The Reaches of Stringency: On Philip Larkin
Larkin was a deeply literary writer, and to miss this quality is to miss the force of his many impersonations of the plain man. Indeed, this simulation is one of the modes in which he solves a problem that was still plaguing Eliot as late as the Four Quartets: how to put poetry in its modest place without writing doggerel or prose. “The poetry does not matter,” we read in “East Coker,” but the claim is made in a context that simply abandons the medium; “poetry does not exist” would be quite a different proposition. Instead of writing something like “That was a way of putting it,” Larkin gives us:
Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
If we place these lines against phrases like “the deft heart,” “the tideline of the incoming past” or “any-angled light,” we begin to see how the texture forms. The ordinary becomes poetry but not “poetic.” “I don’t want to transcend the commonplace,” Larkin said, “I love the commonplace.” He loves it enough to get it into his verse, and also enough to allow it its own unruly life.
This is why poems like “The Whitsun Weddings” are so compelling. “That Whitsun, I was late getting away” sounds like pure conversation, until the last word is picked up in the rhyme of “the sunlit Saturday.” A bit later, we get the wedding parties seeing lots of happy couples off on the train:
Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres—
The sheer vulgarity of the wedding parties reeks of satire until we understand that a whole gaudy world is trying for happiness, that the newlyweds on the train constitute a “frail/Travelling coincidence…with all the power/That being changed can give.” The poem doesn’t ask us to believe in happiness or change (or marriage); in fact, it may work better if we have our doubts. But it enacts the reality of a promise—the reality that even failed promises once had. In another poem, “Reference Back,” Larkin says:
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.
This is true, but Larkin also specializes in the short perspectives, where what we might have has not yet turned into what we’ve got, and these sights will serve, as he reminds us in “An Arundel Tomb,”
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Our capacity for love, that is, whatever messes we may have made in the practice of it.