Poetry can change lives, certainly, but it is equally true that lives change poetry.
I try to stay loyal to things I’ve always liked and disliked – I am a bit feudal – but it isn’t always possible. How much a slim volume can change in 10 years, in 20! Words that once seemed knowing and wise can come to seem contrived when we are wiser ourselves. Tenderness that struck us first as startlingly fresh, with more experience can seem embarrassing. Satire may sour to cynicism. Humour can start to seem like an apology. Romantic yearning reveals itself as a racket. What’s going on?
The 25th anniversary of Philip Larkin’s death made me think of him, or more specifically, of me and him. We’ve been through quite a bit together.
I was deeply suspicious to begin with when first looking into Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings at school. Larkin had an eye for detail that struck the teenage me as terrible. It was a time in my life when my mother used the word “squalid” to describe anything she didn’t like, and I used this word too.
“Where is your generosity?” I charged at the poet, for it just isn’t right to situate working-class people in synthetic fibres, mouthing clichés with dreams no higher than the television advertisements they watch endlessly in their ill-lit little rooms. A poetry that looks down on people isn’t worthy of the name. I couldn’t stomach the idea that people were being found wanting because of the unpromising accoutrements of their lives, as if their very fantasies and assignations were cheap and flawed because their negligees were mass-produced and cut from man-made cloth.
Ours was quite a political household in a cheery “No ifs, no buts, just fight the cuts” and “Hands off our ice-cream van” sort of way, and I was deeply uncomfortable with Larkin seeming to despair at a man’s room because it had no space for books. Perhaps I didn’t feel I’d come out very well if the librarian/poet paid a visit to our house and summed us up. I was scrappy and proud, and wasn’t sure that he would get it.
“People are so much more than what they’ve got, more than how they live,” I wanted to say. “What if you are 14 and you sleep in a Victorian nightgown but your favourite pastime is playing fruit machines? What if the different floors of your house contain tap shoes and syringes? There’s another side to the lives at which you sneer,” I silently remonstrated. “It’s neither true, nor kind.”
Then one night, years later, a prospective suitor gazed into my eyes and gave me a small package wrapped in green tissue. It was The Whitsun Weddings.
“This is not going to take off,” I thought. I tried to like the book to help things along. Grudgingly I could see there were good, even great, things about the poems: astonishingly poetic diction used in the most natural, almost casual, way with a rich ease. I liked the way Larkin favoured words such as “undiminished,” which instantly gave a sense of an ending and its flickering opposite. The details began to work for me.
I remember loving a bedsit’s “saucer-souvenir”. I saw that the poems treated themes of disappointment and its inexplicable sudden reverse in a way that was poignant, occasionally beautiful, sometimes dashing. I saw both humour and a touching romance in an eye obsessed with life’s falling short. I was still troubled by what I took for a sneer: describing cheaply outfitted wedding guests in their “parodies of fashion” – I mean to say! But I grew to half-like the persona Larkin created over and over again, and saw that in his poems he was capable of a great range of emotion and surprise and wonder.
The “frail/Travelling coincidence” of The Whitsun Weddings moved me greatly. I pictured the poet on a train crammed with legions of new brides and their bright supporters, and understood quite how lovely and charming and awful and serious it was. I also saw that Larkin implicated himself in the shortcomings of the human beings he observed. At least I hoped this was so.
Then, at university, Larkin fever was everywhere. One afternoon, I even found myself writing an essay on Keats, Hardy and Larkin, yoking the poet with two other writers who are among the best this country has produced. And finally, years later, I went to Hull.
My friend Frank devised a Larkin tour for me. We were both freshly bereaved, and wandered the streets forlornly on the lookout for Larkin landmarks. We lingered at what we took to be the model for “The Large Cool Store,” where I bought a vest (100 per cent cotton), for it was cold. We went to find Larkin’s library, discussing and not discussing our loss. What was the point of it? We continued our journey, in the rain, naturally. I bought a rather uninspiring cheap footstool that I didn’t much like. Too big to go under my arm, it bashed at my knees in a large plastic bag, annoying me for the rest of the day. We did not eat “an awful pie”, as the narrator of the poem “Dockery and Son” does in what is perhaps the most famous station fast-food reference in English poetry. We decided it would be too stagey, and found ourselves lousy sandwiches instead.
I read the Collected Poems again today. There’s little loss in my life at the moment, but in a curious way this in itself seemed like a loss – that the poems were doing their triumphant best to correct.
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