Philip Larkin: Poems

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) was deeply interested in Yeats, but after reading Hardy, he wrote: “Yeats came to seem so artificial – all that crap about masks and Crazy Jane and all the rest. It all rang so completely unreal.” He also rejected the allusiveness and fragmentation of international modernism, striving instead for a more colloquial style that “affirms rather than contravenes the restrictions of ordinary life,” and he is known, among other things, for the humorous tone of his poetry. He was in “the Movement” with Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn, and all published in Robert Conquest’s anthology of 1956, New Lines. 

“CHURCH GOING,” 1955

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Larkin's easy vision here of empty churches moves against the curiosity of religious (especially Catholic) revival around the same time in the works of Murdoch, Greene, and Waugh. When he considers it "A shape less recognisable each week,/ A purpose more obscure," one wonders if he speaks of poetry as well? The poem ends with him drawn to the church in spite of his own faithlessness, as to literature itself. 

“TALKING IN BED,” 1964

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Versus the “emblem” and the effort, the poem resolves in the meager hope to be simply “not untrue” and “not unkind,” though again, in the artistic project, this is all one can hope for as well.

“AMBULANCES,” 1964

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable insided a room
The trafic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

I’m interested in the opening image of the confessional here, not least because Foucault draws a parallel between the medicalization of the body and the way the bourgeois cult of life has replaced the former Christian confessional in creating discourse about sexuality. There is a fatidic note here – “all streets in time are visited” – though the phrase “all streets in time” also provides the idea of time and space as an urban grid, quite lovely. The “solving emptiness” of death touches everyone who sees, but then moves on with their day, as in Mrs. Dalloway. The loosening of the mind the speaker imagines in the ambulance reminds me of Isherwood on Auden at his death – the loss of all that brilliance, wasting away.

“HIGH WINDOWS,” 1974

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives–
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The first stanza treats birth control as the symbol of a freedom which, rather than shocking the aging speaker, fills him with envy and fascination and touches the ordinary world with the magic of unbounded, non-procreative sexuality. Here Larkin reverses the conventional wisdom of the old as benighted, as instead vibrant minds able to project their knowledge backward and forward, though they are, of course, wrong to some extent. The poem ends with the involuntarily religious image of high windows  looking over “deep blue air” – into a freedom which is endless, but which also entails some loss. There is a sense here that he is seeing through the glass – the trick or structure of ideology – that he is no longer protected from what is outside, which is “nothing” and “nowhere.” Does Larkin play a kind of O’Hara in the British tradition? It sometimes seems like he’s masquerading with a faux American grunginess and materiality…

“THIS BE THE VERSE,” 1974

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
The title comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem.” I’m interested here in the contrast between fad and fashion and the deep, geological model of human misery.

“AUBADE,” 1977

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The “special way of being afraid/ No trick dispels” is unique to our historical moment, Larkin suggests. We experience “nothing more terrible, nothing more true” than the bald fact of “dying and being dead,” which “Flashes afresh to hold and horrify” us. “Religion used to try,/ That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die.” We fear exactly because we cannot sense in death; this cannot save us from dread. “And so it stays just on the edge of vision,/ A small unfocused blur, a standing chill,” like the peripheries in Ashbery. I love the “uncaring/ Intricate rented world,” which also reminds me somehow of Yeats’ complexities. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house,” perpetrating the illusion of continuity.

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