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For Sidney Bechet
‘For Sidney Bechet’ is a jazz poem, a dedication to the famous Jazz musician, Sidney Bechet. Bechet was a traditional jazz clarinettist, not like those of the Modernist movement that Larkin disliked.
To compare their lives, once couldn’t have found two men more dissimilar – Bechet once got into an argument about music with a man in Paris while on tour and determined the only way to resolve the matter was a duel – he shot a passer-by while the gun duel occurred in the street. It is hard to imagine the reserved Larkin ever taking a gun out on anyone, particularly in regard to his own writings – when he himself didn’t think they were up to much. Yet, one thing connects them: they were both artists, and it seems that Larkin wrote this poem with his own readers in mind. That in the same way the music moves him, he would want his readers to be moved.
The first line is musical. It mentions Bechet’s “note” and Larkin places the verb at the end in order to stretch its length across the line. The next line refers to “New Orleans reflected in the water”, the place where Bechet was born and also the place where jazz and blues emerged. “Reflected in the water” is a typical Larkinesque observation – for New Orleans is as far south as you can go in America before hitting the water.
The music, in some ways, is like the advertisements in poems like ‘Essential Beauties’. It “wakes” “in all ears appropriate falsehoods”. Some people, when they like to Bechet, imagine New Orleans, Larkin imagines, with its “legendary Quarter, / Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles” – “quadrilles” being a type of dance. Parts of New Orleans are very beautiful, and for some, this romantic image of “Everyone making love and going shares” (taking it easy) is painted by the music.
In the second stanza, a different image is awakened by the music, when people shout, “Oh, play that thing!” a common jazz cry. Other people imagine “Storyvilles” – the legal red-light district of New Orleans at the time. These people imagine they “licence” brothels, and have “sporting-house girls” – the prostitutes – “like circus tigers”. It is an interesting simile, and contains the ideas of a red-light district well. Like “tigers” there is something dangerous and exciting about it, yet “circus tigers” are actually tame – these prostitutes are tame too, just trying to make a living. The music conjures exotic image of “circus tigers” and “rupees”, yet still Larkin makes clear it is only to “pretend their fads”.
The poem moves on to a third type of person that the music affects still more differently. The phrase “scholars manqués” is from French, and means “would-be scholars”. These are the type of person for whom jazz becomes an obsession and they are would-be experts, “wrapped up in personnels” – the list of members in the jazz band.
In the penultimate stanza, we reach the most personal part: “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes.” For the persona, the music is orgasmic, hitting all the right notes, and giving a sense of affirmation. Larkin takes possession of the music, as we see pronoun “My” and “Crescent City” – a colloquial term for New Orleans – “Is where your speech alone is understood” – the music speaks to him.
In the final two lines, we move into the abstract. The second-to-last line describes how, for Larkin, the music is “the natural sound of good”. The final line, “Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity” refers to the slavery that jazz came from. “Scattering” can have two interpretations. In listening to the music, is it somehow scattering to grief, dispelling it? Or is the “scattering” an act of making it more widespread?
“Scored pity” could be a pun on a music score, but could also refer to deeply engraved pity we feel when listening. Pity comes hand in hand with pain and suffering, and so, to sound out grief also often makes the most joyous art – how Larkin’s poems work on me! That’s perhaps how the music is the sound of “good”.
Yet, underpinning all this is doubt: the same fallacy that impresses upon all the other interpretations of the music. Larkin, when listening, has a moment of transcendence, but ultimately, is this just another “appropriate falsehood” that “wakes”? Like how "love should be", is it promising something that never can be realised as it is an "untruth"?