Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Mundane and the Profound in Larkin's Poetry

Philip Larkin is renowned for his ability to turn what seem to be trivial observations of everyday life into some of the most intense meditations on human nature ever written. Unlike most poets, he says, who “take a flying start, several yards off the ground, and hope the reader ultimately catches up with them”, Larkin prefers to develop his somewhat mundane experiences into reflections about not only his own life, but about concepts like love, life and death. This unique technique allows him to work up to what he calls his “big finish”. He has often been referred to as an observational poet; his flat in Hull overlooking the park gave him the opportunity to watch people dispassionately without involving himself with them. Larkin was part of the group of 1950s poets known as The Movement; their ambition was to write anti-romantic and structured poems, completely opposed to the Modernist movement of Pound and Williams. Larkin’s observational method lets him structure his poems formally and give them a purpose. Moreover, Larkin’s realist approach makes his poetry more accessible to the average English man, and indeed he said that “Plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion and humour” are the four things that made poetry great.

Death is the recurring theme of Larkin’s poetry. He was only in his forties when he wrote the utterly depressing aphorism “Life is first boredom, then fear” (“Dockery and Son”), and he concludes the same poem with the line “And age, and then the only end of age.” However, where some poets may begin a poem about death with words like “How wonderful is death,” (“Queen Mab”, Percy Bysshe Shelley), Larkin begins “Dockery and Son”, ostensibly arbitrarily, with the speech of a college Dean: “‘Dockery was junior to you, / Wasn’t he?’” The first two stanzas of the poem have no direct references to death, and this is a clear demonstration of Larkin’s skill. The mundane features of his poetry may seem to some irrelevant and trifling, but they are not; in “Dockery and Son” he uses minute details and certain words to insinuate the idea of death before the topic is actually tackled and addressed. For example, his employment of words like “known” and “subside” allow him to turn a mundane concern into a profound meditation. Moreover, his use of realism and phrases like “And ate an awful pie” help readers to relate to Larkin’s experiences, and thus his conclusions are more resonant with their lives. The conclusion of this poem reflects its beginning; Larkin is glad that he does not have children because he can no longer be patronised by their youth (“a son’s harsh patronage.”). He is therefore somewhat glad that he has not fallen into the same trap as Dockery; despite having nothing, he is not suffocated by the “sand-clouds” of life’s routine and the seemingly obligatory act of having children. Nonetheless, he still concludes in a typically Larkin-esque way; no matter what we do in life, we will all die: “Whether or not we use it, it goes.” It seems somewhat fitting, therefore, that Larkin should begin the poem as a “death-suited, visitant”; this is a clear representation of the skill that makes him special among poets.

“Dockery and Son” is not the only Larkin poem to begin with seemingly purposeless direct speech. His poem “Mr Bleaney” begins with the speech of his new landlady:

“‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’…”

The antithesis between the landlady’s words and Larkin’s thoughts allow the poem to slowly progress to its conclusion which, rather than being only applicable to Larkin’s life, can be related to by almost any reader. Again Larkin’s use of realism in the poem (his use of phrases like “and stub my fags” and “Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool”) adds to the poem’s melancholic tone of self-deprecation and underachievement. These mundane details simply serve to make Larkin’s situation seem all the more depressing, which is the overall aim of the poem. The poem is particularly engaging because of Larkin’s use of satire; throughout the poem Larkin is comparing himself to Mr Bleaney, and this in itself is amusing. He makes a number of references to places and people (“the Frinton folk”) and the alliteration in these words add a sense of mockery, as if the words are being spat out. Larkin’s mundane description of Bleaney’s habits (“His preference for sauce to gravy”) makes a comparison of the two all the more tempting. He begins his last stanza with the proposition “That how we live measures our own nature,” depicting Mr Bleaney trying to escape this melancholic thought. However, the reader knows that Mr Bleaney’s thoughts have almost become synonymous with those of Larkin’s. Larkin too has realised his life’s lack of achievement. This idea is reinforced by the last three words (“I don’t know”), which imply that, despite his hopes, he has lived a relatively unsuccessful life. And so, just as in “Dockery and Son” Larkin draws the reader in with direct speech, leads them through the poem with mundane details (that nonetheless contribute to the overall effect of the poem) and steadily works up to his big finish, in this case, the ironic realisation of his failure.

His poem “Church Going” follows a similar pattern. It depicts the poet going into an empty Church, something that the majority of people have done in their lifetimes. He describes the mundane details (“matting, seats, and stone”) of what he calls “Another church”. He even describes the action of taking off his cycle-clips; at first glance, this may seem to be a fruitless detail. However, his use of the phrase “awkward reverence” suggests that, despite not being religious, he still feels an obligation to be polite, to take off his hat and to follow Church etiquette. It is not until the fourth paragraph that he really begins to reflect upon religion, the ultimate purpose of the poem. He writes: “But superstition, like belief, must die,” and the perfect pentameter of this line stresses its importance. Moreover, it is only really in the last paragraph that his reflections become serious; before, he has been describing a “ruin-bibber, randy for antique”. He concludes with a reflection upon the importance of meaning and purpose in life, and humanity’s desire to feel of some significance. He finishes with the lines:

            “Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
            If only that so many dead lie round.”

His repetition of the word “serious” in the last stanza emphasises our need to feel important, and it is religion that gives us this feeling. Again, we can observe the steady progress of the poem; Larkin moves from discussing old hymnbooks, renovations and cycle-clips, to a Freudian discussion of religion as an example of ‘wish-fulfilment’ and projectionism. Thus, Larkin is special for his ability to turn mundanities into  reflections of gravity.

Larkin is seen as one of the most significant poets of the 20th Century, and indeed he was offered the position of Poet Laureate a few years before his death. An obituary written by Ian Hamilton was published in The Sunday Times along with his poem “Aubade”. Hamilton observed that “Philip Larkin worked hard at not looking or behaving like a poet.” He wanted to make poetry accessible to everyone, and did not like using particularly esoteric ideas and vocabulary. Perhaps the way he achieved this most effectively was through his use of mundanities. They allow him to enter the poem slowly and in a straightforward, relatable way. Just as his poetry was full of mundanities, his life was too. He lived his life alone in small flats and bungalows, working as a Librarian and writing collections of poetry every ten years. He managed to avoid the aspects of life that he most despised, like marriage and children; in this way he can be seen as an individual voice. He refused to allow his life to be dictated, nor would he allow himself to become that which he despised. However, there was one thing that, despite his poetry and individuality, he could never escape: death. The true irony of his life is that his death was caused by the very thing he used to escape it, alcohol. No matter how hard he tried to escape it, he never could.

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