This year sees the centenary of the birth in 1922 of Philip Larkin, surely by any measure one of the best half-dozen English-language poets of the latter part of the twentieth century. Apparently not everyone will be happy to celebrate this, and that is a pity. Certainly there are aspects of Larkin’s character and opinions which are to say the least offputting, yet they infect very little the select body of work that he himself saw fit to publish in his lifetime, and surely it should not be too difficult to throw out the racist bathwater while remaining grateful for the entirely humane babies. This week’s choice begins, fairly characteristically, with some wry reflections on domesticity and filial duty (I take the other person in the poem to be his mother) and then, in an equally characteristic shift of register, takes full flight in the third stanza, attaining effortlessly to that highwater mark of poetry, the precise and hauntingly lyrical expression of a universal truth.
That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.
Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
From my unsatisfactory prime.
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
You are so right about Larkin, David – he was a superb craftsman and understood the sudden change of register you mention.