When I met up with family for Christmas I asked my dad to bring my copy of Empson's complete poems, because I knew I wanted it for something, but I didn't remember what, so it's just been sitting there. Then David MacIver wrote about memory today, and that got me rereading my old narrative meaning post, and that quotes 'Missing Dates', which is what I wanted to read the notes about. Messy first and second brain got there in the end!
This book has amazing detailed notes and commentary on all the poems, but it's in tiny tiny text. So I'm copying out the bits I want to have access to here so I don't have to squint at it any more. Here goes:
My poetry was written a long time ago, and looking back I realize it was meant to say "Life is strange and unexpected" but not to give any other awful warning. So I need to explain that this poem tells a lie. It says that we only get old because we are so untidy whereas of course the very tidiest people in their city offices get old too. How it can be a good poem if it is all wrong I cannot say. It is a villanelle.
In writing I thought this was a wonderful subject for a poem, but it never occurred to me to think whether it is true or not. It's a very odd thing in poetry you can do that. I don't think it's bad because it's untrue. It says that if you lead an entirely tidy life - always arriving at the office at nine o'clock and picking up the pins from the carpet as you go to your desk - then you will never grow old; well, you will, as a matter of fact, just the same: it's a rather a good thing, as a matter of fact. But what the poem says is that you won't.
When I. A. Richards saw the villanelle beginning 'Slowly the poison...' he said it was the best comic poem I had done so far; and I must have betrayed my surprise, because he added, not to hurt my feelings, that of course it was deep humour. I was not hurt but relieved; denouncing the universe has never seemed to me a sensible thing for a poem to do, and I had feared that my villanelle might be tainted with that pomposity. Much of the verse here is about the strangeness of the world, in which we are often tripped up and made helpless, and the first thing to do in that situation is to understand it. In such a case, it is usual for some to laugh and others not.