Tag Archives: poem

London Library Anthology

No one had any idea when the London Library’s inaugural “emerging writers” scheme kicked off in spring 2019 (a year’s membership and a programme of workshops for forty writers at various stages of emergence) that it would end with us not being there.

The London Library is a remarkable, magical building set off St James’s Square in Pall Mall. I don’t think I was alone in not having heard of it before seeing the application for the programme, but it is used as an office-away-from-home by London literary types, or anyone wanting a quiet place to work.

Besides the building’s charm and the incredible location the Library’s real benefit is that the “stacks” are open – you can browse the books on the shelves. You might end up with something you hadn’t thought you wanted, which are often the things you need.

To celebrate the scheme’s first year, the Library have put together an anthology, featuring contributions ‘from 35 writers spanning prose to poetry, non-fiction to YA, stage to screen.’ The blurb says: ‘This is a feast of words and creativity from an exciting array of bright new talent.’ The book is available as a PDF or an eBook. It will also be published as a paperback: £2 for the eBook or £8 for the paperback – with all proceeds going back into the Emerging Writers Programme.

We were asked to pick something to contribute over the summer, so the choice was made under the influence of lockdown. I sent in three poems. One was my own pandemic poem, a squib of frustration riffing off comparisons between our situation and the Second World War. Another was a good idea which on reflection I smothered with too many commas. The first is about Greggs – sort of.

The library is an amazing space, especially if you don’t have much of that at home. I am very grateful to have been part of the first cohort (and particularly appreciated the ‘peer support’ sessions). Next/this year’s scheme is open for applications.

The Uncomfortable Beach Chair – W. H. Auden’s ‘Their Lonely Betters’

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.

A Long Slide – ‘High Windows’ by Philip Larkin

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 works.

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.

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. This is the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but clearly an outsider, and a slightly 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.[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. Instead, 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.

The 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.

Boom, Boom – ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ by Elizabeth Bishop

View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop sounds like an austere landscape painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings.

Continue reading