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If Pindar sang horse races, what should hinder
Myself from being as pliable as Pindar?
As we near the finish-line here for National Poetry Month and our guest stint on Harriet, I find myself looking forward to Derby Day. My father’s family is from Kentucky (Cotton Noe, Kentucky’s first Poet Laureate, was a relation; Booker Noe of Booker’s fame is likewise a distant cousin) and my parents both lived in Louisville, so I mark the first Saturday in May with a Derby party and a mint julep libation to the old Lares and Penates. The poet Lane Young, an school friend from my Atlanta days, has a poem about the names of rock bands in which she says they are “as arbitrary as the names of cocktails or race horses.” What poet doesn’t love the names of race horses? (Homeboykris, Conveyence, Mission Impazible, Dean’s Kitten, Devil May Care, Ice Box…) Surely they must appeal to formalists and flarfists alike!
The poetry of horse racing (and no doubt the horse-trading of po-biz!) stretches from ancient Greece to now. (For a contemporary example, here’s Kentucky Derby by Andrea Cohen.)
Which brings me to one of my all-time favorite poems, “At Grass,” from Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, about retired race horses. When I read it, I get poem-lust (sort of like baby-lust.) I wish I had written this poem:
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about
— The other seeming to look on —
And stands anonymous again.
Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes —
Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries —
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
It’s a moving meditation on Time and Fame and Age and Mortality and all kinds of capitalized things, while also being beautifully about the horses themselves. The diction is impeccable (OK, with one potential misstep; see below) without being showy. The wind “distresses” the manes and tails (a very accurate use of the word—from the Latin to “untie, to loosen”—while also a sort of pun), I like the use of “fable” as a verb here, how the names are “artificed” as though inscribed on the faded Junes, how memories “plague” like flies, the “unmolesting” meadows (Larkin always gives a good lesson in how to wield interesting adjectives), “Almanacked”!
It occurs to me re-reading this for the umpteenth time that while I am partly attracted to it for its subject and execution, I am also drawn to its Classicism (am I allowed to use that as a word of praise?). While utterly of its day (the squadrons of parked cars, the silks, the stop-watch), it reads almost like a perfect translation of a poem from the Greek Anthology.
Indeed, it occurs to me that the poem it is most closely related to in English and in response to is Housman’s similarly contemporary and ancient (Pindaric, if you will) “To An Athlete Dying Young”—the Greek emphasis on death and fame, on the only immortality being a name. (In “To An Athelete Dying Young,” the young athlete will not die before his name dies; here the horses break frew of their “fabled” names.) There is a subtly heightened but timeless quality to the syntax as well, the poised subjunctive (“subside”), the slight inversions, so that the poems last sentence ends, like a Latin one, on the verb.
It also occurs to me now that while about retired race horses, is it not also a sort of Greek afterlife/underworld we are in? Look how the poem begins:
“The eye can hardly pick them out/From the cold shade they shelter in”
It is as though our eyes are adjusting to the dim light. Are those squadrons of cars out in the heat parked next to Achilles’ chariot? Are his deathless horses, Balius and Xanthus (Dapple and Blondie, or maybe Strawberry Roan), grazing among them? There is, after all, a military inflection to some of the language here– “squadrons,” “stand at ease.”
And the sounds! The locking sound of “Almanacked,” the spondaic metrical effect of how “then the long cry” does indeed hang in the air over the enjambment (in a free-verse poem, the line breaks; in a metrical poem, it is the syntax that breaks over the line.)
Larkin is the king of the perfect enjambments, and the enjambment across stanzas five and six takes my breath away (“they/ have slipped their names”)—we seem to see them breaking free, lengthening their stride.
I mentioned a sort of diction stumble earlier. It has been pointed out that Larkin is slightly in error here, and that the grooms would be leading the horses out by halters, not bridles. Is this a flaw? A mistake?
Larkin did not correct it, and I’m sure in such a horsey country it was brought to his attention. Increasingly I feel it fits, though, sound and sense. I even wonder if the sound is suggested somehow by “groom” in the previous line—a hint, however subconsciously, of “bridal”? I don’t propose a cheap pun, but yes, an adumbration. Is there perhaps a posthumous feeling to this, a suggestion of a classical underworld, of the lost bride and her groom?
The now-immortal horses shake their heads and gallop away into the unmolesting meadow starred with asphodel.
And they’re off!