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How Did He Do It?

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I came to them, the second time, quite late,
It was the day
The letters, full of snobbery and race hate
That caused the chattering classes such dismay
Came out, and Terry Eagleton had pounced:
‘Larkin is now beyond the pale,’ he’d said,
‘All decent folk should chuck him off the shelf.’
As soon as this stiff sentence was pronounced,
Feeling perverse, I picked him up instead
Although (because?) I was a ‘wog’ myself.

At once I found it didn’t matter that
The letters stank:
The skill that, first time round, I’d wondered at,
There it still was, like money in the bank;
The voice did not sound any less humane
As, standing for all human solitude,
He mused on Mr Bleaney in his room;
Nor did I feel less poignantly his pain
When, in the end, he couldn’t quite be rude
To wretched Warlock-Williams, by whom

All social torment was personified –
So sad, and funny;
Or ‘Toads’ console me less about how I’d
Quite failed to get the ‘fame and girl and money’
Even at sixty sittings, much less one.
And when I wake in an angst-ridden state
At four a.m., and lie there till the birds
Start singing, and the early, sickening sun
Seeps in, if I should then articulate
My fears, ‘Aubade’ may well supply the words.

Reading ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, one’s first thought
Is: how’s it done?
The prosody’s so uniformly taut,
Such deftness is deployed while showing none.
A gentle sadness permeates each line:
Against the couples’ happiness we feel
Larkin’s own loneliness at having taken
The bachelor path (a life less anodyne,
More painful), hear the humane voice that he’ll
Adopt to save his misanthropic bacon.

In ‘Dockery and Son’ he seems to wear
His solitude
More proudly, though of course the gloom’s still there
In fact he’s in his blackest ever mood.
Learning that one of his contemporaries
At Oxford is now married with a son
Larkin considers how this came about:
He’s single, sonless

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I came to them, the second time, quite late, It was the day The letters, full of snobbery and race hate That caused the chattering classes such dismay Came out, and Terry Eagleton had pounced: ‘Larkin is now beyond the pale,’ he’d said, ‘All decent folk should chuck him off the shelf.’ As soon as this stiff sentence was pronounced, Feeling perverse, I picked him up instead Although (because?) I was a ‘wog’ myself.

At once I found it didn’t matter that The letters stank: The skill that, first time round, I’d wondered at, There it still was, like money in the bank; The voice did not sound any less humane As, standing for all human solitude, He mused on Mr Bleaney in his room; Nor did I feel less poignantly his pain When, in the end, he couldn’t quite be rude To wretched Warlock-Williams, by whom All social torment was personified – So sad, and funny; Or ‘Toads’ console me less about how I’d Quite failed to get the ‘fame and girl and money’ Even at sixty sittings, much less one. And when I wake in an angst-ridden state At four a.m., and lie there till the birds Start singing, and the early, sickening sun Seeps in, if I should then articulate My fears, ‘Aubade’ may well supply the words. Reading ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, one’s first thought Is: how’s it done? The prosody’s so uniformly taut, Such deftness is deployed while showing none. A gentle sadness permeates each line: Against the couples’ happiness we feel Larkin’s own loneliness at having taken The bachelor path (a life less anodyne, More painful), hear the humane voice that he’ll Adopt to save his misanthropic bacon. In ‘Dockery and Son’ he seems to wear His solitude More proudly, though of course the gloom’s still there In fact he’s in his blackest ever mood. Learning that one of his contemporaries At Oxford is now married with a son Larkin considers how this came about: He’s single, sonless, while life’s Dockeries Of whom it’s mere chance that he isn’t one Blindly and blithely fling their seed about. ‘Life is first boredom – then fear’, The tone’s as bleak As even Larkin ever gets. We hear The voice of existential sorrow speak, Depressed to madness, nearly, and yet sane. The ‘awful pie’ he eats at Sheffield stands For life itself: such is his eerie knack With symbols, something utterly mundane Becomes a powerful image in his hands. Likewise the gas fire breathing at his back And the trees swaying, as he starts to write The note to say Why, full of anti-social rage and spite, He can’t make drinks in ‘Vers de Société’. The trees and gas fire figure loneliness Quietly urging Larkin to accept As he at last, inevitably, does. These poems’ plain tone doesn’t make them less Poetic: symbolism’s somehow crept In the back door, almost eluding us. Thus windows, in ‘High Windows’, stand for peace, A toad for work In ‘Toads’. Significance seems to increase The duller something is, more meanings lurk. In the same vein, in ‘Church Going’, the tone Is mainly quite colloquial and flat – ‘Some brass and stuff up at the holy end’ – The details have a drabness all their own – The Irish sixpence, cycle-clips and hat – But handling themes – God, Time – that still transcend. He takes the biggest subjects on alright But all aimed not At ‘intellectuals’ (whom he thought a blight) But folk in Surbiton, or Aldershot Like someone in the pub who talks in rhyme – Always accessible, even when profound, Wise, unaffected, and ‘a decent chap’. There lies his genius: mixing the sublime And commonplace: Life, Death, Love, Sex – he’ll sound Them all, and to the depths, but cut the crap. If he’s a flaw, perhaps it’s too much gloom Who likes a snurge? His poems give his melancholy room To breathe, and spread itself, but does it purge? Everyone likes a catchy ditty though And like so many poets, Larkin’s name Relies, or most, on such: ‘This Be the Verse’, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ – it seems these two (That’s not to say he hasn’t written worse) Will always form the bedrock of his fame.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © Ranjit Bolt 2012


About the contributor

Ranjit Bolt was born in Manchester
In 1959. He spent ten years
In London, working as a stockbroker
Being bored, at first at times, and then to tears
Until he happened upon Le Menteur,
A Corneille comedy of some renown
Which hauled him out of limbo, as it were,
Made him the toast (for two ticks) of the town,
Since when he’s done enough verse comedies
To drive him, and the public, off their trees.

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