Week 489: Reference Back, by Philip Larkin

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.

Reference Back

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.

Philip Larkin

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.


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

Week 350: Talking in Bed, by Philip Larkin

Ted Hughes said he liked all of Philip Larkin’s poems (which was generous of him, considering the rubbishing he himself got from Larkin) and he liked him the more the sadder he got.  I guess he may have particularly liked this one then, which has the core of desolation that one finds at the heart of so many Larkin poems, and expresses a sense of alienation and aloneness that strikes me as typically if by no means exclusively mid-twentieth century.

Talking in Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Philip Larkin

Week 315: MCMXIV, by Philip Larkin

And to continue last week’s Remembrance theme, here is what I consider to be one of Philip Larkin’s best poems, and one that reminds us, if reminder is needed, that alongside the cantankerously solipsistic persona that he liked to affect, and that was sometimes allowed to make its way into his work, there existed a compassionate, evocative poet of immense skill.


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Philip Larkin

Week 231: Aubade, by Philip Larkin

‘No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought,
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb’

So wrote W.B.Yeats in ‘Vacillation’. To judge by that standard I doubt if Yeats would have thought much of the following poem, at least so far as its spirit goes, and for that matter neither do I, and yet I admire it greatly, for honesty can be admirable even if what you are being honest about is not admirable. Yes, the poem’s message may seem profoundly nihilistic. ‘Death is no different whined at or withstood’ – to which one is tempted to reply, that may very well be so, but the person doing the whining or withstanding certainly is. Yet in other ways the poem is anything but nihilistic: it does after all affirm the preciousness of life, of what in another masterly poem, ‘The Old Fools’, Larkin calls the ‘million-petalled flower of being here’. And as always with Larkin we have such craftsmanship, such felicity, which is in itself an affirmation, and perhaps the truest one that a poet can make.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin

Week 179: At Grass, by Philip Larkin

In the introduction to his 1962 anthology ‘The New Poetry’ the critic Al Alvarez called this poem ‘elegant and unpretentious and rather beautiful in its gentle way’ but saw it as too genteel and went on to compare it unfavourably with the Ted Hughes poem ‘A Dream of Horses’, which he praised for its greater urgency, its reaching back to ‘a nexus of fear and sensation’. Now, if we must turn poetry into some kind of slugfest there are indeed Hughes poems that can go toe to toe with good Larkin, but I really do not think ‘A Dream of Horses’ is one of them, and surely only a very blinkered adherence to an ideological preconception of poetry could have allowed Alvarez to think that it was. Yes, Larkin’s horses are, as Alvarez says, social creatures, seen through a prism of human association, but rightly or wrongly that is the way most of us, genteel or not, see horses, and I can only say that fifty years on, I can’t remember a line of the Hughes poem, but ‘At Grass’ is still there, elegant and elegiac, full of Larkin’s exquisitely precise verbal play – consider that ‘distresses’ – and moments of what Seamus Heaney called Larkin’s ‘Shakespearean felicity’.

At Grass

The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about —
The other seeming to look on —
And stands anonymous again.

Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes —

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer, all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowds and cries —
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

Philip Larkin