How to Sleep

We have a guest blogger today on Sweettenorbull. ‘Harmonioustew’, as he is known online, just plain Stew to friends, is an old colleague of mine. We worked together in a language school in Seoul some years ago, and, while he’s settled in Seoul and I’ve returned to Blighty, we’ve kept in touch. Stew is a voluminous reader, amost single-handedly keeping Ittaewon’s English language bookshop in business, and an engaging, entertaining writer. His blog is . ‘Warts and all’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

Stew hails from Boston, Massachusets, but he has chosen a poem by a glum old Englishman. Enjoy…

How to Sleep        (Philip Larkin)


Child in the womb,

Or saint on a tomb–

Which way shall I lie

To fall asleep?

The keen moon stares

From the back of the sky,

The clouds are all home

Like driven sheep. 

(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)

The poem reads like a nursery rhyme.  Unlike a lot of poetry, it’s unintimidating and absolutely lucid upon a first reading.  The rhyme scheme is simple; the message is clear.  How should you sleep?  It’s one of those things you forget how to do over the years as life grows increasingly complicated, replete as it is with the demands of self-replicating responsibilities.

The opening two lines encompass birth and death–and sleep bookends our lives.  We start out slumbering in amniotic fluid inside our mothers’ bodies, living the good life (this is not meant as a snub of pro-choice people; I have no dog in that fight), until we’re officially wrenched into being by a rubber-gloved obstetrician and delivered to this great stage of fools.

The lines likewise remind me of a lyric from They Might Be Giants’ glockenspiel-enhanced ditty, “Shoehorn With Teeth”:  “What’s the sense of ever thinking ’bout the tomb/When you’re much too busy returning to the womb?”  (Come to think of it, the poem also advocates TMBG’s advice, though it’s not expressing an identical sentiment; the band was focused more on the nocturnal pursuit of concupiscent happiness; I’ll get to Larkin’s gist a little later, as it doesn’t come till the end of the poem.)

Philip Larkin was a subtle poet, and his simple style often belies a great deal of underlying ambiguity and complexity.  At the risk of reading too much into the third line of the poem (“Which way shall I lie?”), it suggests a double-meaning of the last word, as if he’s insisting he has to resort to subterfuge in order to drift off, either by impersonating the boy he know longer is or the saint he cannot be and wouldn’t dream of being in the first place (Larkin was an avowed atheist; his poems “Church Going” and “Faith Healing” testify to his lucid refusal to believe in an unprovable diety, while “Aubade” is a profound and touching meditation on death, which is something his lack of eternal life insurance made it hard for him to approach with anything resembling equanimity).

“The keen moon stares” like the eyes of the frustrated poet (compare this with a line from another Larkin poem, an ode to the sun called “Solar”:  “The eye sees you/Simplified by distance/Into an origin. . . ”  For someone who didn’t believe in God, Larkin appears to have mistaken certain heavenly bodies for eyes.  Did he suffer from an Orwellian fear of being watched?  That’s hardly an irrational fear to have these days.  Or did he write the poem while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs?  I doubt it; I’m pretty sure alcohol was his poison of choice.  I’ll drink to that).

He compares the clouds to sheep (which, of course, rhymes with “sleep”), suggesting he’s been counting them for a long time.  (Does anyone actually do this?  How could such an original poet resort to such pedestrian, cliched behavior?).  Then, in the second stanza, he captures the monotony of time’s passage, the chiming of the clock likened to plangent drops of water.

It only seems fitting that Larkin, a staid, bespectacled character who worked as a librarian for most of his life, should try out the saintly method of achieving slumber first, despite his iconoclastic rejection of all things religious.  After all, as he implies with the “lie” alluded to before, it’s only an impersonation.  Just as our individuality may well disintegrate as surely as our bodies do with the advent of death, it stands to reason that we become other selves during the temporary death afforded by sleep.  Who doesn’t need to take a long rest and turn off his or her “real” self once a day? 

The “sea-levelled sands” evokes deep breathing reminiscent of the heaving breast of the sea.  Larkin remains in limbo for awhile, his mind at peace, his thoughts subdued, but sleep still out of reach.

Then he resorts to the surefire approach of assuming the fetal position.  The final five lines of the poem are extraordinary in their remarkably eloquent wisdom.  Larkin has an astonishing ability to articulate profundity with grace throughout his work; his understated humor makes his poetry quintessentially British.  Not that he didn’t have a dark side, but he wrote (most of the time) like a distinguished gentlemen.

In fact, those last five lines embody the astonishing insight of the Buddha achieving enlightenment.  Sleep, like love, is about letting go of attachment.  The inevitable comparison with death is obvious, but one that bears remembering, since we’re all going to get there some day.  That’s why we’ve got to keep rehearsing every night, letting go of our preposterous egos and impossible projects, curling up like sighing little babies (if we’re lucky, as part of a post-coital interlude, not that babies should indulge in such behavior) and kissing consciousness goodnight.

We must become fetuses (feti?  let’s hope not fetid) in order to be born again upon awakening.

When the sun shines through the Venetian blinds that hang before my bedroom window, its rays silently shouting, “Hallelujah!  Get your lazy ass out of bed!” I cover my face with a black T-shirt like a flabbergasted vampire and roll away from the light, not being a morning person.

My guess is that Philip Larkin probably wasn’t either.


1 Comment

Filed under Poetry

One response to “How to Sleep

  1. Reblogged this on harmonioustew and commented:
    My friend at Sweettenorbull has kindly offered me a guest blogging spot. Depending on the response, we may be making a regular practice out of it. He’s a knowledgeable scholar and writer who loves to write insightful pieces about poetry, some of which he translates from Spanish. I recommend regular trips to his blog for literary nourishment, and I’ll let you know when he’ll be appearing on harmonioustew (soon, I hope). Please let either of us know if you enjoy the post; also, I’d be thrilled if you could tell me if The Complete Works of Philip Larkin is available in paperback yet.

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