One Plus One

Another guest post from Harmonioustew, this week dealing with some deceptively simple-looking arithmetic…

Here’s another fine, laconic poem by Master Philip Larkin:



Thinking in terms of one

Is easily done–

One room, one bed, one chair,

One person there,

Makes perfect sense; 

(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 first lines establish the universality of the theme by using the passive voice.  The list of the three pieces of furniture, followed by the incongruous phrase, “one person there,” insinuates that being alone is somehow degrading and dehumanizing, much as many of us confined to coupledom may “sue for solitude” (as Larkin writes in another poem whose title escapes me) sometimes.

The repetition of the word “one” also bears a thudding monotony, like the sound made by a child pressing the same low note on a piano over and over again with maddening persistence, until we get to the end of the stanza and its bleak punchline:  “one coffin filled.”

Just before that, however, the phrase “one set/Of wishes met”  reminds the reader that there’s a certain practicality in being single, despite the harrowing loneliness that can accompany it.  At least when you’re alone you can pursue your dreams–assuming you have any–without argument, interference, or interruption.  Once you tie the knot, depending on your spouse’s temperament, your wiggle room might be reduced to the bare minimum, just as your mini-mum orders you around (unless you’re a woman, in which case you have to humor your husband or keep track of your scrambling offspring).

Yes, the solitary life “makes perfect sense” in some ways, if you have no objection to talking to yourself or pursuing the adventures connected to a social life full of globe-trotting and exotic drinking sprees instead of languishing in domestic splendor, trying not to burn your shirts as you flatten out the wrinkles with a steam iron, and making a mental note not to jump out the window no matter how loudly your spouse shouts at you, or how trivial the issue he or she is in such a tizzy about is.

Mathematician Larkin assures us that doubling our company is a fraught enterprise, primarily because it intrudes upon our sacred and precious selfishness.  He writes elsewhere about his ambivalence towards romantic love; he was in many ways a tough-minded loner, although he did succumb to marriage for a time.

It’s funny how Larkin turns the laws of mathematics on their head in the second, short stanza.  Normally, when you’re counting, you start with one.  To wit:  one, two, three, four, etc.  But in his poem you have to jump straight to two.

I’m not sure if Philip Larkin would have agreed with Harry Nilsson’s line, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”  I gather he would.  I certainly do, even though I also agree with author Richard Yates that there are (a lot more than) Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.  Life is about collecting the whole set.

Which brings us back to the title.  On the surface it’s about counting in the sense of naming or listing a sequence of numbers that represent particular things or–especially–people.  But might it not also refer to counting in the sense of having value, in that if you’re lucky enough to be in a loving, nurturing marriage or relationship, you “count” more than you do if you’re just by yourself, telling the face in the mirror:  “You know something?  You are really special to me” (and smiling in a creepy, disturbing manner you wouldn’t want disseminated on You Tube any time soon)?

To jump beyond what may have been Larkin’s intention in writing the poem, or its initial source of inspiration, whether conscious or unconscious, it’s hard for any of us to count–in the sense of feeling appreciated–if we live in absolute isolation for too long.  Few of us are cut out for extended periods of solitary confinement, even if it’s self-imposed.

And even more than the love we may attain or waste a lifetime seeking in a romantic partner or significant other whom we trust will imbue our lives with greater significance, as much as we each need to believe in ourselves in order to get anywhere at the outset, we owe a goodly portion of our success to our families and friends and all the people who help us along the way.  It behoves us to thank them for everything they’ve contributed that illuminates our lives.

As Jean Paul Sartre didn’t say, “Heaven is other people.”



Filed under humour, Poetry

3 responses to “One Plus One

  1. Reblogged this on harmonioustew and commented:
    stay tuned for a guest appearance by sweettenorbull at harmonioustew in the precariously near future.

  2. josh

    larkin didn’t succumb to marriage, he was never married

  3. You’re right there, Josh – that Larkin never married. I’m guessing Stew meant something like ‘Larkin occasionally succumbed to thoughts of marriage’.

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