26 January 2014

Larkin

This is my latest avatar. Do your recognise him? No, it's not really me though I know a fellow from Galashiels who looks rather like him:-
It's the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985). He spent most of his working life in Hull - as head librarian in the university's library. It suited him to be in such an unfashionable place - Up North at the end of the railway track - far away from the chattering self-aggrandisement of London and the Home Counties. Yes, Larkin was something of a misanthrope and that aspect of his character is revealed in many of his bitter-edged, urban  poems. There's an existentialist melancholy hanging about most of them - but also wit, intelligence and a passion for words. These are all carefully weighed and crafted.

The poem I have chosen to represent Larkin's artistry is "MCMXIV" (1914). He wrote it in 1964, fifty years after the start of the first world war - "a war to end all wars". It was the year in which my father was born and 2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of that "great" war. I have a sense of Larkin reflecting on old photographs of 1914 as the poem begins. Here, in spite of himself he reveals a warmth and a kinship with his fellow man. I wonder what you'll make of it, if indeed you take the time to read it:-

MCMXIV

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.

16 comments:

  1. An excellent choice. I must re-read him. I remember one about a cemetery in Leeds and football if I'm not mistaken.

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    1. I think you might be thinking of another northern poet - Tony Harrison and in particular his poem "V" in which he visits his parents' grave in Holbeck Cemetery.

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    2. YP, yes I was. Thank you.

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  2. "Never such innocence again." I feel sad.

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    1. But he was surely right wasn't he Dale? The First World War was like opening an Pandora's box of horror.

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  3. Never heard of him but love the poem.

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    1. Glad you appreciated it Helen.

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  4. My father was in the Navy from 1914 when he was 22 until 1919 when he was 29. During WW1, he served on three ships. The largest and the longest time served was on the USS Willamena. I found his picture on the website of this ship via the Navy website. He was the guy in the white duds. He was the ship's cook. This ship transported troops from the United States to Europe. And then came back with tired, worn out young men. Some with shell-shock. Some with wounds. Some were dead. I definitely know that the innocence of one young man was obliterated.

    This poem to me has no ups and no downs but is written and thought on one plain....that of hurt or melancholy or who knows what. That was pretty much the place where my father lived when he allowed himself to go to that time in his mind's eye.

    Yes, I know what you are saying. How is it that I am still alive if my FATHER was in WW1. Are you sure it was not your grandfather? Well, he was a man whose third marriage was to a much younger women...my mother. When I was born, my father was 58 years old.

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    1. So Mountain Thyme, even in 2014 you are personally affected by World War One just as in my turn I know that I am personally affected by World War Two. Such indirect effects are not recorded in the annals of history but we are knitted to the generations before us and to those that follow.

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    2. Very well said, Mr. Pudding. You are exactly right. Do you suppose this is one reason I am an eternal peace person?

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    3. I'm sure it has been a factor in making you a hippy ma'am. Oh and please remember...if you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

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  5. I'm not much of a poetry fan, but I do have a few favourite authors (usually the ones I can actually understand!), and Larkin is definitely one of them. One of the benefits of O-level English lit!
    Thanks for posting this - when I say I like Larkin, I've probably only read a dozen of his poems and didn't know this one.

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    1. "Too much larkin about" is probably what it said on your O level English Literature school report.

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  6. Ding dong. Seconds out, round one.

    Is he better than Betjeman, is he huger than Hughes?

    Gets the award as second best British poet of the 20th century.

    Should've been the PL instead of Ted though, his wistful anxieties about modern life outdid JB but don't have the worldliness and wordyness of Hughes' s poetry. He's a lot funnier though, but you're never sure if you're supposed to laugh.

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  7. What about Seamus Heaney disv2002? Born in Northern Ireland he was surely a giant amongst modern day poets. Such humanity, such proud ordinariness, a poet who hammered each word home like copper nails on a wooden hull. I think that if Larkin had been offered the largely ceremonial role of Poet Laureate he would have vomited over his cornflakes.

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  8. Nah Heaney is Hughes lite and Larkin does Betjeman better. TS Eliot gets the TS Eliot prize for Best British poet of the 20th century who is not British...

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