Category Archives: RE-READINGS

‘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.

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. As for the other themes – I’ll get to those later.

Some books in Brief

One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of a pamphlet of poems by Jonathan Davidson, called ‘Humfrey Coningsby’. In a turn of events I will not explain but which involves Twitter and Jonathan’s new collection of his and other people’s poems, A Commonplace, I discovered the website the review had originally been published on was no more.

This was a small lesson in the transience of the digital record, but it felt appropriate to Humfrey, the subject of the pamphlet, an obscure traveller forever passing in and out history. However, I still had a copy, and it is now on Jonathan’s blog.

I really enjoyed both ‘Humfrey Coningsby’ and A Commonplace. Reading one and rereading the other, I think one of the hallmarks of Jonathan’s poems is the power and memorability of his final lines. Final lines are often the most difficult to get right.

There are plenty of books I have read recently that I would like to give a response to which is more than just a social media post, but I have not had the time and do not think I will. In lieu of anything longer, here are some highlights:

sikfan glaschu — Sean Wai Keung, Verve Poetry Press

I reviewed Sean Wai Keung’s pamphlet ‘you are mistaken’ for London Grip. sikfan glaschu is his first full collection. I would have liked to see some of those earlier poems included, and I hope new readers will go back to ‘you are mistaken’ too, if the Rialto have any copies left, but I can see the point behind starting fresh: sikfan glaschu takes the themes of migration, insecurity, family and food dealt with so arrestingly in that pamphlet, adds a city, and makes something distinct and whole out of them.

The collection is in three parts: a series of ‘reviews’ of eateries in Glasgow (‘glaschu’), a section from lockdown, and a final, more meditative section on food, family and identity. It is funny and heart breaking. Wai Keung has dropped the ‘+’ sign which tied together some of the earlier work and the poems move down and across the page with what feels like a newfound freedom.

The best praise I can offer is that I was genuinely excited to get my hands on sikfan glaschu and that my expectation was more than rewarded. It includes ‘stay inside’, the best ‘lockdown’ poem I have come across, a poem about KFC, and a very good example of a rare category: a poem about council tax.

That Old Country Music – Kevin Barry

I first came under the spell of Kevin Barry’s short stories when I found them on a shelf in a cabin in Ireland. The location helped: we were a few minutes’ drive away from the hotel in which one of the tales was set, and the fjord that floods it. I do not know anyone that writes like Barry. It is intoxicating.

He writes novels too: I have read one of them (City of Bohane) and will try the others, but the short stories are what ought to get him the Nobel Prize, which being, in his own words, a ‘raving egomaniac’, he makes no bones about coveting.

This new collection is in some ways less varied than ‘Dark Lies the Island’, with a narrower cast. Each time I was a little disappointed when I realised it was another story about a lonely, mysterious, and unaccountably alluring man. (There was a piece in the TLS last year asking whether men had lost the nerve to write about sex. The author had not read Kevin Barry.) Soon enough, however, once you are a few sentences in, the old intoxication takes over and all is forgiven. Someone ought to chain him to his desk until he writes more.

Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Not a book. In many ways this feels like Marling’s most straight-forward album, musically and lyrically, though I did not listen to the last one and now will have to. It was, apparently, an attempt to write ‘confidences and affirmations’ to an imaginary daughter, inspired by Maya Angelou’s ‘Letter to My Daughter’.

I only just read that: what is interesting is that these songs are so entirely convincing they each feel more ‘real’ than any of the more obviously autobiographical songs Marling used to write. The other thing that has changed is the melodies, which are beautiful. This was not always the case. Her earlier albums got by more on her charisma as a writer and singer. These you want to play again and again.

There is an interesting story behind the last track, ‘For You’. Apparently, it is a homage to Paul McCartney, was never meant to be a ‘proper’ song: “I had a fight with a friend of mine, weirdly, defending Lennon against McCartney and I took it so personally. For some reason I felt like Paul McCartney was the good one and Lennon was the bad one and I was somehow embodying the bad one – so I thought it’d be interesting to see why I felt that strongly about it.”

In the end, Marling says she realised how good a songwriter McCartney really was. For my money, the difference between the two Beatles is not so much moral as musical. McCartney wrote melodies. Proper or not, melodies are what lasts.

The Long Slide: Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’

Most writers dislike most of what they write most of the time but the savagery of Philip Larkin’s self-criticism still has the power to shock. In his workbook, the final three words of ‘High Windows‘ – ‘and is endless’ – are replaced by ‘and fucking piss’. This is not very helpful, given I’m going to explain what I like about the poem. In fact, I think the way the poem works says something important about how poetry works in general.

‘High Windows’ kicks off with the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but clearly an outsider. A faintly creepy one at that:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s   
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm […]

But a Larkin poem, and this one especially, is also a series of different voices, a feature which too often gets lost in critics’ eagerness to talk about ‘Larkin’ the character, and in some of his own public reflections on poetry. ‘You use them when you want to shock.’ Larkin wrote about swear words: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.’ [1]

The next stanza adds another category of person (old people) and the language shifts again:

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—   
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester […]

You could argue there are as many voices in a poem as there are strong words, which is to say, words with associations, words which put us in mind of people or ways of life, even if they aren’t fully realised. Now we are in the realm of social analysis. It is Larkin the librarian talking: the language (‘bonds and gestures’) is almost academic.

Having warmed up, Larkin then shifts tone again. The narrator imagines someone older than himself observing Larkin’s own generation and jealous of their freedoms (‘no sweating in the dark about God’). In this case the text is clearly designated as reported speech:

[…] He
And his lot will all go down the long slide   
Like free bloody birds.

Throughout Larkin’s poems the uncertainty and self-criticism sits alongside grand generalisations about life: the latter wouldn’t be convincing if they weren’t accompanied by the former. The shifting of tones I am talking about here performs a complimentary, but different, function. Hopping between voices is just more fun than being talked at, endlessly: it adds variety. But, more than that, it is the way in which Larkin smuggles in what I suppose we have to simply call poetry – that heightened language which takes you outside of yourself.

It is like the opposite of a Zoom call: you get something like an encounter with a series of genuinely individual, human voices, but also, at the same time — whether through the sheer weight of impressions, or that ‘third person’ voice used for sweeping metaphors or grand, universal statements — a momentary sense of coherence which brings all those impressions together. And you get both sensations, the personal and the impersonal, without the unwelcome, impossible demand of having to commit entirely to one or the other, either fully empathising with another person or submitting yourself to some greater, unfeeling whole.

This is one way of thinking about why poetry might be valuable, now, in lockdown, although it’s only a version of why it’s always been valuable. If poems were only about helping us to empathise with other people, the current vogue for them would suggest that, usually, we get our fill of that elsewhere. But poems are something else, too: a movement between self and not-self. No other art does this in quite the same way. If people are turning to poems now it might be because our understanding of who we are, and how we relate to other people, is under such pressure.

All of this comes together in that astonishing last stanza:

[…] And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The tone shifts decisively, for the final time. Here is the poetry, the grand statement, the highly symbolic image of the window with the blue sky behind it. Larkin’s reflection on the way different generations see each other has led him to see the way they are each part of something bigger, which is a kind of nothingness, which is a kind of freedom. But we have been prepared for this as readers, precisely because he has worked his way through a series of tones first. It’s as if the journey from being ‘Larkin’ at the beginning, through the various other guises, has stripped him of that overbearing personality which announced itself so forcefully at the beginning. The poem is a ‘long slide’.

Despite having once said he couldn’t be a professional poet because he wouldn’t want to go around ‘pretending to be myself’, Larkin recording readings of many of his poems. But the line about ‘pretending’ is one of those self-deprecatory remarks that hides a serious point about how his poetry works: by manipulating tone on the page, playing off the contrast between the ‘ordinary’ voice and the poetic.

Inevitably any reader, even the poet, only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell. That is why the recording of Larkin reading ‘High Windows’ doesn’t work for me: it fails on the final word, where Larkin — pretending to be himself — stresses ‘endless’ like someone lost, confused, or slightly afraid of the sublimity of it all. The suspense only holds on the page.   


1. He said it was ‘part of the palette’, (i.e. not necessarily his) which implies he was recording what he was hearing. You can tell Larkin was self-conscious about the swearing, because he brings it up unpromoted: ‘I have a new collection of poems coming out early next month. My advance copy seems full of four-letter words, not at all likely to please a JP! Perhaps you can ban it.’ The person he was writing to had just been made a magistrate. When Larkin started writing publishers could still be prosecuted for ‘obscenity’. (The Complete Poems)