Saturday, 22 January 2011

"The Whitsun Weddings" - my favourite 20th Century poem

Most people don’t give a toss about poetry. As for the rest, many actively dislike it: somehow it embarrasses them. I’m not sure why, but I assume the way I react to bad modern poetry – whose toe-curling mixture of pretentiousness, portentousness and trendiness seem to demand the response, “Wow, you are, like, so deep!” – is the way some people react toall poetry. (I’ve known others who feel the same way about opera – as for me, ballet’s my blind spot, maybe partly because of the budgie-smuggling aspect of male dancers’ costumes.)

But, while I long ago gave up trying to convert anyone to my enthusiasms, I’d recommend poetry-haters to try just one more poem before turning their back on an art form at which the English have traditionally excelled – and that is “The Whitsun Weddings”, the masterpiece by literature’s great Eeyore, Philip Larkin. (For once, there’s no boredom, no despair, no disgust.)

For what it’s worth (very little), it’s my favourite English or American poem of the last century.

I was thinking about reading it at our next local “Pass On A Poem” meeting, and this morning I gave it a quick once-over to make sure it meets the criteria for judging whether a fair-sized poem is likely to hold the attention of a sympathetic audience, despite being read by a complete amateur such as myself. (We have one or two actors and some gifted non-actors in the group who can make knotty, difficult poems come alive – but I don’t qualify for either category.) 

For me, a poem has to be easy to read out loud – no startling inversions or overly poetic language: it should tell a story: there should be descriptions of action or vivid visual images – smells and sounds help as well: and it should end satisfyingly and definitely, like any decent short story. Of course, the poem may have many layers of meaning – but I’m slow at picking those up on first hearing, and I assume I’m not alone. Naturally, many listeners will know the poem I’ve chosen, but it’s best to assume no one’s ever heard it before – I’m keenly aware of how many famous poems I’m unfamiliar with.

I’ve never really tried to figure out why I never tire of reading “The Whitsun Weddings”, but now that I’ve run it through the “suitability for live reading” test, I’ve got an inkling: it scores off the scale on each criterion.

For a start, it’s a short story, which starts on a hot Saturday with the narrator’s train pulling out of Hull Station and finishes as it starts to come to a halt at its London destination. In between, the poet becomes aware of noisy wedding parties on each station platform, and newly married couples bustle on board to start their life together.

It ends intriguingly, with the one of the handful of overtly poetic images in the piece: “…there swelled/A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” (Others include the girls who “stared at a religious wounding” and the women who “shared/The secret like a happy funeral” – the meaning of just about every other line is pellucid: these are the similes which add depth and mystery to the whole thing.)

As for the rest, it is extraordinarily physical: there are smells (“the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth”, “the smell of grass”, “smelt the fish-dock”) and sounds (“what a noise the weddings made”, “whoops and skirls/I took for porters larking with the mails”, “an uncle shouting smut”) and images that encompass several sensations (“the tall heat that slept for miles inland”, “a slow and stopping curve southwards we kept” – you can see the train slowly arcing from the carriage window as you feel your body being gently tugged in the opposite direction, just as you can feel yourself lurch forward and hear the squeal as “the tightened brakes too hold”).

But the glory of the poem is its visual imagery. We’ve seen all the things Larkin describes a thousand times, but barely been aware of them - the sharpness of his eye and the exactness and freshness of his language makes us say “Yes!” in shocked recognition time and time again: “crossed a street of blinding windscreens”, “short-shadowed cattle”, “Canals with floatings of industrial froth”, “a hothouse flashed uniquely”, “Until the next town, new and nondescript/Approached with acres of dismantled cars”). 

In just thirteen simple words, he seems to sum up what tens of millions of us have glimpsed billions of times out of a train window in England: “An Odeon went past, a cooling tower/And someone running up to bowl”. And which of us, perhaps from our childhood, doesn’t recognise aspects of the journey into a big city – “…we raced across bright knots of rail/Past standing Pullmans”, “…walls of blackened moss/Came close”?

The images of the wedding parties on the “long cool platforms” are superb: the fathers with “seamy foreheads”, and:

                                                   “…the perms,
        The nylon gloves and jewellery substitutes,
        The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
        Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.”

The most famous image from the poem – deservedly so – is of “London spread out in the sun/Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat”. My own favourite is of the proud fathers who had “never know/Success so huge and wholly farcical”. 

I really don’t care if Larkin was a racist who bought spank-mags in Soho and spent the rest of his time reading Dick Francis thrillers and listening to crackly old jazz 78s – the only thing that ultimately matters about him is that he could produce poetry of such utter genius.

I tracked down an audio file of old misery-guts reading “The Whitsun Weddings” (when you get there, click the arrow on the left). I don’t reckon how poets read their own work should influence us in any way, but it’s interesting how animated Larkins’ normally quite monotonous voice sounds here: perhaps I should burn it onto a CD and simply let the audience hear one  of the greatest of all English poets read his greatest work.

If any poetry-hater (and I’m talking about intelligent, educated people) finds themselves unable to respond to “The Whitsun Weddings” – fair enough, they’re a lost cause!

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