Thursday, October 15, 2009

On a Minor Poem of Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin, who lived a life of quiet desperation, working as a librarian nearly all his adult life, managed to achieve the status of best-loved poet in England over the last half of the 20th Century. Larkin was not an attractive man. His poems are modest, his assertions cautious, his manner self-effacing (even self-deprecating). Nevertheless, Larkin can be moving. One of my favorites, which I first read as an undergraduate at Berkeley in the Sixties, is


Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river's slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,
Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires--
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers--
A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives
Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands 
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.  
Having fed myself a steady diet of Spender, Auden and Betjeman (among the English), I initially found this writing to be unambitious, clipped, cowed, even timid.  
Why, then, did it speak to me? What was I responding to? The superficial mannerisms of the style seem so stolidly dull--like so much of the careful, stodgy versifying that characterized the dutiful, respectful Fifties--that it's hard to see how Larkin makes it work so well for his purposes. Perhaps it's precisely Larkin's self-deprecating stance that makes such lines a kind of simultaneous burlesque of that tended conservatism of form, a resigned, reluctant indulgence in mediocrity, limited possibility.           

The music of the poem made a claim on my admiration, partly, I think, through its apparent forsaken quality of sentiment. I imagined the speaker to be driving, perhaps desperately, seeking escape--from what didn't seem to matter. Driving all night, possibly, through the mixed countryside of industrial Britain, towards a seaside town, sea air, "unfenced existence."   
The catalogue of sights and landscape is accurate, but depressingly uninspiring: The messy edges between urban settlement, and a scrawny Nature that is anything but poetic in the Victorian sense. What a hopeless vision of 20th Century civilization it gives. This is the Britain of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, bleak, drab, and pointless. How shall the speaker define himself against this inertia of crumbling monotony? 

Britain was once a seafaring nation, an island nation. And it still is. How many generations of young men, hemmed in by the narrowest of expectation and custom, longed to escape to another reality? This is the symbolic tendency in the poem, its seaside vantage the launching point for a thousand--a hundred thousand--dreams of adventure.

But Larkin was a librarian, and no adventurer. He didn't travel, was socially somewhat inept, homely--the compass of his life was circumscribed by the predictable, the bland. So perhaps the poem serves as a kind of gesture, a quixotic turn. "Loneliness clarifies"--the phrase almost overemphasized by its placement at the line break to the subsequent 4th stanza, the heavy accent upon "CLAR-i-fies"--suggests that the value in such an exercise, a spin to the coast over familiar terrain, is in the confirmation of the limits we may know by heart, even despise, but must ruefully accept, maybe even welcome. This precarious balance between the rejection and the acceptance of what modern life may offer us--not the fake version, but the real tawdry one of our daily round--is what animates Larkin's best poems. We may long for the rawness and bracing challenge of direct experience, but we know in our bones how much we cherish the modern paradigm of limited comfort.          


Kirby Olson said...

He had lots of long affairs, some secret and some open, and was fairly wild, in his opinions and in his life. I only know this from a review I read of a bio, but just checked this in Wiki, and it seems his life was quite wildly out of control. He was a gangster of the sheets.

He does look homely, though.

Maybe the women were homely, too.

Homely is a strange word. Because homes aren't necessarily homely. so how does the word arise?

I like Larkin's poems, too. I haven't read a lot of them, though.

How would you rate him next to Eigner? Eigner had a fairly quiet life, at least in terms of between-the-sheets activities.

Georges Bataille was also a professional librarian.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Minor poem?

Anyone who would have been England's poet laureate but for a bad case of writer's block can't have ever written anything 'minor'.People waited for the next Larkin poem as eagerly as the Victorians for Dickens's next installment. He was immensely popular in his day (in a way poets Basil Bunting and Ted Hughes never could be) and perhaps the bookish and unassuming demeanor had something to do with it. But it was the language, always marvelously & elegantly suited to topic and mood.

More interesting to me is the question of 'category': what kind of poet was he, and what type his poetry? Larkin is modernist, as much as were Lowell, Auden, and John Berryman,sharing with them with a real (almost virtuosic) penchant for rhythms (what you call "careful, stodgy versifying"), irony, allusion: in a word, a simple (accessible) language that hid a complexity and solemnity few poets ever achieve. It was this almost charming accessibility that separates him from the always cold formalism of Eliot and Pound. For all his talk of "objective correlative" Eliot never got as close as Larkin to the poem's inscrutable heart.

In its observational and introspective reach,I would even dare to compare this 'minor' poem of Larkin's to Arnold's "Dover Beach". It is a delight just to read it aloud.

Thanks for posting it, Curtis.

J said...

Not sure on bio-graphical details, but Larkin's syntax sounds right to me--tho' poetical expert I am not, unlike Herr Kirby.

Larkin seems mature and sober in some sense, and mostly free of hipster-romantic angst. The beauty of cynicism

Curtis Faville said...


I'm not down on the poem, or its form.

One must, though, acknowledge its polite resignation. It isn't by any stretch of the imagination an experiment in verse, merely an appropriation of staid form.

That Larkin does it very well--indeed, breathes new life into it--is a tribute to his gift. I have the same feeling about Hecht and Justice. Though in their hands, it becomes a much more self-consciously ironic performance. That ironic quality is in Larkin too, though much more disguised--that's the self-deprecating aspect I was talking about, i.e., "I'm this potty librarian, embarrassed in love, modest of means, who writes photo-album verse" but then proceeds to knock your socks off with a poem like this one.

J said...

the always cold formalism of Eliot and Pound.

TSE, maybe, but the Pound of the Cantos was no cold formalist--the Pound of the Cantos offers a polylingual condemnation of finance, of anglo-zionist corruption, militarists and greed, and of literary decoration as well. Dante meets, oh Browning or something via Thomas Jefferson

Who started that chant? It was Bly methinx, poetic sunday schooler and leftist-lite. Pound's symphony may be a bit raw at times, but of greater sublimity than Larkin's dixieland (or bly's fiddle-hymns)