I think the last 60 years or so will be regarded as a golden age in English poetry. In particular Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, R S Thomas and Philip Larkin are all likely to continue to be read and anthologised long into the future. And I am sure readers will want to add further names: Carol Ann Duffy, Douglas Dunn, James Fenton and others to this list.

Philip Larkin’s literary fame rests on just three slim volumes: The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings(1964) and High Windows(1974) – which together amount to fewer than 100 poems written over 25 years. Heaney and Hughes both published more than a dozen volumes of poetry.

Many of Larkin’s poems are written in a traditional form. They are well-constructed, broken into verses, with a pattern of rhyme. But he is less traditional in his choice of subject matter. He once said “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Not that all his poems are by any means bleak.

I really like his ‘occasional’ poems which explore a subject or the events of a day, prompting Larkin to reflect on their significance. I would single out Show Saturday, At Grass, To the Sea, An Arundel Tomb, and The Whitsun Weddings. These are acutely and often wittily observed. He finds resonances in places. In these lines from I Remember, I Remember, when his train stops at Coventry, ‘where my childhood was unspent’, he recalls:

“Our garden, first: where I did not invent

Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,

And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.”

The tone is pure Larkin, as he distances himself from such experiences (typically recalled in writers’ autobiographies) and emphasises his own ordinariness.

In Mr Bleaney, when the poet moves into a rented room, to his annoyance his landlady keeps recalling the previous tenant:

“Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown

The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.

I know his habits – what time he came down ,

His preference for sauce to gravy…”

Larkin’s poetry consciously avoids history, legends and gods (popular reference points for many poets) – what he called ‘the myth kitty’. The poems are self-contained and many are personal: we often hear Larkin’s voice. They are rooted in the ordinary. The everyday was his subject.

His language is mostly colloquial. His poetry is not ‘difficult’: you are not left unsure what he’s trying to saying, or what it means. Larkin explores a range of subjects including love, nature, memory, places, aging, despair and death. One of my favourites is Toads which has a playful tone that is common to many of his poems: ‘Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?’

It would be interesting to hear from readers which of Larkin’s poems they like best.

The texts of all the poems I have mentioned are available online. Just google Philip Larkin and the poem’s title. On youtube you can listen to him reading The Whitsun Weddings and I recommend Poetry in Motion: Philip Larkin – with Alan Bennett reading some of the poems and talking about them, also on youtube.

Lance Christopher

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