Category Archives: RE-READINGS

‘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.

Coningsby and Friends: Some Books in Brief

One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of a pamphlet of poems by Jonathan Davidson, called ‘Humfrey Coningsby’. In a turn of events I will not explain but which involves Twitter and Jonathan’s new collection of his and other people’s poems, A Commonplace, I discovered the website the review had originally been published on was no more.

This was a small lesson in the transience of the digital record, but it felt appropriate to Humfrey, the subject of the pamphlet, an obscure traveller forever passing in and out history. However, I still had a copy, and it is now on Jonathan’s blog.

I really enjoyed both ‘Humfrey Coningsby’ and A Commonplace. Reading one and rereading the other, I think one of the hallmarks of Jonathan’s poems is the power and memorability of his final lines. Final lines are often the most difficult to get right.

There are plenty of books I have read recently that I would like to give a response to which is more than just a social media post, but I have not had the time and do not think I will. In lieu of anything longer, here are some highlights:

sikfan glaschu — Sean Wai Keung, Verve Poetry Press (2021)

I reviewed Sean Wai Keung’s pamphlet ‘you are mistaken’ for London Grip. sikfan glaschu is his first full collection. I would have liked to see some of those earlier poems included, and I hope new readers will go back to ‘you are mistaken’ too, if the Rialto have any copies left, but I can see the point behind starting fresh: sikfan glaschu takes the themes of migration, insecurity, family and food dealt with so arrestingly in that pamphlet, adds a city, and makes something distinct and whole out of them.

The collection is in three parts: a series of ‘reviews’ of eateries in Glasgow (‘glaschu’), a section from lockdown, and a final, more meditative section on food, family and identity. It is funny and heart breaking. Wai Keung has dropped the ‘+’ sign which tied together some of the earlier work and the poems move down and across the page with what feels like a newfound freedom.

The best praise I can offer is that I was genuinely excited to get my hands on sikfan glaschu and that my expectation was more than rewarded. It includes ‘stay inside’, the best ‘lockdown’ poem I have come across, a poem about KFC, and a very good example of a rare category: a poem about council tax.

That Old Country Music – Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2020)

I first came under the spell of Kevin Barry’s short stories when I found them on a shelf in a cabin in Ireland. The location helped: we were a few minutes’ drive away from the hotel in which one of the tales was set, and the fjord that floods it. I do not know anyone that writes like Barry. It is intoxicating.

He writes novels too: I have read one of them (City of Bohane), and will try the others, but the short stories are what ought to get him the Nobel Prize, which being, in his own words, a ‘raving egomaniac’, he makes no bones about coveting.

This new collection is in some ways less varied than ‘Dark Lies the Island’, with a narrower cast. Each time I was a little disappointed when I realised it was another story about a lonely, mysterious, and unaccountably alluring man.* Soon enough, however, once you are a few sentences in, the intoxication takes over and all is forgiven. Someone ought to chain him to his desk until he writes more.

*(There was a piece in the TLS last year asking whether men had lost the nerve to write about sex. The author had not read Kevin Barry.)

Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling (2020)

Not a book. In many ways this feels like Marling’s most straight-forward album, musically and lyrically, though I did not listen to the last one and now will have to. It was, apparently, an attempt to write ‘confidences and affirmations’ to an imaginary daughter, inspired by Maya Angelou’s ‘Letter to My Daughter’.

I only just read that: what is interesting is that these songs are so entirely convincing they each feel more ‘real’ than any of the more obviously autobiographical songs Marling used to write. The other thing that has changed is the melodies, which are beautiful. This was not always the case. Her earlier albums got by more on her charisma as a writer and singer. These you want to play again and again.

There is an interesting story behind the last track, ‘For You’. Apparently, it is a homage to Paul McCartney, was never meant to be a ‘proper’ song: “I had a fight with a friend of mine, weirdly, defending Lennon against McCartney and I took it so personally. For some reason I felt like Paul McCartney was the good one and Lennon was the bad one and I was somehow embodying the bad one – so I thought it’d be interesting to see why I felt that strongly about it.”

In the end, Marling says she realised how good a songwriter McCartney really was. For my money, the difference between the two Beatles is not so much moral as musical. McCartney wrote melodies. Proper or not, melodies are what lasts.

‘Their Lonely Betters’ (W. H. Auden)

There is a game which critics like to play where they trace the career of a poet and try to track the ways in which what they wrote changed over time, what those turning points say about the poet, their poems, and the times they were living in.

Like all good games, this one is endless. There are as many answers as there are people; there is always a different position to take about what the change was, or how it happened, or what ‘version’ of a poet is best. Or, like Philip Larkin did, you can pretend you are above the game by saying you don’t believe that poets ‘develop’ at all.

W. H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden had a long career. In the 1930s he was the most famous young poet of his generation in England. When he died in 1973, he was living in Austria, having left England for America just before the Second World War.

Auden is a perfect subject for the game, in two ways. He captured something in the atmosphere in the thirties in a way no other poet did, the connection between private anxiety and public foreboding, the emotions of ‘dread, guilt, disaster or disease’ which have made so many people compare then to now. But his career also has an obvious ‘turning point’ to get the game started: when the war that his poems had done so much to presage broke out, his poems changed.

John Sutherland says that Auden has two identities. On the one hand, ‘he is… the greatest English lyric poet of the 20th century,’ and, on the other, he is ‘a top-ranked American lyric poet of a rather different, more reflective character’. Larkin, writing as a young-ish man in 1955, was less charitable: Auden’s later poems too often seemed to be written ‘by someone no longer capable of strong feeling, or of conveying strong feeling in poetry, or of thinking it matters whether it is conveyed or not’.

Larkin played the ‘development’ game like a master, even as he professed his own disbelief in it. He even had an answer (‘no more than a hint’) as to why this had happened: ‘[Auden’s] decline as a poet dates from the time he cut himself off from… the insecurity that England represented’. He praises the old Auden’s ability to find, amongst that insecurity, ‘images, rhythms and phrases that completely won the reader’s confidence, no matter how little was otherwise conceded’ (those readers included Larkin, whose schoolboy poems were largely attempts to copy him).

Auden scared himself with his own precocious powers of persuasion. Later, he scrupulously revised poems to edit out, or supress entirely, moments where he thought that he had been too breezy about politics, or too certain about the truth.[1] Auden’s ability to express ‘The Age of Anxiety’ was always about more than his ability to convince, or the way in which he reflected specific responses to a specific time and place. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted.

What counted was Auden’s feeling for the feeling of unease. On the one hand, he could create suspense in all the ways Larkin admired about the early poems: by being elliptical, alluding to warfare, or espionage, or actual disease, and writing in a way which makes you feel like he is leading you on a secret mission, though you have no idea what the object is, only that it probably isn’t good (‘Control of the passes, was he, saw, the key’). Auden also played against expectations by using familiar forms in unfamiliar ways, particularly the creepy bastardisations of nursery rhymes and ballads that lull the reader into thinking something innocent is going on, before pulling the rug from under you.

Auden’s consistency was in effect, not form, or even tone: he is trying to make you feel uncomfortable. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that ability to unsettle (follow the link to read the full poem). Auden starts with a simple image of himself doing what the lucky have been doing a lot of recently: sitting in his garden, listening to the birds.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

The tone is firmly tongue in cheek, but we are prepared for a kind of argument. Perhaps it is God withholding words from the vegetables and the birds: Auden had ‘reconverted’ to Anglicanism at this point. In any case, the argument appears perfectly legible whether you believe in a creator or not. It is the difference between humans and nature. He continues:

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,

And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

In ‘only proper’ and ‘Robin-Anthem’ already you can see the extension of that ‘garrulous, ingenious, playful-sentimental’ and ultimately going-nowhere tone of voice which convinced Larkin these later poems were devoid of feeling. The tone extends into the third stanza, which lays out the argument even clearer: ‘Not one of them was capable of lying’. This is all done in such perfect, almost too perfect rhymes, and a simple, lightly skipping rhythm: the first line or two of each stanza have an extra syllable, running down to the end, but the rest are regular. 

Something changes, however in the final stanza, and when it does, it changes the whole poem. First, there is the brilliance of the first line. It wakes you up.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

With its rolling ‘l’s, the line leaps off the tongue. That skipping, extra syllable suddenly sounds a lot more serious, an incantation rather than a going-through-the-motions. The line seems to sum up the argument so far: able to speak, people are ‘better’ than nature, but they are lonely, divorced from its certainty and happy ignorance.

The next line then seems to back this up, by letting us see the loneliness which language entails: ‘who count some days and long for certain letters’. The natural thing to expect is ‘count the days’. If someone is expecting something, we don’t usually talk about counting individual days. Or Does Auden mean that for some people, only some days ‘count’?

It’s not clear. The uncertainty stops you in your tracks. We have been stopped twice, in fact, first by the clarity of the first the line, then by the uncertainty of the second. The l in ‘long for certain letters’ picks up the speed and the skippishness of the line before, but only partly, so we also have a further sense of falling, and that sense is compounded by the early break in the third line: ‘we, too’.

It is a break in sense, too. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The uncertainty which was first introduced by the word ‘some’ has been there all along.

There is a kind of mirroring between the helplessness of the person waiting for ‘certain letters’ and the flowers in the second stanza who are waiting for the bees to decide who they can ‘mate’ with.[2] It is not so much the sadness of being separated from nature that Auden is drawing out (which is, after all, not so sad — how could we be anything other?).

Dependent, as we are, on language, we are vulnerable to one another, and Auden is writing about that vulnerability, the loneliness and uncertainty which is a part of being human, of being loved and unloved, and doing so in ways which, Auden feels, we cannot control. Despite the certain-sounding rhymes of ‘weep’ and ‘keep’ (they end in consonants) the final lines land as a question, almost an accusation.

Until I wrote this thought I agreed with Larkin about Auden’s ‘development’. But there is ‘strong feeling’ here: the feeling of uncertainty. Perhaps Auden isn’t sitting so comfortably in his beach-chair after all. 


[1] This included the astonishing poem ‘Spain’, with its reference to ‘necessary murder’ in defence of the Spanish Republic (George Orwell objected), as well as another now totemic poem, ‘September 1, 1939’, where Auden changed the final line ‘we must love one another or die’ to ‘we must love one another and die’.

Larkin inherited this uncertainty. Just a year after he criticised Auden’s later work, he would write his own confident-sounding last line about love in ‘An Arundel Tomb’: ‘what will survive of us is love’. He, too, thought it too confident. It is the same line.

[2] I have stolen this point about the birds and the bees from John Sutherland’s article.

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.