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Magic, Illusion and Other Realities. Essay by Simon Perchik



 ……….Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:

 ……….It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

……….Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader.  To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction.  Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

……….This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning.  It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

……….This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

 ……….To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, James R. Elkins, Editor (Pleasure Boat Studio Press. Also, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.

……….The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

……….Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138. describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty.  If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

……….Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

……….In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 am I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

……….For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

……….Walker Evans     …..Farmer’s wife
……….Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth?  Sorrow?
……….Not too bad looking. Plain dress

……….This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

……….Words –bricks and mortar
……….Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,
……….building the ant hill,
……….not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished
……….it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

……….This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

……….Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

……….No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought  impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

……….Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract so my subconscious can talk to the reader’s subconscious, much the same as an artist abstracts the painting so the viewer’s subconscious can listen to the artist’s subconscious. There will be nothing anyone can point to and say, “That’s why”. Exactly like music, the most abstract of all the arts. Thus, for each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

……….Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling”, with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

……….Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

……….Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.






Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review,The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013).  For more information, including free e-books, please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

‘Giant Ribbing’ Part 2 of an Essay on Philip Larkin by Nick Cooke

One poem attempts the audacious feat of uniting two facets of Larkin, or at least of his poetic persona. ‘Wants’ (1950) combines the quotability of the much-anthologised popular favourite, with the rift-loading allusiveness of a poet operating well below the surface. Here the implied reference-point is neither Eliot nor Pound but another representative, if a half-generation younger, of the era against which Larkin purported to react. The 1954 Betjeman review appears to slight William Empson when Larkin brackets Seven Types and Some Versions with other (in his and Betjeman’s view) unappealing modernist icons. But ‘Wants’, in its rather portentous villanelle-like refrains, certainly calls up the Empson of ‘Missing Dates’ and ‘Aubade’ (a title which Larkin later used himself), and the poem is undoubtedly shot through with ambiguity:

‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff –
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death –
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.’

If read as if through the mouth of an everyman figure, this seems depressing indeed, but not if it’s Larkin talking as a poet. From that perspective the poem becomes an artfully tense parable of freedom and control.

Symptoms of depression and disconnection in ordinary people, wishing to be alone and desiring oblivion are different matters for a poet. The soliloquy-type nature of the poem recalls Hamlet, and ‘the wish to be alone’ sums up the condition that such a character needs in order to process his thoughts. Moreover ‘the wish to be’ calls into play ‘To be or not to be,’ so that the phrase gets inwardly separated from ‘alone’, as in ‘only the desire to be’ (rather than not to be). So an affirmation of life resides within an apparent negation. The next three lines then provide a context for the repeated first line. They convey a progression from the hectic social life of youth, through the fumbling business of sex, to family life, as though being alone in its artistic sense should follow on ‘beyond all this’ from the establishment of a secure domestic scenario – the real business of mature life. A kind of gloss on emotion recollected in tranquillity? Or a parody of Jacques’ famous speech in As You Like It?

The second stanza looks at life from a slightly different standpoint. Having heard Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy in the first line of the first stanza, we are unlikely to miss the echo of Milton at the equivalent point of the second – ‘Lethe, the river of oblivion rolls/Her watery labyrinth’. The allusion invokes a state of forgetfulness, rather than the blankness of death, and reminds us that ‘oblivion’ can signal a number of states, ranging in levels of drama, including drunkenness and even just deep sleep (as at the end of Ian McEwan’s Saturday: ‘He closes his eyes. This time there’ll be no trouble falling towards oblivion, there’s nothing can stop him now.’) And Larkin’s later work will reveal another yet context, in ‘The Old Fools’ (1973):

‘At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here.’

Birth, in other words. With one phrase, the ravishingly positive ‘million-petalled flower’, Larkin undercuts his own apparently unanswerable bleakness, as he so often does. The negativity of which he is often accused is never as simple or cut-and-dried as it may appear. It is hard not to share the spirit – though we may baulk at the relative crudity of – Ian Hamilton’s comment, later reported by Larkin himself:

‘Ian Hamilton once said that whenever I said anything I gave a little twist to show that I didn’t really mean it. People say I’m very negative, and I suppose I am, but the impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done… Perhaps my negation is my subject-matter: it doesn’t seem like negation to me, but like daffodils to Wordsworth.’

In keeping with his propensity to shift perspectives, to give a little but telling twist, the intervening three lines of ‘Wants’ portray another, sharper view of the first stanza’s concerns. ‘Artful tensions of the calendar’ implies that the invitation-cards symbolising an ostensibly impressive social life often represent the stressful pressures later satirised in ‘Vers de Société’. The unbridled passion of primitive sex is glimpsed in ‘fertility rites’, but not before a lid has been put on in the form of ‘tabled’. The phrase suggests a comically contradictory routine agenda of carnal matters – incredible sex 2.4 times per week, perhaps. Meanwhile, we try to protect our families against the worst of death by taking out policies and trying to forget about it – our only forms of control. Only artists are free of these obsessions with control, able to imagine and escape to different types of oblivion, yet the fact that ‘Wants’ is a highly controlled, and controlling, form of poem casts ironic light on what they tend to do with that freedom. The poem is similar to an Empsonian villanelle, but fundamentally different. Far from shifting about within the stanzas, the repeated refrains serve as immutably encasing bulwarks or frames for the lines within. Some form of stasis, even sterility, appears to hold sway even as the creative life is surreptitiously celebrated.

Worries about lack of creativity had surfaced less than a fortnight before the writing of ‘Wants’, in ‘Spring’:

‘Green-shadowed people sit, or walk in rings,
Their children finger the awakened grass,
Calmly a cloud stands, calmly a bird sings,
And, flashing like a dangled looking-glass,
Sun lights the balls that bounce, the dogs that bark,
The branch-arrested mist of leaf, and me,
Threading my pursed-up way across the park,
An indigestible sterility.’

Note the subtle transformation of a negative (the echo of Keats’ ‘And no birds sing’ in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’) into a positive, soon confirmed by the appearance of the sun. Larkin may have decried the Modernists’ reliance on allusions to past writers, but he is capable of the odd transformational back-reference himself. Yet it transpires that this is only done to contrast the productive beauty of nature with the speaker’s own ugly sterility, so the inversion is itself promptly re-inverted. Larkin never allows us to feel she we have got his measure; in his own unique way he likes to keep us on our interpretative toes.

‘Spring’ is another poem to be retrospectively enriched by a far better-known later work which it helps to shed light on – ‘Dockery and Son’ (1962). As is true of so much of Larkin’s death-dealing, this poem’s ostensible starkness of outlook has more in common with ‘The Waste Land’ than Gray’s ‘Elegy’. It recounts how Larkin, revisiting Oxford twenty years after his time as an undergraduate there, learns that a contemporary’s son is now up. In considering how the young Dockery could have become a father at such an age, he explores themes of eternity and inheritance before concluding with a passage of eminent Larkinesque quotability, one which the poet stated he intended as a deliberate jolt, and which comes at first sight as a near non sequitur. ‘Innate assumptions’ about being convinced we ‘should be added to do’ are

‘More a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
For Dockery a son, for me nothing.
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.’

In fact the last four lines, in whose brutal truthfulness Larkin took open pride, are far from an irrelevance. They are the harsh patronage that he feels is all he has to hand on, the ‘indigestible sterility’ he wrote of more than a decade earlier. Yet there is, as so often, a twist to the poem’s tail. Death appears to have the last word, but the denial of complete disappearance, the slight qualification of ‘it goes,/And leaves…’, , is enough to suggest a limit to its extinguishing power. Similarly, ‘Whether or not we use it’ reflects critically on the previous line: if life were truly only boredom and fear, in what sense would we able to use it? For Dockery, the perspective would be entirely different, because he has a child, and he is immersed in using his life far more fruitfully than the speaker/Larkin persona. Thus the apparent baldness of the closing lines actually reflect the Larkin persona’s miserable envy, rather than any attempt at objective truth. The subject of the finale is not death itself, but Larkin’s sour perception of life, or at least the mood that the Oxford visit creates. It’s another angle of the Berkeleyan principle, reality as perceived by the far from disinterested subject.

A much earlier piece on death, ‘Going’ (1946), is yet another instance of a poem given an interpretative key by a lesser known work, this time one written in 1950 but not included in The Less Deceived. ‘”Who called love conquering”’ appears to answer its own question in the last stanza:

‘And tiny curled greeds

Grapple the sun down
By three o’clock
When the dire cloak of dark
Stiffens the town.’

If we had thought the answer something other than Christ, surely the reference to darkness at three o’clock alerts us to the probability? If so, the ‘cloak’ reference will stir memories of ‘Going’:

‘There is an evening coming in,
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps.

Silken it seems at a distance, yet
When it is drawn up over the knees and breast
It brings no comfort.’

Using the later poem as a gloss, why is the evening ‘one never seen before’? Possibly because on Good Friday the sky went dark at the moment of Christ’s death, three o’clock. Following this tack, the garment in the second stanza would seem to suggest Christ’s shroud, and the final lines of the poem can be read in terms of the dead Messiah, as, with swollen and numbed hands, he is taken down from the cross (‘tree’ in Biblical parlance):

‘Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?

What loads my hands down?’

Like so many of Larkin’s poems about mortality, ‘Going’ spikes death’s guns by appearing to admit its unimpeachable victory, while implying a counter-argument. In this case, he invokes the ability of Christ to defeat death not only in the sense of imminent resurrection, but simply by talking through and over it – a miracle monologue. Though not a Christian, the ever-resourceful Larkin is willing to call upon the power of Christ, apocryphal or not, in order to question death’s dominion. Any enemy of death is a friend of his, whether or not they actually are the Messiah.

It may seem something of a hop from the poem generally recognised as Larkin’s first mature effort to the final piece in his last published collection, High Windows. But ‘The Explosion’ (1970) tackles several of the same themes, including religion. Written in response to a song Larkin heard about a mining disaster, it appears to reach an overtly optimistic conclusion when a nest of eggs, earlier found and hidden by a miner about to be killed, is recovered ‘unbroken’ in the last line. Larkin himself, in his 1981 interview with John Haffenden, referred to ‘a vision of immortality at the end’. No surprise that the bird is a lark – Larkin, it would seem, surreptitiously hopes that his own poetic eggs will outlive him, and thus that ‘Dockery and Son’s’ embittered legacy of sterility has found its antidote. Except that the ‘vision of immortality’ is indeed that – only a vision. Following an italicized fragment from a funeral service, the poem makes subtly but unmistakably clear that the eggs are only shown to be unbroken in some kind of momentary if intense mirage, one presumably inspired by a combination of frenzied grief and the power of the prayer itself:

‘The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face –

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,

One showing the eggs unbroken.’

Larkin’s ostensibly sincere claim to an image of immortality may indeed have been so: the qualifications of ‘for a second’, ‘larger than in life’, ‘somehow’ and even the illusion-implying effect of the sun shining behind the men, may have been unconscious. Given the meticulous care with which his poems were invariably produced, though, this seems unlikely. That care is entirely consistent with the double-edged connotations of ‘vision’. It is indeed ironic that where previous poems have concluded by twisting round on themselves in the very teeth of death, what turned out to be Larkin’s swansong piece appears to do the opposite. However, this ultimate slipperiness represents a fitting climax to a career in which hardly anything can be taken at face value.

Nick Cooke’s poems have been published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly, the Dream Catcher magazine and the anthology ‘Poems For a Liminal Age’, as well as the Agenda journal online supplement and websites Poetry Space and I am not a Silent Poet. His poem ‘Process’ was Highly Commended in the Segora Poetry Competition (July 2015). He has also had four poems accepted for To Kingdom Come, an anthology to be published in 2016 on the theme of political killing. He is currently working on his first collection. In addition to poetry he has had reviews and articles accepted by SLQ, the literary quarterly ‘Arete’ and the forthcoming literary journal ‘The ‘High Window’.

Larkin’s ‘Giant Ribbing’ by Nick Cooke

As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Larkin’s death (on 2 December), followed by the unveiling of his Westminster Abbey floor stone next year, it leaves a sad taste in the reflective mouth to consider the posthumous (though self-inflicted) harm to his reputation in the past three decades. Andrew Motion’s revelations of Larkin’s ‘other side’ – the always perplexing and disturbing descent of a brilliant mind into reactionary crassness – have made Larkinland a place where few can now claim they venture without at least a smidgeon of discomfort, even shame. To some, the clear evidence from his own letters and the testimony of several who knew him that Larkin held racist and xenophobic views is enough to disqualify him from serious artistic consideration, and we might even expect a degree of right-minded protest in December 2016 when the stone is ready for its appearance. Others might argue that the blemish to his name simply adds to the already quite substantial roster of contradictions in Larkin’s life and work. He was a racist, it would seem, who listened to nothing but black music all his life, and a misogynist who not only wrote one of the most powerful exposés of sexual violence in twentieth-century literature, but named a collection after one of its lines. Vituperatively misanthropic in his letters, he was capable of a poem like ‘The Mower’, which advocates reciprocal kindness in a way no reader could ever forget. Without seeking to condone or explain his more regrettable utterances, this piece will adopt an approach to him which might best perhaps be described as open-eyed yet forbearing, just as A.N. Wilson did in the recent ‘Return to Larkinland’ TV documentary, where for all the reverential treatment of the poetry, no punches were pulled by the presenter regarding his late friend’s manifest faults. If we did take a letter-of-the-law stance on Larkin, and consign him to whichever dustbin we thought most appropriate, we would be depriving ourselves of one of the last century’s great poetic contributors. Or to reduce it to an increasingly commonplace metaphor, the baby is well worth saving, even though we would gladly be rid of the ill-smelling bathwater.

Proceeding on this basis, I will be arguing that among the many interesting complexities in Larkin’s career was an ambivalent attitude to the issue of a poet’s identification with any one acknowledged approach or school. On the surface, most of Larkin’s critical pronouncements cast him as a sworn enemy of modernism, the harbinger of clear-eyed common sense and simplicity of message. Though never the most comfortable member of the so-called Movement of the 1950s, he does claim allegiance to a line of thought that is broadly speaking associated with more clear-cut Movement poets and critics such as Donald Davie, one which goes back as far as Johnson and Gray, runs through Hardy (his all-time idol) and arrives at Betjeman and early Auden via Rupert Brooke. One of his many reviews of Betjeman voices what appears to be his own embattled credo through that of its subject:

‘…for him, the modern poetic revolution has just not happened; there has been no symbolism, no Ezra Pound, no objective correlative, no rediscovery of myth, no Seven Types or Some Versions […] – his poems are written in the strong unregenerate belief that poetry is a simple matter of trying to construct a verbal device that will preserve and reproduce any given feeling or set of feelings indefinitely, and that nothing is to be gained by questioning an emotion once it has been experienced.’ (1954)

But what might seem a partisan tack is not always held with full conviction. Larkin was actually quite ambivalent about the modernists. His double-edged attack on Pound’s Cantos typifies a deep-rooted uncertainty:

‘Comprehension and appreciation will depend on the reader’s knowledge and liking of what Mr Pound is doing in this long twentieth-century poetic curiosity, the ultimate (and immediate) value of which I personally think very small. However, the numerous splinters of rhetoric, the sardonic asides and the evocative images of this historical kaleidoscope are sufficiently fascinating to suggest that those who think otherwise may well be right.’ (March 1957)

Later, discussing his editorship of The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, he is more open in giving the poetic revolutionaries their due. Despite his interest in individual Georgian poets he feels forced to concede that ‘as a class…their language was stale. It was Eliot and Yeats, and perhaps even Pound, who sharpened up the language.’ He had been more positive about Georgian poetry in a 1959 review which speculates on ‘what would have happened to the course of English poetry if Owen, Thomas, Rosenberg and the rest had not been killed.’ Far from being ‘an outgrown shallow pastoral playfulness’, Georgian poetry ‘represented a robust zestful upsurge of realism – a movement into which the young D.H. Lawrence, for instance, fitted quite naturally.’ That Larkin should see Lawrence in terms of a transition from the Georgian scene to the modernist era implicitly counsels us to be sceptical when encountering his blunter critiques of Lawrence’s more eminent contemporaries. He goes on:

‘No doubt poetry, like every other branch of art, was bound to go through a period of Modernismus, and certainly there could have been much worse exemplars than Mr Eliot, but it would have been interesting to observe the continental impact refracted through stronger native talents than for the most part survived.’

This in turn implies that if Brooke et al. had survived, they would perforce have become modernists of some sort: the ‘continental impact’ meant that however zestful the previous upsurge of realism had been, it could only have been a foretaste of what the Great War would later foist upon contemporary culture. Modernism, in other words, wasn’t entirely the cultural blip Larkin sometimes suggests he thought it was. And it is certainly fair to say that Larkin’s poetry isn’t as emotionally straightforward as the comments on Betjeman might suggest it would probably be. Just as his critical work admits the occasional doubt concerning his primary beliefs, there remains another strand to his poetic oeuvre, a more complex and restless one that has no problem seeing what is to be gained by ‘questioning an emotion’.

It’s a strand that Larkin began to explore seriously in 1950, the year in which he turned 28. Before then most of his work had been dominated first by the early-Yeatsian influences of his first collection, The North Ship (1946), and later by his predilection for the allegorical possibilities of sunlight and darkness, in the unpublished manuscript In the Grip of Light (1947). In September 1950, his move to Belfast to become sub-librarian of Queen’s University gave him ‘the best writing conditions I ever had’. Several of the many poems he wrote there drew upon the city’s maritime proximity, and one, ‘Absences’, delves into his inner self through a description of a particularly rough sea, before raising its sights to the heavens:

‘Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’

As Larkin made clear in his comments on the poem, it deals with his own absence from scenes of natural beauty or drama: ‘I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there.’ But even as the starlit skies are invoked, suggesting a global view of events that the poet can never really have even when he is present, the congruence of ‘riddled’ and ‘ribbing’ counsels us to look for other levels of interpretation. This form of jesting with words, turning them over like multi-sided stones, is certainly closer to the world of Eliot and Pound than of Betjeman. Should we be in any doubt about this half-concealed confession of literary gamesmanship, ‘Next, Please’ – another poem dominated by the sea, albeit a metaphorical one – has Larkin and his readers ‘Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,/Sparking armada of promises draw near…’ Why not simply a cliff, which would sound much more natural? ‘Bluff’ exudes a self-referentiality that both unsettles and amuses.

The scene is indeed a giant ribbing, a huge tease, if seen from the perspective of the stars. Like Troilus looking down on the earth from his lofty sphere, the stars are the only true witnesses of everything that happens. Are they (remembering the American meaning of ‘lit-up’) drunk on power? The multiple suggestions ebb and flow, shift and sift away, like the tides themselves.

Larkin’s playfulness is at its most brilliant when it is intensely serious. The line of which ‘giant ribbing’ forms the centre contains a beautiful mimesis of erosion in which ‘shift’ becomes ‘sift’ – itself both a shifting and a sifting, a slow mutation and a selection. And the final line typifies the way in which, although he claimed that Eliotic allusion to other writers’ poems was likely to alienate less well-read readers, his propensity to refer to his own work forms a key part of its organic texture. ‘Such attics cleared of me!’ cannot but recall ‘Deceptions’, written in January and effectively the title poem of The Less Deceived, where a Victorian drug-rapist is summarily exposed:

‘I would not dare
Console you if I could…
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.’

That memorable finale has already hung heavy over the end of ‘No Road’, a poem written a month before ‘Absences’, in October 1950, where the speaker describes his own wavering efforts to sever all connections with a lover he knows he has outgrown:

‘A little longer,
And time will be the stronger,

Drafting a world where no such road will run
From you to me;
To watch that world come up like a cold sun,
Rewarding others, is my liberty.
Not to prevent it is my will’s fulfilment.
Willing it, my ailment.’

Fulfilment, apparently offered as an antonym to ailment, comes over more like a synonym, when we read ‘Deceptions’. With ‘Absences’, the inevitable comparison sparked by the re-appearance of ‘attic’ (in the collection the poems are only two pages apart) means that in the reader’s mind a sense of desolation hangs about the image of scenes not directly witnessed by the poet. Is it the absence of himself from the scene, or of the scene from himself, that underlies the desolation? In these terms the poem picks up the philosophical issue that so engaged Berkeley and his fellow Idealists two centuries earlier, and provided a backdrop to the ‘shifting’ from Augustan to Romantic sensibility, where ‘sifting’ – selecting what elements of the natural scene to depict, rather than proffering a generic or composite view – became a key artistic principle.

The issue preoccupies Larkin in other poems. ‘Latest Face’ (February 1951) describes a beautiful woman whose power over him is modified in part by the title’s implicitly reductive metonymy, but more so by his realisation that her beauty can only exist in and through his appreciative perception of it:

‘Latest face, so effortless
Your great arrival at my eyes
No one standing near could guess
Your beauty had no home till then…

Admirer, and admired embrace
On a useless level, where
I contain your current grace,
You my judgment…’

He envisages a scenario where ‘denial of you’ could equate to a killing, because the woman’s power is so dependent on recognition:

‘Is your power actual – can
Denial of you duck and run,
Stay out of sight and double round,
Leap from the sun with mask and brand
And murder and not understand?’

In the sonnet ‘Spring’, he adduces a corollary between his own undesirability and his ability to appreciate the season he calls ‘earth’s most multiple, excited daughter’. Only by being rejected by beauty – and therefore craving more than a normal fair share of its boons – can a poet truly celebrate it:

‘And those she has least use for see her best,
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.’

This link between the naively desirable and the rejected yet paradoxically empowered desirer is central to Larkin’s poems about women. ‘Deceptions’ in particular is a decisive moment in his development. We can’t mistake the pointed factuality of the final comparison between attacker and victim. ‘You would hardly care/That you were less deceived…’ – no hint there of a subjectivising qualification, of the desperate vagueness portrayed at the start of ‘Ignorance’ (‘Strange to know nothing, never to be sure/Of what is true or right or real,/ But forced to qualify or so I feel…’) Larkin is spelling out that – to an obviously circumscribed extent – he knows what he’s talking about. The rape is seen as the ultimate extreme of masturbation, and one has a half-unnerving, half-touching sense that the poet’s isolationist sexuality gives him a valuable insight into the mind of the rapist. Should the more private elements of biographical knowledge inform our view of a writer’s work? ‘Deceptions’, I would contend, shows that Andrew Motion’s exposure of Larkin’s extensive interest in pornography, and his sheepish admission that the purpose of such material was ‘to wank to, or with, or at’ it, alters our perception of his work for the better.

Of course, partial empathy by no means implies sympathy or forgiveness. Just as the poem’s tone is anything but ‘stumbling’ and ‘breathless’, and its overall effect is far from ‘desolate’, so the act of unsolicited testimony distances Larkin from the pervert he nails at the very instant that the two appear to be linked. For this alone it would have been a great poem, even without the justly famous achievements of the first stanza. There we have been treated to a sublime instance of urban pathetic fallacy, as every carriage passing by evokes the wedding that the ruined girl knows is a lost dream for her: ‘the brisk brief/Worry of wheels along the street outside/Where bridal London looks the other way’. Her torment is captured in one of Larkin’s most daring similes, which unites the shameful sense of being on display with the impotent thought of revenge:

‘All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.’

With these, the poem has a strong case to be adjudged Larkin’s best of all, the one in which depth of feeling is most closely commensurate with acuteness of observation.

‘Deceptions’ has many links with his later work, forming a touchstone for many of his poems about sex. That unmistakably in-the-know aspect of Larkin’s stance on sexual deviance informs the vengeance that he takes on the ‘bosomy English rose’ of ‘Wild Oats’ (1962). She may have laughed at him, but he keeps her snaps in his wallet, through two decades of presumably unlimited onanistic table-turning. In this, consciously or otherwise, he represents fallible modern man as rendered iconic by Prufrock or Mauberley; we may not approve of him, but we feel for his pained isolation. Almost as if Larkin anticipated feminist objections, however, he went on to offer another view of female images a few months later. The billboard beauty of ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ is now the underdog, abused with what appears to be gratuitous humour as well as violence, until the author of the vandalism is exposed in a neat juxtaposition which says much about the unlifelike size of the genitals he drew:

‘Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were well scored in, and the space
Between her thighs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls’

Autographed Titch Thomas

Vandalism had earlier been purely internal, in ‘If, My Darling’ (May 1950). Justifiably one of Larkin’s favourite among his own oeuvre, this nightmare-fantasy venture invites both the poet’s lover and the reader into the murky world of his own head. There amid ‘the creep of varying light,/Monkey-brown, fish-grey’, she would ‘remark

‘The unwholesome floor, as it might be the skin of a grave,
From which ascends an adhesive sense of betrayal,
A Grecian statue kicked in the privates, money,
A swill-tub of finer feelings.’

An upsurge of realism, indeed. What makes this a particularly well-aimed kick in the balls is the fact that a statue has no balls, not in the real flesh-and-blood sense anyway. ‘Latest Face’ makes a similar point by posing the part-wistful, part-withering question: ‘Will/The statue of your beauty walk?’ And the Grecian statue’s balls are not even ‘privates’ in the literal sense, because they are always exposed to the viewer, just as Larkin is now exposing his supposedly beautiful mind to his girlfriend – presumably she imagines it so or she would not want to ‘jump, like Alice, with floating skirt into my head’. Nothing is what it seems, even ‘finer feelings’ are revealed as ‘swill’. The key to this self-savagery comes in the conclusion. There Larkin makes an implied confession about his true inner life, one that he might not make in the bluff (and bluffing) world of interviews with critics:

‘But most of all

She’d be stopping her ears against the incessant recital
Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms,
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal:

For the skirl of that bulletin unpicks the world like a knot
And to hear how the past is past and the future neuter
Might knock my darling off her unpriceable pivot.’

This is the very opposite of a Hardyesque or Betjemanian lucidity or simplicity of thought. It is far more like the complex tortuousness of a modernist, one chained up in his own constant contradictions. Yet Larkin believes the torture to be productive, that it ‘unpicks the world like a knot’, even if the resultant truth is not something his darling would find enticing. ‘Unpriceable pivot’ tells us that what he values in his girlfriend, what he in fact finds priceless, is the sense of control and balance embodied by a pivot – a pivotal re-casting of the cliché of a pedestal, where men are traditionally inclined to place their loves. A more predictable poet would have ended with something that could be paraphrased as ‘Might knock me off my darling’s unpriceable pedestal.’ But in Larkin’s world it is the naïve who suffer most. The knowingly worldly may be the more deceived, but they find ways of insulating themselves against the worst of the pain – even at the cost of self-brutalisation. However, lest we take the mood too seriously, that ‘skirl’, the high shrill sound produced by a bagpipe, is later contextualised by its high-spirited re-appearance at a self-punning moment in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’:

‘And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails…