the apple core to the images from Genesis and evocations of original sin.

Do these evocations prompted by the title mean that it is a good or bad title? I imagine Ricks would say that it overloads itself and is guilty of an exhibitionism unworthy of the beautifully crafted fruit that follows. I imagine Wilkinson would say that the foregrounding of language as play overlain with moral dichotomies and proverbial wisdom sets the context in which the shying of an apple core takes on mythic importance.

I’ll come back to my poem tomorrow. Fascinated today by the internal rhyme of ‘failure’ and ‘earlier and earlier’, more exciting in its way than the ‘failures’/’lobelias’ rhyme in ‘Toads revisited’. And more is needed to answer my son’s question. ‘Shied’ implies intent and aim and the possibility of achievement (you win a coconut) – and therefore risks failure. And, as Wilkinson points out, there is the expression ‘shy of’ as in ‘two runs shy of a century’, suggesting again ‘nearliness’ and frustration. And horses shy. We fight shy of things we don’t like. Are all these meanings traces of each other? I have above my computer a framed set of Larkin quotes presented to me by the University when I retired. One reads: ‘And the shock of being back is dreadful – the toad work at its toadiest. Term begins in less than three weeks, and all the things I hate most: talks to new students, controversial Library committees, wrangling with NALGO over automation and so on. One starts off as a shy boy fond of reading, and this is what happens.’ It’s this sense of ‘shy’ that dominated Larkin’s life. His trajectory is from shyness to public confrontation, and somehow this has just happened. Someone has shied the apple core and it has missed.

Graham Chesters

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