Mr Bleaney and the Bean Eaters

If you locate 11 Outlands Road on Google Street View, you might be surprised at how inoffensive it looks. This is the house on the northern outskirts of Hull, UK, in which Philip Larkin wrote “Mr Bleaney,” his seemingly autobiographical and characteristically bleak poem about making one’s self at home in mediocrity. The speaker rents an unsatisfactory room and can’t help identifying with its previous occupant, an old bachelor.

It’s likely that the suburban neighborhood has improved in the 65 years since Larkin lived there, filling in with other pleasant-enough houses. There’s no sign of the “strip of building land, / Tussocky, littered” that his one window looked out upon. The trees and hedges have matured. And of course you’re seeing only the house’s hopeful neo-Tudor exterior, not the cramped room in which Larkin struggled to hear himself think over the landlady’s jabbering radio. You’re even seeing it on a sunny day: no “frigid wind / Tousling the clouds.” But it’s also likely that Larkin was uglying up the place when he wrote the poem. At the time, he told friends that his setup was “quite good as far as lodgings go” (except for “the blasted RADIO”), that the landlady was “extremely kind and thoughtful,” and that the food was “not bad.” Larkin was trying to write clearly about deprivation, and such mixed impressions would’ve muddied the water.

Google can’t help you find the building Gwendolyn Brooks was writing about in her poem “The Bean Eaters,” because there’s no evidence she had a particular building in mind. Both the “rented back room” and the “old yellow pair” who share it are probably composites, drawn from a lifetime’s acquaintance with the kitchenettes and boarding houses of Chicago’s Bronzeville. She once told an interviewer that she wanted the title to evoke “the great mass of eaters of beans, people who are not rich, who don’t eat lobster as a rule but chiefly resort to beans.” Those people weren’t abstractions to Brooks, whose father had sometimes brought home as little as $8 a week from his job as a janitor: “Then we would have beans,” she said.

I’ve adored both “Mr Bleaney” and “The Bean Eaters” for more than 20 years. But they’re such different poems that I only recently noticed how superficially similar they are. Both are about older people who live in small rented rooms, whom the world has elbowed to its margins, but who persist, heroically or pitiably, in their habits and routines. The Bean Eaters “keep on putting on their clothes / And putting things away”; Mr Bleaney “[keeps] on plugging at the four aways.” Even the titles almost rhyme. More generally, both poems are short lyrics written in the 1950s and published in their authors’ third books. And both authors are regarded simultaneously as poets’ poets and as poets of the people — celebrated equally for their technical brilliance and for their sensitive attention to the lives of ordinary folk.

But what Larkin and Brooks made of those lives is another matter. “Mr Bleaney” is, finally, the work of a poet who liked to confirm his impressions of the world by looking at it from unflattering angles, and who couldn’t resist guiding the reader through his poems like a docent. It is also the work of an Oxford-educated white man who could afford to entertain the idea that “how we live measures our own nature.” A close reading of “The Bean Eaters” reveals the subtler, more challenging work of a poet who knew enough about the lives of the poor to see the richness in them.

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
………. is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
………. tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Like the lives of its subjects, “The Bean Eaters” is full of repetition. Of its 85 words (including the title), 16 appear more than once. Half of those are common function words and pronouns, but the other half, listed in order, look like the poem’s DNA: “eat,” “beans,” “mostly,” “plain,” “-ware,” “two,” “putting,” “remembering.” And Brooks doesn’t just repeat words, she repeatedly pairs them. The poem opens with an inverted pair of pairs: “The Bean Eaters // They eat beans…” In the third and fourth lines, both “plain” and “-ware” appear twice. By placing them close together and in that order, Brooks also repeats the word “pair,” quietly, because “plain” and “-ware” together contain the sounds in “pair.” The recurrence of “-ware” gives the homonym “wear” a second chance to be heard, as well — fittingly, in a poem so concerned with wear and tear. The clothes that the old pair “keep on putting on” are getting worn in both senses. For good measure, the poem also includes a pair of “two”s, and, in “twinklings and twinges,” a pair of “twin”s.

And Brooks arranges other sorts of sonic pairs. The first line may scan as iambic pentameter, but to my ear it’s an accentual hexameter with a heavy caesura — that is, a pair of three-beat syntactic units. The second and third lines are the poem’s true pentameters (a pair of them), and each concludes with a similarly structured three-stress phrase: “a casual affair,” “a plain and creaking wood.” The paralleling continues in the second stanza: “Two who are Mostly Good. / Two who have lived their day.” Not only are those clauses grammatically similar and metrically identical, they both open with the same pair of rhyming words, “Two who.” The first four items in the poem’s long concluding catalogue are paired by their identical vowel sounds: “beads and receipts,” “dolls and cloths.” And Brooks’ end-rhymes are a kind of pairing, as well, although made less systematic by the absence of a scheme, the heterometric lines of varying lengths, and the inclusion of one set of triplets (“pair,” “affair,” “flatware”) and two words with no rhyme partners at all (“clothes” and “remembering”; “clothes” does, however, come back as “cloths,” as old clothes sometimes do, and “remembering” is immediately repeated). Repetition is a way of reinforcing and a way of remembering, a reminder of where the poem has been. And Brooks’ use of pairs is an especially effective type of repetition, I think, in a poem about companionship. The old pair doesn’t have much in the way of material possessions, but they have their memories and each other.

A poem’s title is its true first line. The austerity of “The Bean Eaters” prepares readers for the poverty they’ll encounter in the opening stanza. Nobody “eat[s] beans mostly” who has other options. At the same time, saying that “They eat beans mostly” is slightly different from saying that “They eat mostly beans,” which would be an equally natural way of ordering those words. “They eat mostly beans” could mean only that beans make up the bulk of their diet, whereas “They eat beans mostly” animates a second meaning latent in the poem’s title — that eating beans is practically their identity, because it’s practically their only activity. The combination of vowel and consonant sounds in “mostly” gives the word a ruminative quality, too, which is more pronounced coming after “eat beans” and before a pause than it would be if interposed between a verb and its object. “They eat beans mostly” not only says more than “They eat mostly beans,” it sounds better saying it.

The rest of the first line evokes feelings of physical and emotional closeness. The word “this” in the phrase “this old yellow pair” presents the poem’s subjects directly to the reader, places the reader in the room with them. Because it modifies “pair,” “old” suggests not only that they’re in their dotage but also that they’ve been together for a long time. They’re not just old people; they’re an old pair. And “pair” itself evokes an uncommon closeness by not being “couple”; it makes them inextricable. “Couple” entails a coupling, a coming together of independent things, whereas the two halves of a pair require each other, were made for each other. If I asked to be alone for a pair of minutes, or to borrow a couple of shoes, you’d know I was not a native speaker of English.

This sense that the two are not only inseparable but nearly indistinguishable will persist throughout the poem. Whatever is true of one is invariably true of the other: “Two who are Mostly Good. / Two who have lived their day.” Joining the plural “their” to the singular “day,” Brooks again gestures to the completeness of their union; their primes of life were simultaneous and shared. When “they lean over the beans,” the reader may see them bending identically toward each other from opposite sides of the little table, a mirror image.

The voice of the poem is omniscient but decorous; it respects its elders. Brooks lets herself into their home but stops at the threshold of their thoughts. Nor is there any dialogue in the poem. Most of what we know about the pair, we know from what we can see evidence of. But there are two instances, I think, when Brooks allows herself to speak on their behalf. The first is “Dinner is a casual affair.” “That’s an understatement,” the reader might be tempted to say, but in fact it’s an ironic overstatement, because the vocabulary has been imported from a world of material abundance and choice. It’s delivered with an insouciant smile. “Dinner is a casual affair” suggests blazers at the country club as opposed to black-tie at the Grand Hotel. “Their supper is a humble one” would be accurate but pitying, and “They favor a minimalist haute cuisine” would be gratingly sarcastic. But there’s a redeeming irony in “Dinner is a casual affair,” because it’s literally true but playfully expressed. “Sarcasm is inferior to irony,” Christopher Ricks writes, because it simply means the opposite of what it says. Irony “must be more magnanimous because, as [William] Empson … put the principle, an irony to be worth anything must be true to some degree in both senses.” “Dinner is a casual affair” tells it straight while telling it slant.

It’s a delicate thing Brooks is doing in that line, because the risk of condescension is real. But she plays that risk to her advantage; by joking, she signals that she has permission to joke, and this adds to the poem’s air of familiarity, of intimacy with its subjects. It’s perhaps the mildest imaginable version of signifying, the black American custom of expressing affection through negative teasing. I don’t think “Dinner is a casual affair” is the way the old pair themselves would put it, but I think it’s a way they might like to have it put, because the tone-sensitive humor softens a hard fact. Being too poor to afford anything but beans is no laughing matter. But Langston Hughes defined the blues as “laughing to keep from crying” — reclaiming power over things that are no laughing matter by choosing to laugh at them. Brooks’ line makes a meal out of a bowl of beans.

Those first two lines are the only complete sentences in the poem. Everything that follows them is grammatically dependent — a phrase or a clause, however long, vivid, and set-off by sentence punctuation, that ultimately refers back either to “They” or to “Dinner.” There’s no shortage of active verbs in the poem, but syntactically it’s a poem of stillness. When speaking publicly about “The Bean Eaters,” I often ask the audience what its lighting is like. When they picture the poem’s tableau, how well-lit is it? Not at all, they typically agree. It’s dimly lit. Why do you know that, I ask, when there’s no mention of light in the poem? They come up with a variety of answers: It’s dinnertime. It’s in a back room, which wouldn’t have big windows. It’s late in their lives — they’ve “lived their day” — which gives the poem a crepuscular quality. And the title alludes to Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” a famous painting of a family around a dimly lit dinner table. I agree with all of that, and I also think that the stillness of the language, the near-sentencelessness of the poem, lengthens the shadows.

As the repetition of “plain” makes plain, everything about the meal is simple, elemental: it’s beans on chipware on wood, eaten with tin, a literal element. “Chipware” is a perfect neologism. No one has ever seen the word before, and no one, upon seeing it, has any doubt what it means. With a single syllable, Brooks has scrubbed all luster from the dishes, but she has also given them texture, history, and sentimental value. These bowls have been lived with for a long time. She places them directly on the wood; there’s no extraneous tablecloth or placemat: “Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood.” Her use of the building material, “wood,” rather than the built object, “table,” also helps the reader to hear the creaking, a reminder of the stiffness and soreness of elderly joints. The table, like the dishes, has aged along with its owners. Just as “chipware” conceals a verb in a noun, “flatware” smuggles in an adjective. Flatware is the cheapest, least elegant cutlery available, so “Tin flatware” bought long ago is compounded simplicity — purely functional, but also perfectly functional. I wonder if Brooks was tempted by the oxymoron “Tin silverware” and decided it would be too heavy-handed. Probably not. She was a poet of precision, and “Tin flatware” is precisely what this meal requires.

Brooks uses initial capitals liberally in her poetry and prose, to a variety of effects. Often she seems to be borrowing the convention from old grammar-school primers, in which Important Ideas and Values receive due elevation. In her first autobiography, Report From Part One, capitalized words appear most frequently in passages about her youth. The voice is a sophisticated adult’s, but the perspective is an impressionable child’s. Brooks describes her “quick-walking, careful, Duty-Loving mother,” and her father who “had those rich Artistic Abilities.” When her capitalization mimics the Bible’s, the effect can be ironic, as in “Appendix to the Anniad”: “The Certainty we two shall meet by God / In a wide Parlor, underneath a Light / Of lights, come Sometime, is no ointment now.” Those tall first letters make the Certainty, the God, the Parlor, the Light, and the Sometime seem all the more remote. It’s a potentially clunky device, but Brooks’s touch with it, again, is light: When she writes “The School of Beauty’s a tavern now,” she’s recording a literal change in the world: “School of Beauty” was no doubt the business’s actual name, and visible on its sign. But she’s also quietly recording the demotion, the humbling, that has happened. Her line moves from a definite to an indefinite article, and from a proper to a common noun.

In all of these instances, the initial capitals serve both to emphasize the words and to put them in someone else’s mouth. The same thing happens, I think, in “Two who are Mostly Good.” It’s the second and last time Brooks seems to give the old pair a voice in her poem. If she had written “Two who are mostly good,” it would look like her own uncharacteristically presumptuous judgment about them. The capitalization suggests that “Mostly Good” is the old pair’s self-conception, and that it’s important to them. All their lives, they’ve tried to conduct themselves morally, and they’ve more or less succeeded. Not only are they mostly good people, but they’ve been mostly good for so long that they feel they’ve earned the Formal Designation. It’s a victory, and all the more authentic for being qualified. It’s also irrevocable, the rare possession that can’t be taken away from them. My grandfather used to wear a baseball cap that said “Too Old To Die Young” (note the initial capitals). Along with the indignities of age come a few privileges, including the knowledge that certain things will always, now, be true of you.

Since “their” is a possessive pronoun, “their day” is a possession, too — one that not only can be taken away but has been: the Bean Eaters “have lived their day,” Brooks announces, conclusively. And yet those are far from the poem’s concluding words. Its very next word, in fact, is “But,” which places everything that follows “have lived their day” in opposition to it. The old pair spends the rest of the poem — more than half of it — pushing back against the notion that today isn’t also theirs.

And yet consider what that pushing back entails: “putting on their clothes / And putting things away.” These seem like merely the obvious things to do in light of the alternatives. But by placing them on the far side of that adversative conjunction, Brooks manages to suggest that there’s something improbable, counterintuitive, even quietly heroic, about getting dressed and returning clean flatware to its drawer. And of course she’s right. There is something remarkable about people “who have lived their day” choosing to persist in their daily rituals, rather than to despair. There is something impressive about people putting on their clothes when it’s physically taxing to do so and they’re not going anywhere. And the fact that it’s a commonplace choice — that poor, elderly people put on their clothes and put things away every day — doesn’t make it any less heroic. (Don’t heroes always say, “I just did what anyone would have done”?) This part of the poem always makes me think of my grandmother, who in her final years hung a little mirror at waist-level on the wall by her apartment’s front door. When I was wheeling her out to go to dinner, she’d have me stop there so that she could put on lipstick.

The other thing the Bean Eaters keep on stubbornly doing is “remembering.” It’s the longest word in the poem, and its appearance (and immediate reappearance) inaugurates not only a new stanza but a new rhythm. The poem slows and dilates in its final lines, as a sense of austerity gives way to one of abundance. First, there are those wistful ellipses: “And remembering…” The line itself trails off, the way people sometimes do when memory overtakes them, or when they worry that they might be saying too much. Brooks won’t presume to name the Bean Eaters’ memories the way that, moments later, she’ll name their possessions. But she will tell you what she sees when she sees them remembering: “twinklings and twinges.” How brilliantly those two words convey the richness and variety of the pair’s interior life. Old friends, first kisses, and children’s births are recalled with “twinklings,” from the Old English “twinclian,” “to wink.” Deaths, disappointments, and injuries suffered and inflicted are recalled with twinges, from “twengan,” “to pinch.” The two words represent opposite ends of the spectrum of memory-summoned feelings. But Brooks has placed them next to each other, because joy and pain are always proximate: When your first kiss comes back to you, your first heartbreak can’t be far behind. Twinges follow twinklings as surely in memory as they do in the poem — the two words aren’t, themselves, twins, but they’re certainly a pair.

In poetry, an indented line is typically an overspill of the one above it, which was too long for the page to accommodate. “The Bean Eaters,” distinctively, concludes with two such indented lines. If you look up different versions of the poem, you’ll see the penultimate and antepenultimate lines breaking in different places, depending on the margins. You’ll also see that the first letters of the last two lines are never capitalized, unlike the first letters of every other line. In other words, what appear to be the poem’s final three lines are in fact one extraordinarily long line: “As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.” The ideal page for “The Bean Eaters” would perhaps be two feet wide, so that the line could be its sprawling self.

It is not until the last line of the poem, then, that we learn precisely where it’s set: in “their rented back room.” It’s hard to think of another poem in which four consecutive words do so much work so quietly. Not “apartment,” not “flat,” not “kitchenette”: “room,” singular. Maybe the poem’s ideal page is a narrow one, after all, because it forces that final line to pile up on itself, just as a lifetime’s possessions do if they’re kept in a single room. The word suggests a poverty of space, which, ironically, makes possible the heartening sense of fullness that follows.

What precedes “room” is a master class in the use of cumulative adjectives. It is a “back room” — a cheap one, with a view of the alley and its trash cans, if it has a view. The phrase “back room” also evokes secrecy, invisibility, forbiddenness; it brings to mind the back entrance, the back of the line, the back of the bus, and other marginal spaces in which an elderly black couple would’ve spent much of their lives. Moreover, it’s a “rented back room.” Meager as it may be, it’s more than they can afford to own, even after two lifetimes’ worth of labor. Having lived their day, the old pair survives not only on borrowed time but in borrowed space. And yet it’s “their rented back room” — the possessive again, pushing back against any sense of deprivation. They’ve lived in the room long enough to have a proprietary feeling about it. “Their rented” may be the world’s subtlest oxymoron. There’s no subjectivity to any of these adjectives, no implicit judgment. It’s not “that sad, claustrophobic room.” The simple facts, observed and recorded, are more complex than anything we might say about them.

The long last line is made even longer by Brooks’ repeated use of the word “and” where convention would place commas: “full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.” To appreciate the effects of this substitution, try restoring the commas: “full of beads, receipts, dolls, cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.” It’s rushed and perfunctory, isn’t it? — a mere inventory. The old pair felt that these things were worth saving, and Brooks wants to honor that by slowing the line down, inviting the reader to linger over each item in the series. She wants us to feel the beads between our fingers. “And” is an additive conjunction, of course, and its repetition turns the list into a record not only of the objects but of their accumulation. The nouns evoke the things they name, but “and … and … and” evokes the unnamed piles and stacks and overstuffed cupboards. Commas return to the line after the fourth item, “cloths,” by which time the reader is probably ready for that rhythmic change.

Speaking of lingering over each item in the series, I recommend it. There are seven of them, all plural nouns. Most of them name something non-functional, but each has a specific function within the poem. Arriving, as they do, in an almost satirically long line, they bring a sudden feeling of flushness, of surplus — like coming into an unexpected inheritance. Recall the poem’s other concrete nouns: “beans,” “chipware,” “wood,” “flatware,” “clothes.” Everything was strictly essential, utilitarian, and now the room is “full of beads … dolls … tobacco crumbs, vases, and fringes.” However inexpensive these things may be, they’re luxury items by the poem’s standards, delightfully useless, or used only to delight.

And each one is useless in a slightly different way. “Beads” and “fringes” are adornments that don’t currently adorn anything, but that have been deemed too special to discard. (Beads also recall beans, both in appearance and in name.) “Dolls” could be keepsakes from the woman’s childhood. Or perhaps the pair had children, and now have grandchildren or great-grandchildren who visit. “Cloths” could be decorative — made of fine fabric — or cleaning rags, or some of each. The word connotes care being taken, in any case. “Tobacco crumbs” are the only true detritus on the list, the only things that haven’t been deliberately saved. But they too are evidence of comfort in small pleasures: Sometimes he enjoys a pipe after dinner. If their presence points to the clumsiness or the failing eyesight of old age, it also suggests that a little waste isn’t the end of the world. The pair can’t afford much, but they can afford some tobacco, and can even afford to drop a few crumbs on the floor without missing them.

The “vases” are especially poignant for being plural, and for being empty. They may have held fresh or artificial flowers at some point; now they wait to hold them. Like the beads and fringes, they’re for an imagined future. And so, presumably, are the “receipts” — the only purely practical items on the list. But how practical are they, really? Don’t we know, or at least suspect, that they’re old receipts for things long since used up or lost or broken? Their function, I think, is psychological: proof of ownership. The Bean Eaters are an elderly black couple living in a rented back room in the United States in the mid-20th century. Their parents may have been slaves; their grandparents probably were. They’ve been denied property, to say nothing of prosperity, all their lives at every turn. A receipt is a tangible reassurance that this thing, at least, belongs to us. It’s a document whose full value may be understood only by those on the margins, the fringes — which brings me to that multivalent word.

Brooks places “fringes” at the end of a singularly long line, and of the poem itself. It’s an obvious choice, but also a quietly ironic one, since margins are so central to poetry. Pauses, however brief, punctuate what comes before and after them, which makes the line break an additional piece of punctuation that poets can deploy. And the pause that follows a poem’s last word is, needless to say, the longest one of all. Why would Brooks want to leave that particular word, “fringes,” ringing in the reader’s ears, to throw so much emphasis on something so unassuming? I suspect I’ve already answered that question at least twice: Throwing emphasis on the unassuming is what “The Bean Eaters” is all about. And placing “fringes” on the poem’s extreme eastern and southern borders forces the reader to think about the word’s other meanings, about edges and boundaries, and all of the ways that life has pushed the Bean Eaters toward them. They’re old, they’re poor, and they’re black in an ageist, classist, racist world. From “yellow” we can infer that they’re light-skinned, which may have afforded them a modest social privilege earlier in life, relative to other African-Americans — the “high” in the now-dated term “high yellow.” But even a meager privilege can be a source of resentment among the underprivileged. It’s possible that the Bean Eaters felt at least somewhat ostracized by both whites and blacks. Now they’re “old” and “yellow,” a pairing that brings to mind faded paper, yesterday’s news. The “fringes” that once hung from a fancy lampshade or bordered a favorite pillow may be redolent of sweet memories for the Bean Eaters. But the word sounds a more complex note to the reader who hears both the second meaning and the distant rhyme, not with “twinklings” but with “twinges.”

This reader, of course, may be hearing different things in Brooks’ poem than you hear in it. The appreciation of poetry is always personal, and “The Bean Eaters,” particularly, strikes me as a poem of gestures, an invitation to infer. I don’t think that’s the case with Philip Larkin’s “Mr Bleaney.” It has a specific agenda.

Larkin once defined a poem, wonderfully and preposterously, as “a verbal device that will reproduce [an] emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time.” I love it that he believed that, because I think it made some of his best poems possible. It was one of those creatively liberating limitations. Larkin sincerely thought that if he could find the right words for some aspect of human experience, any reasonable reader would come around to feeling exactly the way that he — a brilliant, depressed, alcoholic, jazz-loving, commitment-averse, death-obsessed, mildly misanthropic, chronically dissatisfied Englishman — felt about it. If Larkin had realized how audacious and blinkered this was, he never would’ve produced “Love Songs in Age” or “Reference Back” or “Next, Please.” But anyone who writes poems with such a definition in mind is likely to end up stage-managing the reader’s experience from time to time.

Mr Bleaney

This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.” Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. “Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.”
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
“I’ll take it.” So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits — what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways —
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

Like “The Bean Eaters,” “Mr Bleaney” concludes with a memorable flourish. But where Brooks was seeing how long she could let a single line of verse unspool, Larkin was testing the limits of syntax. Those two concluding quatrains may be my favorite periodic sentence in all of poetry. Delayed so long, the last-second arrival of its subject and predicate devastates: “I don’t know.” It’s a spring-loaded poem that snaps shut like a bear trap. To imagine a sentence composed of the same words but structured conventionally — “But I don’t know if he stood and watched the frigid wind / Tousling the clouds…” — is to understand the difference between poetry and prose.

Under the spell of such writing, the reader might easily overlook its sophistry, its overdetermined gloominess, or the fact that its worldview is as cramped as Mr Bleaney’s quarters. We “don’t know” how the old man felt about his circumstances, but we damn sure know how we’re supposed to feel about them.

The poem’s first stanzas, in which the speaker is shown the room and agrees to rent it, are a set piece: The landlady is clearly vapid. Prattling on about trivia, she might as well be her jabbering radio. There’s a recording of Larkin reading “Mr Bleaney” at poetryarchive.org; listen to it if you have any doubts about his attitude toward her. He makes her sound like the unhelpful scatterbrained witness in a television murder mystery.

Larkin uses quick cutaways to create unflattering juxtapositions in these stanzas. Standing so close to the “strip of building land, / Tussocky, littered,” the house’s “bit of garden” looks especially small and patchy. “I’ll take it,” the speaker says, immediately after noting all of the room’s deficiencies. He might have added, “I’m hoping to write a poem about resignation in this room, you see.”

And look at the withering adjectives Larkin uses throughout the poem: the curtains are “thin and frayed”; the only chair is “upright”; the wind is “frigid”; the bed is “fusty.” Where Brooks offers “their rented back room,” Larkin gives us “one hired box.” The end of his life is in view, and poor Mr Bleaney has “no more to show” than a bedroom that might as well be a coffin. Because “box” is singular, “one” isn’t strictly necessary there, but Larkin wants to hammer home the nails. The grin he places on Mr Bleaney’s face looks like a death-rictus.

I can imagine a reader defending Larkin against this charge of condescension by pointing out that the speaker — Larkin’s proxy in the poem — has rented the same room, and is presumably passing judgment on himself as well. But self-reflexive condescension is still condescension. And in any case, the speaker is apparently younger than Mr Bleaney was, and views the arrangement as temporary. It’s not merely “having no more to show” that makes Mr Bleaney pathetic, it’s having no more to show “at his age.” With that phrase, the poem graduates from patronizing to scolding. Really, Mr Bleaney. At your age.

But of course Mr Bleaney has so much more to show than one hired box. Larkin, himself, has already shown it. In fact, Larkin offers a lot more biographical information about Mr Bleaney than Brooks does about the Bean Eaters. We know that Mr Bleaney had a job: Larkin once said that the grotesque-sounding “Bodies” referred to an auto works. We know that Mr Bleaney enjoyed gardening and was good at it. If spending time in the yard meant looking at an ugly strip of building land, he was apparently undeterred. We know that he liked sauce, preferred it to gravy. He enjoyed a familiar, maybe almost familial, relationship with his landlady; he knew her well enough to egg her on to buy a radio when she was skeptical, and she was obviously fond of him. He enjoyed rooting for the local football club, and he always put money on them when they played “the four aways.” He summered with friends in the seaside town of Frinton and celebrated Christmas with his sister. It actually sounds like a rather full life. But the poem deems it a failure, because the poem’s standard for success is entirely material. If it didn’t occur to Mr Bleaney to feel miserable in his tiny room, that was just one more pathetic thing about him.

I don’t mean to suggest that the value system in “Mr Bleaney” is necessarily its author’s. Larkin’s feelings about money were complicated, to say the least. And every poem is a fiction, however liberally it draws from lived experience. I think “Mr Bleaney” is a definite but limited achievement because Larkin had definite, limited ambitions for it. He set out to build a verbal device that would reproduce an emotional concept in the reader — roughly, a shock of recognition at a feeling of appropriate failure. He tried to guarantee that effect by offering a literal metric for success: “how we live measures our own nature.” And he basically succeeded. The poem is beloved, I think, because it so forcefully evokes a feeling that many readers recognize: the slow eclipsing of the conviction that they deserve “better” by the dread that they don’t. “Mr Bleaney” allows them to savor the sting of that feeling again, vicariously this time; Larkin summons the company, then the misery.

The poem also offers the abundant pleasures of Larkin’s craftsmanship —musicianship, really. Sentences lengthen as the poem settles into its new digs, stretching out across more and more lines. Larkin creates a sort of prosodic syncopation by playing speech stress against metrical stress; I wasn’t surprised to hear him, on that poetryarchive.org recording, flip the final iamb: “I don’t know.” And he subdues his end-rhymes with heavy enjambment throughout the poem. Its music is audible but muted, like a radio on the other side of a wall.

“Mr Bleaney” is a seductive poem by a poet who could be merely coercive. Few writers in any genre have wielded the first-person plural as confidently as Larkin: In the brilliant but annoying “Aubade,” he uses “we” six times to express how terrified he is of death. Sometimes misery kidnaps company. But “Mr Bleaney,” with its delays and dissolves and slow-building intensity, pulls more than it pushes, and beckons more than it pulls.

It’s hard to be successfully seductive, though, without being a bit reductive — accentuating the negative, in Larkin’s case. Reproducing a single emotional concept, the poem preempts all others. Mr Bleaney is a character, finally, and his one hired box is just big enough for the necessary props. The Bean Eaters are people, and their rented back room is a world.

There’s space in that world for disappointment and dissatisfaction. But there’s no sense of failure in “The Bean Eaters,” despite the fact that its subjects can afford neither sauce nor gravy. Why would there be? Worldly failure requires the possibility of worldly success, something that the old pair — black Americans born in the 19th century — probably haven’t wasted much time entertaining. As a matter of fact, receiving less than what you warrant and making do with it might be a pretty fair summary of the African-American experience, or at least of one glaring facet of it. The belief that society is a pure meritocracy, that you deserve what you possess and nothing more, is a white privilege, even when it feels like a curse. And in any case, one senses that the Bean Eaters have long since moved on from such narrow notions of abundance. Success and failure aren’t nearly as relevant to their lives as twinklings and twinges. Their room is full; so are they. They’ve lived their day. They are Mostly Good.

Toward the end of her life, Gwendolyn Brooks worried about being better remembered for her quiet early lyrics than for the more socially and formally radical poetry she wrote after 1967: “Sometimes I fear these anthologies prefer me presented as a minor detailist, principally interested in beans and daisies and summer eves,” she wrote. As a booster of “The Bean Eaters,” I’m self-conscious about being part of that problem — the middle-class white guy who loves his Brooks but prefers it with milk and sugar. To be clear, I’m a booster of all Gwendolyn Brooks poems. But I also feel the urge to push back, respectfully, against her diminishment of that early work, because I consider A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca to be as radical as anything an American poet has written. The young Gwendolyn Brooks paid a prodigy’s attention to poor black city-dwellers, revealing the dignity, the complexity, and the lyricism of their lives. No prior American poet had done precisely that, or had done that so precisely, and few will ever do it half as well. “The Bean Eaters” is the work of a detailist, to be certain, but not a minor one.

Eric McHenry

Eric McHenry

Eric McHenry is a professor of English at Washburn University and a past poet laureate of Kansas. His books of poetry include Odd Evening, a finalist for the Poets’ Prize; Potscrubber Lullabies, which received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; and Mommy Daddy Evan Sage, a collection of children’s poems illustrated by Nicholas Garland. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife and two children.
Eric McHenry

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Author: Eric McHenry

Eric McHenry is a professor of English at Washburn University and a past poet laureate of Kansas. His books of poetry include Odd Evening, a finalist for the Poets’ Prize; Potscrubber Lullabies, which received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; and Mommy Daddy Evan Sage, a collection of children’s poems illustrated by Nicholas Garland. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife and two children.