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Is it for now or for always

July 2010

Nomination: Is it for now or for always [1943-4. From The North Ship (1945)]

‘It’s very difficult to write about being happy.’ Larkin’s words in an interview with the Observer after the interviewer had made it clear that she believed his poems were largely about ‘unhappiness, loss, a sense of missing out.’

‘[It’s] very easy to write about being miserable.’ Larkin follows.

The same holds true for the writing of music, in my opinion. Songs that are melancholic or sombre seem to flow more naturally from the creative glands than those upbeat ditties that are so antithetical and oh-so-rare. Or perhaps it is the fact that we feel more inspired when those dark, sombre moods descend over us and our creative spirits are left free to roam.

This being said, upon reading ‘Is it for now or for always’, the first thing that struck me was not – contrary to the opinions of some Observer critics – a sense of unhappiness, loss or missing out, but a sense of uncertainty. It was this sense of uncertainty that we followed, blindly followed, on the path to creating our musical interpretation of the poem.

After reading the first two stanzas I am reminded of Nietzsche’s postulate that ‘No artist tolerates reality.’ Larkin I think questions, deeply questions, the reality of the world and the celestial suns that orbit up high. The poem elucidates a mistrust of the sensory account, the universe is not governed by uniformity, it is fragile, ‘the world hangs on a stalk’ and the suns are governed by the capriciousness of the juggler gods.

‘Are they a sham or a sign?’ The line rings out and seems to shatter the ‘truths’ we hold of the worlds, moons and galactic orbs, phenomena that seem so comfortingly familiar. Pandora released hope to counter the ills, famines and devastation that she had unlocked from Jupiter’s box. Larkin, however, unveils affirmation – thus a sense of hope – in the third stanza to counter the sense of uncertainty he reveals in the preceding two.

‘Shine out my sudden angel,’ Larkin’s exaltation smashes the confusion that had previously occupied the reader’s attention, ‘Break fear with breast and brow.’

The spirit of affirmation in the third stanza beats back – with breast and brow – the uncertainty and confusion. Larkin concludes by advocating ‘nowness’ and being in the immediate present, ‘for always is always now.’ Deferral of action is a hindrance, in the face of uncertainty one must affirm. Being in the moment is advocated over becoming or action-towards-future.

This reading of the poem influenced the conception and creation of our music and further influenced the mood and mien of the piece. The consensus was that the third stanza, due to the sense of affirmation and hope, had to be used as a chorus and the raise in dynamics in the chorus was purposed to cement this sense. Furthermore, the decision was made to repeat the chorus three times in an attempt to inculcate the affirmation, the ‘shining out’, that we were so moved by in the poem. Perhaps it is not easy to write about happiness, Mr. Larkin, but you have certainly succeeded in writing a third stanza which moves oceans of emotion within the reader.

Our rendition of the poem came from a gut-instinct, a shared feeling of how the poem should be interpreted. What’s more, I find that any attempt at fully explicating or evaluating the mood of the poem serves only to detract from its beauty (and from the dexterity of its author). For this reason it is necessary to conclude with an anti-conclusion.

‘Is it for now or for always’ is a poem that needs to be felt, read and heard but it doesn’t need to be recapitulated or ‘summed up’. And the same holds true for our rendition – listen, feel and interpret – but do not deconstruct, do not conclude. In fact, no one puts it better than Larkin himself at the end of the Observer interview,

‘I should hate anybody to read my work because he’s been told to and told what to think about it. I really want it to hit them, I want readers to feel yes, I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s how it is.’

Tom Hancocks

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