‘Born Yesterday’: Philip Larkin at 100

The 100th anniversary of the poet Philip Larkin’s birth took place earlier this week. Larkin is an important poet for me, yet I still somehow manage to underestimate the hold he has on the public imagination. If you mention poetry in this country to someone who doesn’t read it, they might still mention Larkin back. They might even quote him. The recent furore over the GCSE syllabus must have helped generate coverage but the BBC have also commissioned a lot of features (from poets, which is nice). The Philip Larkin Society and Larkin100 team has been incredibly busy.

It helps that Larkin makes such good material. He is present, tangible, in a way many writers aren’t. When we think about Larkin’s character we usually mean his attitudes, but the novelistic observations he’s so often praised for – a ring of water on a sheet of music or ‘an uncle shouting smut’ – are also deployed to paint memorable mini-self-portraits: the famous bicycle clips in ‘Church Going’ or the narrator in ‘Dockery and Sons’ who eats ‘an awful pie’ as they change trains. Then there’s the technology: for a famously reclusive man there is a fair amount of footage and recordings. This, I think, is not a coincidence. Larkin was probably the first generation for which making primetime features about poets was an option (possibly the last).

Another reason – perhaps the main reason – why Larkin feels ‘present’ today is the conversation that’s grown up around his actual character. As a result of the casual racism, sexism and classism revealed by Andrew Motion’s biography and the private letters, as well as the way women are represented in the poems themselves, even the most appreciative discussions of the poems now begin with a kind of ritual throat clearing – the point at which the author indicates that, obviously, they don’t share Larkin’s opinions. I understand why. I do it myself. Some of them indefensible.

But I increasingly think the urge to disassociate the man from the poems leads to some strange places. Every now and then I read one of Larkin’s advocates arguing for a clear division between the man and the work: the man was a rotter, but the work expresses (in the words of one TLS writer) ‘universal truths’. Or you have the late Clive James, possibly Larkin’s loudest cheerleader, who spoke of the way he ‘went narrow to go deep’, avoiding social issues in order to plumb the depths of human nature.

This isn’t my Larkin. For me, the poetry has always contained a sustained, consistent criticism of post-war society – its obsession with youth and beauty, its endless consumerism, its failed promises of freedom – all of which is contrasted with the realities of aging and increasing social isolation. There is a kind of willful turning away from so much else that was going on in the published poems, and a grim reactionariness to the man, especially later in life (there’s the throat clearing again). This is where critics who see Larkin as a poet of post-imperial self-pity have a point. But to cast Larkin’s poetry as fuzzy nostalgia, or to defend it on the grounds of its unique insight into universal ‘human nature’ is to miss the point: Larkin wrote about limits – and his approach to limits clearly had something to do with who he was and the times he lived in.

Personally, that particular sensibility – the concern with limits – has never felt like something from a bygone age, despite the period fittings. In the first episode of Simon Armitage’s ‘Larkin Revisited‘, a series of a series of short clips in which the poet laureate takes Larkin’s poems ‘for a spin’ to see how they bear up now, Armitage reads the poem ‘Born Yesterday’ with a group of dance students in Liverpool. Written for Sally Amis, daughter of Larkin’s friend Kingsley, the poem declines to wish the baby will be ‘beautiful’ or ‘a spring of innoncence and love’. Instead, Larkin wishes ‘what none of the others would’:

May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called

Implicitly, the students we hear from recognise this as a response to their own world of socially conditioned, unreal expectations. If you read Larkin’s poems, and especially the letters, you see how deeply he felt this pressure himself – instead of the calm, collected resistance of the poem there is an obsession with failure, of looking back on opportunities not taken, of believing he should be living some other kind of life than the one he is. The titles of some of the uncollected pomes tell their own story: ‘Failure’, ‘Success Story’, ‘At thirty-one, when some are rich’… ‘Born Yesterday’ is, to use a cliché – ‘hard won’. It is a form of resistance.

One thing I like about ‘Larkin Revisted’ is that Armitage doesn’t ignore the poems’ more troubling elements, the ones right there in the text. One of the students picks up on a phrase Larkin uses earlier in the poem that, for some, shows his other side – the patronising sexist:

They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

Armitage discusses that phrase, ‘lucky girl’, with the poet Sinéad Morrissey, whose poem ‘On Balance’ is a riposte to Larkin’s (though as others have pointed out it takes some poetic license with the original). Morrissey suggests that Larkin would not have written the same poem about a boy, and I think this is true. Larkin, Morrissey’s poem argues, rarely mentions women, and when he does it is only to comment on what they look like or what they can’t do. It’s true, too, that this is how women often feature – although I’d question ‘rarely’. If I had to guess I would say there are more women in Larkin’s poems than men, and I think this is one of the more interesting things about them.

What makes Larkin’s poetry so well-loved is that alongside the neat stanzas, memorable phrases and occasional flight into mystic vision, it is rooted in life as it was lived. Not just what it looked like, but what it felt like. For Morrissey, by addressing itself to a baby girl ‘Born Yesterday’ imposes limits on its subject and by implication on women generally. For Armitage, and many of the students, its value lies precisely in the way the poem embraces limitation as a defence against a culture whose promises are neither true nor kind, and often flat-out manipulation. These aren’t historical questions, but they’re not universal, timeless ones either. They are about how we live now.

Which Yet Survive: Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’

Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is not exactly a neglected poem. It was an option in my GCSE anthology fifteen years ago. For all I know, it still is. It’s tempting to approach the poem as a kind of relic, like those ‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone’ standing in the desert, a monument that won’t really speak to us. But Ozymandias does, quite literally, speak. Reading the poem again after several years away from it (and, more recently, several months of looking around ancient ruins) the first thing that struck me was the number of different voices involved. The poem is a kind of Russian doll, reported speech enclosed within reported speech enclosed within reported speech.

And it all happens very quickly: first the narrator, then the traveller, then Ozymandias on the plinth. It’s not just the grand sweep of history: two words into the second line, someone new is already speaking. Do you pause at ‘said’, or carry straight on? It makes the poem surprisingly difficult to read: you can’t recite it ponderously like some people imagine this kind of poem demands. It’s pure text. The play of tone and phrase within the sheer square block of the poem and its metre give ‘Ozymandias’ a kind of glassy, artificial quality, like the sort of stone you might make a statue out of.

That’s one reason, I think, why it hasn’t really aged. Another is that there are few obviously poetic words (‘visage’). The rhymes are almost entirely perfect monosyllables, with notable exceptions in despair and appear (Oliver Tearle talks about the whole rhyme scheme here) and the final pair, decay and away, where the open vowels suggest the stretch of the ‘lone and level’ sands.

‘Ozymandias’ is usually described as a poem about hubris. The inevitable decay of empire and the arrogance of power were constant preoccupations in nineteenth century Britain. At the time, the charge hit close to home (it still should). The poem was written in competition with Horace Smith, whose own version describes a hunter making their way through the ruins of a future London. Ozymandias asks us to ‘look upon his works’ and despair. Only, there’s nothing there. So we despair even more.

So far so familiar. Yet, at least within the world of the poem, Ozymandias’ works do survive. His words do. So, through the words, do his achievements. Here we are talking about them. That’s the thing about words, words etched in stone especially. It is why ruins have such a hold on the imagination: they persist. Ruins speak directly, too, from the writing on huge public monumnets to private gravestones or roadside waymarkers. More words are written today than ever, but it’s still possible the future will remember these people more than it will remember us.

On this reading, then, the poem isn’t entitely critical of Ozymandias’ ambition to be remembered. The opposite in fact. The King of King’s shattered visage is only ‘half sunk’, both dead and buried and, through the sculptor’s skill in manipulating ‘lifeless things’, curiously and terrifyingly alive. His ‘sneer of cold command’ lives on. The enjambment between lines six and seven only reinforces this.

Artist and king are complicit. Through one’s creation and the other’s power they both make their mark on the future. Perhaps that ‘sneer’ is Shelley’s, the author of this ‘collosal wreck’, still in command after all these years – the ‘lone and level sands’ only the dead white space around the deathless words.

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Back to Basics

For various reasons, it’s been a while since I’ve published anything here. I’d like to get back into it, but I also want to see if I can get more out of it – for myself and for anyone who finds it.

On the one hand, I’m wary of trying to be too focused. After all, one of the things that makes a blog a blog, if it’s just you writing, is that’s its unplanned. On the other, the blank screen is as intimidating as the blank page. It helps to have a sense of what you’re trying to do.

(Also: however personally fulfilling it might be, keeping all your options open tends to be a pretty inefficient way of finding readers, who tend to want to know what to expect.)

On reflection, there are a few themes I keep coming back to.

The first is simple: personal responses to individual poems. These are what got me blogging to begin with. They continue to get more hits than anything else on here, so perhaps there’s a demand. The truth is they are somewhere between a response and an analysis, which may explain why people find them (they’ve Google-searched the poem, looking for something more authorative).

But they are personal, too, if only because I’ve chosen to write about these poems. I increasingly think sharing your enthusiasm for individual poems is central to what this thing called poetry is, and probably the best way to keep the love of it alive (if you believe E. M. Forster, the only way). I enjoy them, too.

I’ll try and add a new one every few weeks or so. They will be significantly shorter than they were during lockdown. I might (controversially) include some songs, too.

As for the other themes – I’ll get to those later.


The header is taken from the print ‘Special edition’ (1936) by Ethel Spowers.

A Year in (Not) Publishing

Like more people than you would imagine, I once had a whole spreadsheet keeping track of the poems I had written, the outlets I had submitted them to, and the results. I rarely look at it now. I have not published many poems recently, either. Partly this is just life. Letting go of a poem – researching magazines and preparing submissions, writing cover letters – takes a lot of time and concentration.

The digital world, and the amount of opportunities out there, creates the impression that getting a poem published is easier than it is. That ever-growing number of opportunities is at least partly a function of magazines being able to find their own audiences and more people having the tools to put platforms together in the first place. The benefit for writers and readers, no longer reliant on a narrow set of outlets, are huge. The effect on how we think about our own work is more ambiguous.

On the one hand, it’s too easy to get unrealistic expectations about how much anyone can or should be publishing. On the other, rejection (the most likely outcome, when even small magazines can only publish a tiny percentage of what they receive) only feeds a desire for more rejection. Comparisons with social media are hard to ignore: for every tweet you put out which gets no likes you want to do another. For every poem which got rejected, I would submit another elsewhere.

I have got a great deal out of writing this blog this year. The feedback is as immediate as social media, and far more fulfilling. There is always a chance someone will read it, so it never feels pointless. I write about whatever I want, however I want: that anyone is listening at all is a luxury! Yet, having had a month or so away from blogging, I can see how my relationship with blogging might have some things in common with submitting poetry to magazines, or using social media: that feeling that I need to just keep publishing; that fear of rejection, which only feeds the desire to publish more.

Is there a solution? Jonathan Davidson suggests we broaden our understanding of what sharing poetry entails to include different kinds of reading, and to reach more non-poets – for instance, out loud, or at special occasions. I agree. Davidson is mainly talking about collections, but the insight can be extended to individual poems too. Why should the default ‘end point’ be publication in a magazine?

For most people I know, poetry is a marginal art, so it’s a fair assumption that by placing a poem in a magazine you will have a greater chance of finding an appreciative reader than sharing it with someone you know. But the end result of this way of thinking isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy which keeps poetry on the margins: it has implications for our idea of what a poem even is.

There are ways of rethinking how we share poetry among regular writers, too. I suspect a lot of writers engage with poetry groups and workshops, at least in part, as steps towards publication. But there is no reason why they have to be. I attended a regular poetry evening when I was at uni. None of the poems I wrote then will ever see the light of day, but I have rarely felt so much like I knew why I was writing.

My own solution over the last few years has been to try to publish less poetry, and more writing about poetry. I can see this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It may end up with me not publishing any of my own poetry at all. But I’ve also found that I appreciate poetry – writing it and reading it – more, not less.

Two Types of Pessimism

Thomas Hardy’s comprehensively if not especially catchily titled collection Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses includes an introduction by the author framed as an ‘Apology’ against the charges of ‘pessimism’ which dogged him his whole career.

In the piece Hardy protests that ‘what is today [this was just over a century ago, in 1922] alleged to be “pessimism” is in truth only questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ If way to better there be, he quotes from one of his own poems, ‘In Tenebris’, it exacts a full look at the worst.

Hardy is a profoundly pessimistic writer, sometimes to the point of perversity. Awful things happen in the books: there is one scene in Jude the Obscure that made me cry on the train. There is a lingering air of melodrama in ‘Late Lyrics’, too, where the characters (most of the poems are ballad-like stories) are forever betraying each other or encountering misfortune of some kind. He is never shy to point out that bad things happen to good people. 

In Hardy’s day, the charge of pessimism went hand in hand with censure, particularly over the way he challenged Victorian sexual morality and religion. Hardy’s universe does not appear to have a Christian God or any more abstract sense of benevolence.

What is interesting about the ‘Apology’ is that Hardy does not say simply that ‘what is alleged to be “pessimism”’ is simply how the world is or appears to him – which is what his most famous acolyte Philip Larkin did whenever he was accused of a similar attitude.1 It could be that Hardy felt that gambit was unnecessary: he was describing Victorian rural life as he witnessed it, with all its attendant cruelties.

Instead, Hardy takes his critics on their own turf and defends his perspective as useful – even positive. ‘Pain to all… tongued or dumb [i.e. to humans or animals],’ he writes, ‘shall be kept down to a minimum by lovingkindness operating through scientific knowledge, and activated by the modicum of freewill conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces – unconscious or other… happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.’

If this is hope it is incredibly qualified and not a little obscure. But despite the forbidding grandeur of phrases like ‘mighty necessitating forces’ there is a recognisable, positive philosophy here in which compassion is linked to finding and applying rational solutions to moral and social problems.

In a reissue of his first collection, The North Ship, Philip Larkin says that, shortly after those poems were published he threw off the influence of W. B. Yeats’s symbolism in favour of Hardy’s more plain style, paving the way for the ‘mature’ Larkin voice of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.

Critics have largely gone along with this story, though some suggest Yeats’s influence might have been stronger, and continued longer, than Larkin let on. But you don’t, I think, admire a writer to the extent of identifying yourself with them, as Larkin did with Hardy, without also engaging with their broader vision. Which makes the differences in their ‘pessimism’ particularly telling.  

Two key themes that Larkin and Hardy have in common is their attentiveness to suffering and their tendency to attack the sexual morality of their day. Hardy’s ‘Apology’ makes him out to be in some ways a good Victorian liberal, holding out for ways of alleviating human misery and for a time when people can love according to their true selves, even if this rarely happens for the characters in his work.

For Larkin, on the other hand, suffering and sexual privation – for him, the two were usually associated with one another – were not problems to be resolved but states which offered insight into the true nature of life, and which became the starting point of his own poems. Larkin takes Hardy’s so-called pessimism (which Hardy claims is only a qualified hope for others) and turns it into something both more personal and more intractable – almost a kind of mysticism.


1 See for example the remarkable interview with John Haffenden, subsequently published in Viewpoints: poets in conversation with John Haffenden (Faber, 1981) and Further Requirements (Faber, 2001). Haffenden presses Larkin on this point several times.

NB the cover picture is a detail of an 1983 etching of Thomas Hardy by William Strang (National Gallery of Scotland)