Human on My Faithless Arm, Episode 7: “An Arundel Tomb”
The Arundel Tomb of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel, and his wife Eleanor. Photograph by Steve James.
Welcome to Episode 7 of Human on My Faithless Arm, this series of recorded performances of the poems I recite each night to my infant daughter, Auden, to which I append brief commentaries.
In this seventh episode I recite “An Arundel Tomb,” a powerful ekphrastic poem by Philip Larkin. You can hear my recitation and some words about it here:
The text of Larkin’s poem is legible at the Poetry Foundation website.
An ekphrastic poem describes a work of art. In the case of “An Arundel Tomb,” the work of art described is a funerary statue in Chichester Cathedral, in England. Ekphrastic poetry is a tricky and difficult thing, for a poem must be a work of art, an act of imagination in its own right, and not merely an account of another artist’s work.
I use the adjective “powerful” with regard to Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb” to mark a distinction: most poems regarding works of art are weak or bad, and this is especially true of ekphrastic poems by American writers, which exemplify several of the many ways that American creative writing instruction of the last 60 years or so has gone wrong.
It is quite common for student poets in American MFA programs and undergraduate workshops to be assigned to write poems about works of art; alas, the models adduced are usually poor, and encourage, for example, the student to take on a masterpiece by a great painter or sculptor. The comparison induced is almost always unfavorable. (Even poets who write well in other modes will tend to fail in ekphrasis.)
If you want to read more about the sad dynamics borne forth in American (as opposed to British) ekphrastic poems, you will have to wait for my forthcoming book on the subject. But I will add here that most of the time an American poet fails to infuse his or her ekphrastic verse with any substantial imagination whatsoever, preferring instead merely to introduce his or her speaker as an intrusive museum docent who points out things that are patently obvious to any viewer, and then seeming to then derives commonplace conclusions from the masterpiece.
Philip Larkin, of course, is characteristically canny about the task he set for himself in “An Arundel Tomb,” and part of Larkin’s genius here is in taking up a not-very-good work of art as his subject. Larkin’s speaker rightly has no compunction about making use of this funerary statue, and his poem is much more interesting than the work it addresses.
One delicious sound in my recitation of “An Arundel Tomb” needs to be explained to American readers. It occurs in stanza two, when the exigencies of the Larkin’s rhyming scheme require me to sound as if I’m saying first name of the 44th President of the United States. More about this in my recorded commentary!
Thank you for listening to Human on My Faithless Arm.
Daniel Bosch is Lecturer in English at Emory University and Senior Editor of Berfrois.