Most writers dislike most of what they write most of the time, but the savagery of Philip Larkin’s self-criticism still shocks. In his workbook, the final three words of ‘High Windows‘ – ‘and is endless’ – are replaced by ‘and fucking piss’. This is not very helpful, given I’m going to explain what I like about it. In fact, I think the way the poem works says something important about how poetry works in general.
‘High Windows’ kicks off with the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but clearly an outsider. A faintly creepy one at that:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm […]
But a Larkin poem, and this one especially, is also a series of different voices. This is one of the things I like about them. ‘You use them when you want to shock.’ Larkin wrote about swear words: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.’  The next stanza adds another category of person, old people, and the language shifts again:
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Like an outdated combine harvester […]
You could argue there are as many voices in a poem as there are strong words, which is to say, words with associations, words which put us in mind of people or ways of life, even if they aren’t fully realised. Now we are in the realm of social analysis. It is Larkin the librarian talking: the language (‘bonds and gestures’) is almost academic. Having warmed up, Larkin then shifts tone again. The narrator imagines someone older than himself observing Larkin’s own generation and jealous of their freedoms (‘no sweating in the dark about God’). In this case the text is clearly designated as reported speech:
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
Throughout Larkin’s poems the uncertainty and self-criticism sits alongside grand generalisations about life: the latter wouldn’t hit so hard if they weren’t accompanied by the former. The shifting of tones I am talking about here performs a complimentary, but different, function. Hopping between voices is just more fun than being talked at, endlessly: it adds variety. But, more than that, it is the way in which Larkin smuggles in what I suppose we have to simply call poetry – that heightened language which takes you outside of yourself.
It is like the opposite of a Zoom call: you get something like an encounter with a series of genuinely individual voices, but also, at the same time — whether through the sheer weight of voices, or that ‘third person’ voice used for sweeping metaphors or grand, universal statements — a momentary sense of coherence. And you get both sensations, the personal and the impersonal, without the unwelcome, impossible demand of having to commit entirely to one or the other, either fully empathising with another person or submitting yourself to some greater, unfeeling whole.
This is one way of thinking about why poetry might be valuable, now, in lockdown, although it’s only a version of why it’s always been valuable. If poems were only about helping us to empathise with other people, the current vogue for them would suggest that, usually, we get our fill of that elsewhere. But poems are something else: a movement between self and not-self. No other art does this in quite the same way. If people are turning to poems now it might be because our understanding of who we are, and how we relate to other people, is under such pressure.
All of this comes together in that astonishing last stanza:
[…] 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 tone shifts decisively, for the final time. Here is the poetry, the grand statement, the highly symbolic image of the window with the blue sky behind it. Larkin’s reflection on the way different generations see each other has led him to see the way they are each part of something bigger, which is a kind of nothingness, which is a kind of freedom. But we have been prepared for this as readers, precisely because he has worked his way through a series of individual voices first. It’s as if the journey from being ‘Larkin’ at the beginning, through the various other guises, has stripped him of that overbearing personality which announced itself so forcefully at the beginning. The poem is a ‘long slide’.
Despite having once said he couldn’t be a professional poet because he wouldn’t want to go around ‘pretending to be myself’, Larkin recording readings of many of his poems. But the line about ‘pretending’ is one of those self-deprecatory remarks that hides a serious point about how his poetry works: by manipulating tone on the page, playing off the contrast between the ‘ordinary’ voice and the poetic.
Inevitably any reader, even the poet, only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell. That is why the recording of Larkin reading ‘High Windows’ doesn’t work for me: it fails on the final word, where Larkin — pretending to be himself — stresses ‘endless’ like someone lost, confused, or slightly afraid of the sublimity of it all. The suspense only holds on the page.
1. He said it was ‘part of the palette’, (i.e. not necessarily his) which implies he was recording what he was hearing. You can tell Larkin was self-conscious about the swearing, because he brings it up unpromoted: ‘I have a new collection of poems coming out early next month. My advance copy seems full of four-letter words, not at all likely to please a JP! Perhaps you can ban it.’ The person he was writing to had just been made a magistrate. When Larkin started writing publishers could still be prosecuted for ‘obscenity’. (The Complete Poems)