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As Bad as a Mile

October 2007

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

When ‘As Bad as a Mile’ was first published in the University of Buffalo’s Audit magazine in February 1960, it was originally titled ‘As Good as a Mile’. On the face of it, such a minor editorial change might not seem worthy of mention, but where poetry is concerned it’s also worth bearing in mind that meaning hinges carefully on each and every word. As a result, it’s my inkling that Larkin’s retrospective switch between the classic binary oppositions of the Judeo-Christian moral dichotomy holds, in many respects, the key to the fullest and most interesting reading of the poem.

‘As Bad as a Mile’ is a poem about failure. It takes, as is typical of Larkin, a mundane and everyday act of chance and invests within it an existential and revelatory significance. Hence, when the apple core is flipped towards the basket and falls short, the narrator is lead to conclude that this ‘shows less and less of luck’, and ‘more and more / Of failure’; a failure that began when the hand was ‘calm’ and ‘unraised’, and the apple remained whole and ‘unbitten in the palm’. But with its repetition of ‘earlier and earlier’, the poem also encourages the reader to go back much further: to the Fall of Man, the Garden of Eden, and to the apple that Eve picked from the Tree of Knowledge. In this respect, then, the poem’s message seems to centre on a bleak realisation: that all of life’s failures are less to do with luck or chance, and more to do with a chain of personal and human failures, stretching all the way back to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. But is the poem really so bluntly moralistic in its message? And furthermore, are we to simply accept failure as a necessary and unavoidable punishment for the mistakes of (according to the Bible) our oldest ancestors?

Though second-guessing authorial intent has been a murky territory since well before Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’, considering Larkin’s switch from ‘As Good as a Mile’ to ‘As Bad as a Mile’ is revealing whether or not readings of the amendment reflect the poet’s overall intentions. In essence, the alteration of ‘Good’ to ‘Bad’ may be seen to suggest that the poem holds language as its foremost issue. That is, if the apple misses the basket by only a few inches, this is ‘As Bad as a Mile’ for the simple reason that both have the same outcome: failure. But it is also ‘As Good as a Mile’ in a similar, yet notably sarcastic, vein: a few inches and a mile are as ‘good’ as one another when both offer the same end effect. In this sense, then, the poem serves to deconstruct the conventional dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’: the two binary oppositions merging and blurring with one another which, given the poem’s aforementioned moral implications, complicates and enriches the poem substantially. Notice, for instance, how the apple remains ‘unbitten in the palm’, while failure ‘spreads back up the arm’. If the poem were solely moralistic in its subject matter, would failure be present before the Fall of Man and the eating of the forbidden fruit? Though failure may well be closely linked to moral depravity, then, this is not the major concern of Larkin’s poem. Rather, ‘As Bad as a Mile’ seems to pinpoint failure as linking back to and lying within the origins of language, or in other words, humanity’s attempt to divide up and make sense of the world through linguistic signification. This failure lies in the fact that all linguistic signs constantly echo and feed into one another, and so any concrete meaning that a sign might naïvely be thought to capture is permanently deferred, each signifier constantly calling forth further signifiers in bearing the traces of them. In ‘As a Bad as a Mile’, then, this can be seen to centre on the aforementioned uncertainties between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but also on the ‘shied’ core: whether the apple has simple fallen ‘shy’ of the basket (as language falls short of central, transcendent meanings), or whether the shyness is literal; the personified apple as ashamed at being stripped bare as humanity’s nude embarrassment after the fall from Paradise. And of course, at the centre of such a futile effort to make some final and transcendent sense of the world via language lies the logos, the Greek for ‘logic’ or ‘Word of God’; something that, marrying the linguistic and morally religious elements of the poem, also appears in the Christian Gospel of Saint John.

What masquerades as Judeo-Christian moral failure within ‘As Bad as a Mile’, then, in fact reveals a much deeper and more general linguistic failure inherent to mankind. Good, bad; the fact that such supposed binary oppositions affect the way we live, inform our beliefs about the world around us, and at the same time have no discernibly concrete or transcendent meaning, signals one of the foremost moral, social, and intellectual issues of the postwar era. That Larkin was able to capture such a fundamental existential crisis within a six-line poem that takes an everyday apple core as its initial subject matter, then, is not only testament to his powers as a poet, but also to what poetry should be: something that leaves the world a more questionable, scarier, and less certain place to be. It is for these reasons, then, that in my view, ‘As Bad as a Mile’ is Larkin’s greatest poetic achievement.

Ben Wilkinson

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