Tag Archives: reading

‘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.

‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop is (maybe) most famous for her poems of place: she spent much of her life living in South America and wrote collections called Questions of Travel and Geography III (there was no ‘I’ or ‘II’). ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ was written while working at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an office which looked across to the vast white wedding-cake ‘Capitol’ building which houses the US House of Congress — the capitalised ‘Dome’ of the poem.

View of the Capitol’ sounds like an austere painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings. It does what it says on the tin: it is what she sees – and her experience of seeing it. 

Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.

We start with this description of sunlight moving across the dome. It’s a light airy poem. Bishop apparently called it ‘trivial’. I like it as much as any of her serious ones. There may be trivial or non-trivial American allusions I don’t pick up here too. There are some similarities with Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’: the use of ordinary, unpoetic language, the touch of the surreal in the imagery. The lunette, for instance, which I think is a kind of window, is compared to a horse.

Running through the entire poem, until the final stanza, there is a regular, unbroken metre of four beats to a line. But Bishop deliberately undermines that metre from the beginning. ‘A big white old wall-eyed horse’ feels a beat too long. I don’t think it is: but the vowels are long. Also, there are four adjectives where you expect three. The gap ‘old’ creates between the two ‘wh’ sounds slow you down too. It is slightly ugly, in a good way. Later in the poem, a brass band appears.  

On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but – queer –
the music doesn’t quite come through.

The Air Force band is dressed in Air Force blue. The repetition is a kind of faux naivety: you’re not supposed to repeat words. Here, it contributes to the ease with which the poem moves forward. It helps that the word ‘Air Force’ is light and breezy, too. Air doesn’t sound like anything, but the word ‘air’ hardly exists either. There are no hard consonants in ‘force’.

But the music ‘doesn’t quite come through’: it comes in snatches, caught in the ‘giant trees’ like ‘gold dust’. The next stanza paints a pathetic picture: the leaves wave ‘limp stripes’ of sound into the air. The metaphor itself is a bit limp. It stretches too far. What’s in strips, the sound? Or is it still something to do with the trees? I think the idea is that the sound takes on the shape of the gaps in the trees.

Yet, in the final stanza, this set up – the indeterminacy – resolves itself:

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom — boom.

Bishop asks the trees to ‘edge over’. The ‘gathered brasses’ of the band (gathered like a herd of animals) want to ‘boom — boom’. If you’re not supposed to repeat words, you’re definitely not supposed to just print out the sounds. These rules may just be a product of my id — I don’t believe in them, but I’m sure someone does. Even the brasses seem a bit pathetic: they ‘want’ to make an impressive sound but the stilted rhythm undermines them. The ‘boom’, in short, is deliberately childish. Bishop brings the military band down to size: the climax is an anti-climax. 

If the brasses are brought down to size, the ‘great shades’ are promoted. Bishop asks them, politely, if they could ‘edge over’. But the act of asking, like the notion that the brasses could ‘want’ to boom, isn’t just playful: this is how it looks and sounds. We are sitting at the window with Bishop. We can imagine, from here, willing the trees to just edge over a bit, see the sound of the brasses trapped in the leaves, feel the distance – the way the different senses overlap.

The American poet and novelist Ben Lerner has a theory that all poems are failures because they attempt to represent the ‘perfect’ poem which we all have in our head and this isn’t possible (I paraphrase). I don’t agree. The experience here is the playfulness of seeing and you can’t fail at that. If you could, you wouldn’t be playing.    

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.

Pandemic Poetry

Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo

There is something about poetry which speaks to isolation. A poem is a highly concentrated moment of communication. Or rather a highly concentrated moment of attempted communication. Poets are generally more solitary than most, but a poem is never solitary: it’s a signal sent up into the sky, trusting someone will receive it.

Perhaps that’s one reason why they are everywhere right now. Simon Armitage has already written his first Coronavirus poem. You can follow the hashtag ‘covidpoetry’ on Instagram. I’ve been thinking of writing a more regular blog for a while, but I do not want it to be me ‘explaining poems’. As if I could. Instead, this would be a regular thing – weekly, if I could keep it up (UPDATE: I have not kept it up) – where I will pick a poem and talk about what I like about it.

I wanted to do this for two reasons. First, for myself, to work out what I think. I am a big believer that saying and knowing are part of the same process. You don’t know you know something until you say it. It is an extension of the truth that you learn something better when you teach it.

But I also wanted to do it because it is one way of helping other people to get more out of poems. It is a Bad Thing, for poets and readers, if the only people who read poems are people who enjoy them already. E. M. Forster said that the only way to make a case for any kind of culture was to demonstrate your own enjoyment of it. There is no point telling people they will like something. They must see you having a good time, especially if it’s something which takes work to get into.

There is always a chance a blog will reach someone who doesn’t think they like poems, or, more likely, someone who likes some poems, and understands they have particular effects in particular moments – like weddings, or funerals – but who isn’t really sure what they’re supposed to get from them and so has little incentive to explore them further. I would hazard a guess that the last category includes most people who read for pleasure. Which should worry poets, and people who like poetry, even more than it already does.

But my main reason for actually doing this is that I don’t feel like writing anything new myself. That attention span again. But I do feel hopeful when I think about the poems I like. This crisis is making many of us think about what it is we’re grateful for. Among the things I am grateful for are good poems and the poets who wrote them.

I’ll start later this week with a blog about a poem called ‘Into My Own’, which is the first poem in the first book by the first individual poet who got me excited about poems, Robert Frost. Conveniently, it is about being alone. In the meantime, here is the poem.