Philip Larkin 2008

Caroline Allen
Note by Caroline Allen, updated more than 1 year ago
Caroline Allen
Created by Caroline Allen almost 8 years ago
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English (Studied Poetry) Note on Philip Larkin 2008, created by Caroline Allen on 09/08/2013.

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In the course of my poetry studies these past two years Philip Larkin - for his general persistence in chronicling ordinary lives in predominantly ordinary situations through ordinary, if poetically constructed, language - became one of my favourite poets. That he is pessimistic or has a pessimistic poetical vision will be explored. That he is misanthropic, as some critics have suggested, is wholly inaccurate. Larkin is no more misanthropic than Raymond Carver is patronising or Patrick Kavanagh is elitist. For poetry to remain relevant the fact remains thus: for every poet that records love, another must record hate; for every poet that examines life, another must examine death. For his part, Larkin habitually examines life in the face - blind or otherwise - of death.The poem ‘Ambulances’ is a good starting point, not least because it was the first Larkin poem that we studied and one that immediately resonated with me. In this poem the arbitrariness of death, symbolised by the ambulance, is studied.‘They come to rest at any kerb:,’ writes Larkin.‘All streets in time are visited.’In a sense, these two lines encapsulate the underpinning rationale for Larkin’s general motivation: death can and will intrude upon every life, often without warning. How do we respond to that? How are we to ‘sense the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do’?This poem plays upon the common fear that even the sight of an ambulance can still evoke. It is remarkable for contrasting the experience of ‘the wild white face’ that is carried into the ambulance with the people who witness this event and their response to it.‘Poor soul,‘They whisper at their own distress,’ writes Larkin, in a tone that might be interpreted as cynical or disparaging but is, in fact, utterly accurate. The truth, it seems, is not always beautiful. And in a world where we can be reminded of our own mortality at any turn - simply consider the evening news - the individual human response is frequently selfish, or perhaps more precisely, self-interested. We are, after all, individuals and, despite protests to the contrary, we are ultimately concerned with our own individual fate.It is not by accident that Larkin examines the response of the bystanders before the plight of the dying patient. Our reading of the bystanders’ response - our own response - informs and lends almost shameful pathos to our reading of the final two stanzas, where the patient lies ‘unreachable inside a room’, facing death and ‘the sudden shut of loss’, alone and in fear and sadness.In Larkin’s universal scheme the patient’s experience will be shared by us all. And for this moment we live vicariously through the patient suddenly dying in an ambulance, an experience that ‘dulls to distance all we are’.Larkin’s ‘truth’ is uncomfortable, even taboo. Since thoughts could be formulated, poets and philosophers have contemplated death. But, for the majority of us, death remains something to be considered at a distance and only when absolutely necessary. We dress death up in funerals and wakes and the afterlife, knowing, all the while, that we know nothing of it. Larkin’s aim, repeatedly, is to candidly examine the ‘Everyman’ response to dying and the effect of this response upon the living.‘The Explosion’ furthers our understanding of Larkin’s philosophy and further detracts from those who would damn him misanthropic. The detractors sometimes point to Larkin’s detachment in the poetry, suggesting he considers himself superior to his subjects. It is true, Larkin, as observer, is seldom witnessed in the work; he is more Patrick Kavanagh on the Inniskeen Road (another great chronicler of the ordinary) than the striking sense of personality that runs through much of Sylvia Plath’s work. His purpose in this, however, is to let the work - the events and the subjects - stand alone, for good or ill. He is not judging - he is recording.The explosion (and its aftermath) is, of course, terrible for the miners and their families - the poet’s presence or contrived sentimentality is not required to make this clear - and the truth remains that, terrible as these events may be, the world will not come to a standstill because of them.Thus, following the tremor at noon, ‘cows stopped chewing for a second.’The miners have already been sketched in the opening stanzas.‘Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe smoke’.The skill of the image is in its simplistic immediacy: these plain and rough and hard-working men ‘in beards and moleskins, / Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter.’ The title of the poem, of course, sets a disastrous tone from the outset, and we read on with a sense of dread as they walk, irreversibly, ‘[t]hrough the tall gates standing open’. Significantly, one of their numbers chases rabbits and protects a nest of lark’s eggs. This warm and sensitive instance - in the context of the poem - is made all the more powerful, firstly, by the detached, matter-of-fact manner in which Larkin records it:‘One chased after rabbits; lost them;Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.’The language is typical of Larkin; precise, clinical almost - hence the occasional accusation of detachment and/or superiority. His use of the semi-colon is particularly telling: he is listing these events, informing us of what happened, nothing but the ‘facts’ - we may adorn the language with emotion or sentiment if we choose and invariably we do. And here, again, is another source of power in Larkin’s writing, which anticipates the minimalist dogma ‘less is more’ that would become pervasive in much creative writing of the latter half of the twentieth century (particularly the American short story).Hence, there is no need to discuss the aftermath of the explosion, the pain and the grief. In this age of sensory over-exposure we are more than well equipped to fill in the imaginative and emotional blanks ourselves. Thus, the poem concludes by reflecting on visions that the women claimed to have had of their men at the time of the explosion, when these men were‘Larger than in life they managed -Gold as on a coin, or walkingSomehow from the sun towards them,One showing the eggs unbroken.’It is a hopeful, almost reverent, conclusion. Even in times of great distress we will find, from somewhere, the strength to carry on. What, we wonder, does the sun symbolise? And, finally, the episode of the lark’s eggs is completed and afforded a line of its own. The eggs are unbroken. Life will go on.There is a deep respect, affection even, for the competence of humanity in this writing, for the ability of mankind to cope.‘Wedding-Wind’ recounts the excitement of a just-married young woman on the verge of a new life. Again, the woman tells her story and Larkin remains removed (it is, after all, her story). And again, in terms of style, the language borders on the narratorial. This style, though not innovative on the part of Larkin, was the style he clearly felt best suited to his work: plain language to plainly describe plain people in commonplace situations.The wind is the central symbol in this poem, a force of energy that pulls the woman’s thoughts this way and that, drives the narrative and holds its two stanzas together. In a whirlwind she passed through her wedding day and into her wedding bed, where now she lies alone, ‘stupid in candlelight’ and barely knowing herself. Her husband secures the banging stable door and when he returns she is ‘sad / That any man or beast that night should lack / The Happiness I had.’She is giddy, perhaps even naïve, but her emotional state is understandable and endearing and she is drawn sympathetically. In a Larkin-esque turn no mention of consummation is made in this one-sided portrait of a wedding night. In fact, the husband never makes a proper appearance and ‘speaks’ just once, in third-person reportage. In this, Larkin gives himself room to focus more intently on the poem’s subject or protagonist.The next day she carries ‘a chipped pail to the chicken run.’ Perhaps this is a nightmarish image from the feminist perspective. Perhaps it is an idyllic image from the contemporary, middle-class, organic, ‘soccer-mom’ perspective. From our narrator’s perspective the moment marks an assured and responsible beginning to her new life. The wind, it seems, can even strip away naivety but it will still leave you breathless.‘All is the windHunting through clouds and forests, thrashingMy apron and the hanging clothes on the line.’The meaning of her life has become clear, each action a part of a greater and wonderful unified whole, ‘like a thread carrying beads’. In my reading of the poem I see the thread as being something fragile, something that can snap at any moment, dispersing your actions and the ‘meaning’ of your life. I imagine that this is an interpretation that Larkin would have realised. But, in the poem itself, the narrator would not entertain such an interpretation.‘Can even death dry upThese new delighted lakes,’ she asks, ‘ConcludeOur kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters.’Once more, in this poem’s denouement, the reflection verges on the sacred.Larkin’s rather glib comment that ‘writing about unhappiness is the source of my popularity’ can be filed in the vault under ‘U’ for ‘Unnecessary’ along with his poem ‘This Be The Verse’ and, indeed, his widely-known comment about that poem’s influence upon his legacy.Essentially, as I hope this answer has at least partially illustrated, Larkin is concerned with moments and with individuals. In his writing, at any rate, he cannot be deemed elitist. Furthermore, as stated at the outset of this answer, it is required that poets - or, in any case, some poets - examine areas that the rest of us find challenging, even in a manner that is challenging. The key to Larkin’s success is often his directness.A world of poetry that exclusively examined matters accessible only to academics would be a woefully lopsided poetic world. Neither should our ‘poetic world’ insist upon raising Man above his station, making us more relevant than we individually are.Essentially, and to his credit, Philip Larkin understood that an intense, detached and frank examination of the common moment and the common individual could and would grant us ‘greater’, universal insights and understanding.

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