Tag Archives: pandemicpoetry

The Uncomfortable Beach Chair

W. H. Auden is still best known for the poetry he wrote in the 1930s, which captured the spirit of an anxious age. But his later poems are unsettling in their own way too, if you know where to look.

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).

But 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.

Rather, 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 unsettle you. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that sense of unease (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 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 doubt 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 as well. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The doubt, 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 but different?). 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.

A Long Slide from a High Window

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.[1] 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’.[2] 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.[3] Some might find ‘fucking her’ shocking or offensive. It is done self-consciously. ‘Here’, Larkin’s saying, ‘is the sort of thing people say.’[4] 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:    

[…] He
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.’[5]

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.

Poemy unpoeticness – On Louis MacNeice

There are not many writers I could point to and say ‘yes, that is the first time I read X, and here is how I felt about it.’ But there are two poets I remember encountering for the first time more vividly than most. The first is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I had bought the translations by Stephen Mitchell from the Brick Lane Bookshop, when I moved to London for the first time. I was at a loose end. I had drifted into a job I wasn’t sure about, having come back to the UK from Sri Lanka earlier than expected in unusual circumstances, where I was teaching English in Colombo. Rilke’s poems are about transience and comforting in a vaguely mystical way. The circumstances met the poems.

The second is the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice, whose poem ‘Snow’ is the subject of this blog. I remember encountering MacNeice for the first time, because he produced real resistance. It sounds (and is) ridiculous, but there was something about his surname which put me off. “MacNeice.” It was clinical, sharp, abrasive. And this seemed to be mirrored in the poems, which, to my unfamiliar ear, felt too tightly controlled, almost prickly. There was a flintiness to his subjects, too: real life in the 1930s, with little sentiment, and any broader themes, such as I could identify, introduced elliptically. It was all a world away from the Tennyson and Milton we had been studying in school, or the lyrics I was listening to at home and trying to write for our garage band. It wasn’t what I thought poems were. I remember thinking: this is a bit hard, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

It’s difficult now to reconcile those feelings with this poem, ‘Snow’, a short, sharp hymn to the multifariousness of the world. The context is simple: MacNeice is sitting in a room, in front of a fire, eating a tangerine. It is snowing. There is a vase of roses in the window. We are thrown in at the point at which the snow, the roses and the window undergo a change, and become an overwhelming spectacle. Perhaps it has just started to snow, or MacNeice has only just noticed.  Whatever is going on, it is a surprise, and the surprise is the prompt for some engaging, chummy philosophising about the richness and variety of the world, and our perception of it.

‘Snow’ does all the right poemy things. The sounds match what is being said. The world is busy, busier than we realise, and so is a phrase like ‘soundlessly collateral and incompatible’. Then there’s that tangerine. The words come down to single, propulsive syllables, so that you must also spit to say, ‘spit the pips and feel’. But there is a deliberate unpoeticness to ‘Snow’, an awkwardness in the phrasing and language, and this is one of the things I like most about it. That and the open-ended imagery: why is there more than glass between the snow and the roses?

Notice, for instance, how the ends of the lines draw attention to themselves. You might have tripped up when the first line finished on ‘was’. The natural thing would be to put ‘was’ on the next line, as it is not a stand-alone verb at all, but part of the verb ‘was spawning’. As it is, you stop and start again.  When we are taught poetry in school, there is a temptation to say that enjambment (the technical term for when a phrase, an image or an idea, is broken up by two lines) is meant to mean something special. Often it is just a convenient (or lazy) way of drawing attention to a word or phrase. Here, the enjambment does the thing it describes. It is surprising.

One of the reasons we sometimes take enjambment for granted is that very few modern poets use metre, that is, a set rhythm. MacNeice is not using one here, not really. Most lines have six beats, but there is no pattern. But there is a rhythm behind each line. One phrase stands out because it is the only one in iambic pentameter (five beats in a line, often thought of as the metre most like ordinary speech, because one line of it takes one breath): ‘Word is suddener than we fancy it.’

There are other ways in which MacNeice goes out of his way to break expectations. Roses, fire, snow: these are symbolic, ‘poetic’ images, but here they do not represent anything other than themselves. By the end, the ‘huge roses’ have become something other than themselves, alien and strange. ‘Fancy it’ and ‘Suddenly’ are not phrases you expect to hear in such a short, condensed poem, where space is at a premium. The only two rhymes in the poem are ungainly. Against it / Fancy it. Supposes / Huge roses. Yet, how satisfying is it to land on ‘roses’ at the end! That satisfaction derives in part from the fact everything that came before, the words, the rhythm, the images, has been slightly offbeat. Just in the previous line there were four triple beats and no punctuation. Even ‘huge roses’ is a bit wrong: I find I have to put the stress on both words, like an engine juddering to a halt.   

Before working for the BBC after the Second World War, where he wrote radio plays, MacNeice lectured in Classics in Birmingham. So knew his way around Greek and Latin poetry, and his trochees from his spondees. ‘Snow’ works against expectations, without ever being inaccessible. Every now and then it gives you the satisfaction of a ‘normal’ line or a clean rhyme. You get poetic language (‘incorrigibly plural’) but it is leavened with ordinary speech: ‘crazier’. I have never warmed to the argument, well-meaning though it may be, that poetry has a unique ability to ‘re-enchant’ the world, show it to us with new eyes. A good poem may do that, but so would the right novel, painting, film, or photograph. So could a conversation. The poem is its form, and, done right, the form is its own surprise.  

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.