The other poem in my head while I was on holiday was one I almost always hear in there when I’m away from home: Larkin’s ‘The Importance of Elsewhere‘. The experience of being where no-one knows your name (apologies for the echo of the Cheers theme tune which may have just drifted across your mind) can feel safe or frightening, liberating or paralysing, and I’ve always loved Larkin’s exploration of these facts in this poem.
Larkin is of course a supreme anatomist of being alone. In ‘Vers de Societe‘ he is darkly witty and wonderful on the distinctions between aloneness and loneliness, solitude and isolation, as well as on the messages both internal and cultural which exist in relation to these different states. in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ we find a characteristic Larkin spareness—he never wastes a word—as well as honesty. I find it deeply moving the way he manages to speak so clearly about the loneliness of his life at ‘home’ by speaking only about the acceptable sense of ‘difference’ elsewhere.
‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,/ Strangeness made sense’: that stunning opening sentence has an epigrammatic quality. It’s ok not to belong where you’re not supposed to belong. This central thought, and its unsaid opposite, are fleshed out through the rest of the poem. There’s something so delightfully deft in the nearly playful, definitely paradoxical recognition that the ‘salt rebuff’ can ‘ma[k]e him welcome’, that ‘difference’ can connect you, put you ‘in touch’. There’s another important distinction made by the end of the second stanza—that he is ‘separate, not unworkable’, which serves to mark the surfacing of the fear and pain which exist at the heart of the poem. I find the word ‘unworkable’ so quietly powerful, so touching. It’s not a word that makes a fuss, and isn’t as immediately value-laden a word as unsociable, or terrible, or damaged, or flawed. Nonetheless there’s a sort of sad resignation in it—that this is the quietly, undramatically painful fact of him. He just doesn’t work as a person in relationship. In the final stanza he doesn’t admit to refusing ‘[his] customs and establishments’, but despite the conditional verb the closing imagery of insurance, with its connotations of death and disaster, speaks clearly of what is unsaid.
Particularly at the moment, when the world has become strange to us, I wonder how many people might find in this poem the curious comfort of reading and knowing they are not alone in their loneliness?