Philip Larkin is one of the most distinctive and best loved voices in modern poetry, yet a poem like ‘High Windows’ hits home because he was also a master of switching register.
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, who is still, just about, contemporary, 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 as a university librarian — is shot through with a deep, genuine concern for other people, he ended his days as a lonely, racist alcoholic. Much of the ‘dark’ side of Philip Larkin only came out after his death, when his letters were published (at his own request, one of his lovers had burnt his diaries). Larkin kept his prejudices private, which may be a form of hypocrisy, but the poems leave you with no doubts that he is familiar with unkindness, and even cruelty.
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.
The question of who poets are, and how we as readers feel about them, is particularly acute 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. Like most poets with a wide readership, you know when you are in Larkin’s world, like you know you are in a world created by Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney or Wendy Cope. Often that world is the city he adopted, Hull. But the voice is crucial too.
‘High Windows’ kicks off with somebody chatting away:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm […]
This is the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but also clearly an outsider, and a slightly creepy one at that. 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. Some might find ‘fucking her’ shocking or offensive. It is done self-consciously. ‘Here’, Larkin’s saying, ‘is the sort of thing people say.’ 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. Here, we are in the realm of social analysis. It is Larkin the librarian talking: the language is academic, sociological — ‘bonds and gestures’.
Having warmed up, Larkin shifts tone again, dramatically, by imagining a specific voice, which is 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. 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.
Larkin’s voice draws the reader in, convincing you that you are at least dealing with a real, fallible person, however unfamiliar or uncomfortable their perspective might be. Uncertainty and self-criticism sit 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 keeps you on your toes and is another way of adding variety. But I also find something oddly 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 sense of community and certainty. And (which is key) you get both sensations 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.
For me, this is the best 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. Poetry would be a stopgap before we go back to normal life. But Poems are something else: a shifting between self and society. 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.
Think about 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 fascinating to hear how he intended them to be read. But inevitably any reader only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell of a poem like ‘High Windows’. 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.
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.’
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. 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 use them when you want to shock. I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.’ 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)
5. 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.