I was talking to a friend about a relationship I’d been in at university and she asked if I regretted it. I replied that I did (and do) but only in the way I regret every decision preceding and following it as well. And then I thought of the poem ‘As Bad as a Mile’ by Philip Larkin:
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
It’s ur-Larkin (or I should say urgh-Larkin)—depressing, fatalistic, quiescent—and yet I’ve always been drawn to its depiction of failure. Each word feels grimly preordained: there’s ‘shied’, with its echo of postlapsarian shyness/shame; ‘striking’, as in out rather than lucky; ‘skidding’, which speaks for itself; ‘spreading’, which connotes illness or Larkin’s previously-sighted green leaves of grief; and ‘unbitten’ which, in this case, transforms “once bitten, twice shy” into “once bitten, forever shied”. Every note rings with disappointment.
Larkin begins with the present participle ‘watching’, as if the speaker has become a bystander to the disaster of their own life, and though a single event—a bad throw—is being described, the use of the present continuous tense hints at a larger, unbiddable chain of causation. Failure is not comprised of single actions in time; it’s written into us.
Most people think of holding on to regret as a bad thing; others temper this and say: “I regret X, but it wasn’t all bad and, hey, I learnt a lot.” We might regret moving jobs or buying a gym subscription or entering into a bad relationship—experiences that could always have turned out better or been better managed. For Larkin, this is just steam rising from the cold, hard fact of failure.
We live out of regret. By which I mean, an inbuilt sense of wrongness, of error, of hurt. The self is not a precisely stacked set of dishes, or the human manifestation of a LinkedIn profile, one shining achievement leading on inevitably from another. The self is a negative image, the shadow cast by life’s dismal glare.
Larkin’s title draws on the expression “a miss is as good as a mile,” which I interpret as meaning: the act of aiming for anything creates the expectation of loss. Or, in the words of Homer Simpson: “trying is the first step towards failure.” Once missed, always missed. Which is where delusion and habit come in, softening the blow; in our dreams, the apple core always hits the centre of the bin.
Perhaps, though, what I like about this poem is the surprisingly utopian gesture at its heart, the sense that what Larkin is really trying to do is admit failure a priori and, by doing so, overcome it. A world of total failure, after all, is the same as one in which no failure exists at all. If we could miss and regret everything, nothing (and no one) might finally be un-missed.