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Monday, 12 September 2011

Rory Waterman on Henry King's 'Windower'

A Windower by Henry King

The house has too many rooms, now;
there’s too much room in the bed.

A daughter in the Met, a son
at Cambridge; at home, long quiet spells.

On bright days, he stands by the window
looking into the garden. A windower.

Twenty, thirty years like this? Years
of evenings, weekends. Christmases.
from New Poetries V © Henry King

Consider the title and the form. There is the ghost of cruel wit in the term 'windower', denoting (presumably) a widower who spends much of his time gazing redundantly out of a window, and this is preceded by the indefinite article, to remind us that he is one of many: 'A Windower'. And the claustrophobic little poem below this title is in couplets, each line having its partner. Then immediately the poem strikes us with other pairings, in the repetition and near-repetition of words and phrases ('too many rooms' / 'too much room', 'window' / 'windower', 'years' / 'Years'), and in the juxtaposition it sets up: his children – a daughter and a son – are doing well at the start of busy adult lives, and the poem's subject is alone and anything but busy nearer the end of his.

The first couplet is metrically the first two lines of a ballad stanza, but this is 'let down' by the more prosaic second couplet, emphasising the grim bathos of the subject’s life. The balladic rhyme our ear expects does not happen, just as the subject's apparently busy and productive life has been replaced without warning. Our windower’s existence is now marked by 'long quiet spells' – a superbly dull cliché that only emphasises the seeming emptiness and redundancy of his life. But, the word 'now' in the first line implies that once his big house was busy, that a family fitted it perfectly, and we should be appalled to realise that the man we pity could so easily be us. And like us he has – if he is lucky – plenty of time left for things to get even worse, the clink of internal rhyme at the end of the poem sounding with the finality of truth. He is in the anteroom to death, and the wait would appear to be quite a long one. How on earth did he end up like this? It hardly seems to have been his fault: his wife has died, not left him; and his children are pursuing success – perhaps much as their father did. I am reminded of Philip Larkin's words at the end of 'Dockery and Son', that life is replaced by 'what something hidden from us chose, / And age, and then the only end of age'. The windower exists in a purgatorial stasis brought about by what something hidden from him chose, a fate he might not have imagined.

So, what are we to take away from this short, tight piece of beautiful miserableness? King does not moralise, of course, but a message seems to inhere in the move from irreverent term of description to the portrait of what might be someone we know. We could be the son or daughter; or we could be on our way to becoming the windower, even if our lives seem successful, happy, ripe. Behind the grinding lethargy of the windower's life, then, is a call to urgency. What a marvellous, multi-faceted, emotionally intelligent poem.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific poem, Henry. We're reminded of James Merrill's '164 East 72nd Street', wherein, 'Today's memo from the Tenants' Committee deplores / Even the ongoing deterioration / Of the widows in our building.' That poem is available to read online here: