Friday, 2 December 2016

For once, Daniel Hannan is wrong - I often finish a Larkin poem feeling better than when I started it

The arch-Brexiteer Conservative MEP Dan Hannan posted this provocative tweet earlier today:
I wouldn't normally bother rising to the bait, and Hannan's usually pretty sound on cultural matters (he's pretty sound on most things, actually) - but this time he's wrong. Presumably he'd just read something along the lines of the following stanza (although it would be a pretty odd thing to do before 9AM):

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.

Or this...

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps   
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.

Or even more depressing...

Sunny Prestatyn 
Come To Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand   
In tautened white satin.   
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
Hotel with palms
Seemed to expand from her thighs and   
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March.   
A couple of weeks, and her face
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed;   
Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were scored well in, and the space   
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while   
Someone had used a knife
Or something to stab right through   
The moustached lips of her smile.   
She was too good for this life.   
Very soon, a great transverse tear   
Left only a hand and some blue.   
Now Fight Cancer is there.

Granted, poems like "Sunny Prestatyn" aren't exactly uplifting.  But there's something cathartic about the way they confront the most horrible, depressing, ugly aspects of existence - or, rather, our reactions to them - head on and close up. Larkin occasionally looks at the world as we tend to when at our very lowest ebb. He is the modern English equivalent of the sin-eaters who would eat a ritual meal at the home of someone who was dying and, in by consuming their food and drink, would symbolically consume that person's sins, thus enabling them to meet their maker with an unblemished soul. Larkin acted as a sort of national gloom-eater - he would consume our darkest thoughts by expressing them so pithily and entertainingly.

Reading some of Larkin's poem has the same cleansing effect as considering a problem that's been keeping you awake and deliberately imagining the very worst outcome possible, And, if that doesn't work for you, then you can at least console yourself with the thought that, no matter how bad things look to you, they'll never look as bad as they would to Phillip Larkin; he was, in some ways, a poetic equivalent of Tony Hancock (without the homburg). And if even that fails, console yourself with the thought that you don't live in Hull (I know whereof I speak - I spent a month there one day).

So, no, I don't tend to feel worse after reading one of the bald glumster's more downbeat verses. In any case, some of his poems aren't in the least gloomy or depressing - his work isn't all "Give me your arm, old toad; Help me down cemetery road". While every supposedly liberated pundit gets a thrill out of quoting "They fuck you up, your mum and dad", I suspect the two Larkin poems that mean the most to readers are "An Arundel Tomb" and "The Whitsun Weddings", both of which (unless I'm missing the point) are enormously poignant and touching and, certainly in the case of "The Whitsun Weddings", hopeful - and not in the least gloomy or despairing: I should have thought it would be hard to read either of them and not feel better for having done so, Mr. Hannan.

An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque  
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

The Whitsun Weddings
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
    Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
    Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

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