Week 443: Ambulances, by Philip Larkin

Oh God, not another batch of letters. Philip Larkin’s must be well on the way to becoming the most over-documented life in the history of poetry. Perhaps when people have finished picking over everything he ever said or wrote to anyone else and everything anyone else ever said or wrote to him, not to mention hoovering up every last scrap of his doggerel, they can go back to enjoying the compassionate craftsmanship of a few dozen rare fine poems and say, in the words of Browning, ‘Well, I forget the rest’.

And one such poem is surely this one, so carefully observed and subtly formulated, with its characteristic precision of placement. Consider, for example, if the sixth line had read ‘In time all streets are visited’. For me that seemingly inconsequential shift would have lost a haunting ambiguity, making it that much less effective in opening up one of those ‘long perspectives’ Larkin was so good at evoking. And consider also what the poem gains by its use of metre and rhyme, that Larkin saw as an integral part of what in another poem he calls ‘the lost displays’. As he was wont to say when considering the less formal work of others, ‘That’s quite nice – why not make a poem of it?’. No one could ever accuse him of not making a poem of it.

Ambulances

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Philip Larkin

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