Inevitably, I am going to talk about Philip Larkin. Inevitability is part of the universe of Philip Larkin’s poems — the inevitability of death, but also the impossibility of escaping where we come from. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’.
The poems I’ve been writing about here have been one step removed from ‘normal’ language. Larkin stays close to speech by using it directly. Most strikingly, he swears. A lot. Expletives are par for the course in modern poems, but kids still recite that line in the playground.
For some this nearness to real life – which, for Larkin, meant a recognition of its limits – was a limitation. Couldn’t he cheer up a little? Write with more swing? Then there is the man himself. Though his writing (and career) is shot through with a deep, genuine concern for other people he died a lonely, racist alcoholic.
The question of who poets are, and how we as readers feel about them, is particularly pressing with Larkin because it is often his voice which draws you to him in the first place. He is the sweary misanthrope who writes about ordinary lives in ways that are both true and beautiful, bitter and generous.
A great deal of Larkin’s nastiness was directed at himself. About ‘High Windows’, the poem which lends its name to his final collection, he wrote ‘I don’t think it is very good: I called the book after it because I like the title.’
Most writers dislike most of what they write most of the time, but the savagery of Larkin’s self-criticism still shocks. In his workbook, the final three words 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 ‘High Windows’ works says something important about how poetry works in general.
‘High Windows’ kicks off with somebody chatting away. This is the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but an outsider (a 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 which aren’t directly represented in the poem. 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 shifts tone again, dramatically, by imagining a specific voice, this one italicised to make it clear it is meant to be a reported speech. This voice is still recognisably Larkin-ish – bitter, ironic — but it’s not Larkin himself. Instead he imagines someone ‘old’ observing his own generation, jealous of their freedoms:
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds.
The italics draw the reader in, convincing you that you are at least dealing with a real, fallible person, however unfamiliar or uncomfortable their perspective might be. 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. For one thing, hopping between voices is just more fun than being talked at, endlessly: it adds variety. But I also find something refreshing about the way a poem can hold so many different perspectives together in one place, if only for a moment.
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 collective, 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, impersonal 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, and no part of normal life, 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.
You can see this in the difference between a poem on a page and a poem read out loud. Philip Larkin was recorded reading many of his poems and I find it curious to hear how he intended them to be read. Inevitably any reader only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell.
Larkin once said he didn’t want to be a professional poet, working the lecture circuit, because he wouldn’t want to go around ‘pretending to be himself’. This is another of those self-deprecatory remarks that hides a serious point about the difference between the poet and the poem: by manipulating tone on the page, the writer gives the poem a life beyond them. 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 that universality, 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 is 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 kind of ‘long slide’.
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 or confused, or slightly afraid of the sublimity of it all. The suspense only holds on the page.
1. Larkin said that deprivation was for him ‘what daffodils were to Wordsworth’. That one line remains probably the best key to the poems and the person.
2. Larkin said: ‘It’s a true poem. One longs for infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you’re not. It shows humanity as a series of oppressions, and one wants to be somewhere where there’s neither oppressed nor oppressor, just freedom. It may not be very articulate.’ (From The Complete Poems edited by Archie Burnett.)
3. Larkin originally wanted to write novels. He published two — Jill and A Girl in Winter, both very different, and both a little uncertain, yet both as beautifully written as the poems. With typical self-deprecation Larkin said ‘he wasn’t interested in other people enough to be an author’. What he was signalling, however, was that he at least knew that being interested in other people was important. He knew what he lacked. By comparison, you do not come away from T. S. Eliot’s poetry thinking he has any real interest in the way other people feel. But Eliot was a publisher who also wrote a lot of criticism so his views about literature have spread, while Larkin, with the obvious exception of the poems, and a long career reviewing jazz records, largely kept his mouth shut.
4. 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)
This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.