|Creative Commons, Wikipedia. Chichester Cathedral.|
Monument to Richard Fitzalan III, 10th Earl of Arundel (c.1307-1376)
and Eleanor of Lancaster (d. 1372.) Unusual for the linked hands
and the wife's crossed legs and turn toward her husband.
By Nabokov at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Larkin, Larkin, what a trouble you are to me! I don't like the way you write about women, especially women "in specs," but I'll ignore all that for the sake of your lovely moments. But if I do, I still don't like the way you talk about the ordinary impulses toward more life--children and marriage, particularly, and the way you often see strangers in a rather loveless way. I am afraid that I picture you at dreary work with the in-box and "loaf-haired" secretary.
And yet, and yet... I see so many lines to admire, and it is no small thing to write a poem with a single moment worth remembering. I like "Sporting-house girls like circus tigers" and "spend all our life on imprecisions, / That when we start to die / Have no idea why" and "A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain." Listen to the sound of "dark-clothed children at play / Called after kings and queens" and "An immense slackening ache, / As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps, / Spreads slowly through them" and "dark towns heap up on the horizon." The "sudden scuttle on the drum" pleases me, and the billboard scene, where "A glass of milk stands in a meadow." Clive James describes the poet's "privileged duty" as "to be concerned with everything, in the hope of producing something--a poem, a stanza, even a single line--that will live on its own, in its own time" (Poetry Notebook, p. 77.) Larkin has plenty of special moments.
Larkin also has a good instinct for metrics. The line, "The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went" is a great example, starting with three strong iambic feet but in the last two feet giving us a reversed foot (so that it dwindles) and a dwindled monosyllabic foot. Or take a look at the thicket of accents in "And dark towns heap up on the horizon." Or try this line: "And the widening river's slow presence." It's almost as neat a combination of metrics and sense as Pope's "Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain, / Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main." Those smooth iambic combined with "o'er" and "th'unbending" are speedy.) "And the widening river's slow presence" appears in the midst of established iambic pentameter lines but varies from them by giving us a ten-syllable tetrameter line, essentially widening out the expected first three feet by substituting extra slack syllables with two anapestic feet. That last trochaic foot is the perfect word for a river that is widening and slowing: no motion but merely presence.
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And think on this: in our time, doesn't Larkin's poem belong to that older world--the world where grace caught in iambic tetrameter meter and an abbcac rhyme scheme could be considered achievement? Julian Stannard writes, "Post-1945, English poetry, thanks to Larkin and the Movement and Philip Hobsbaum and the Group, distanced itself from international modernism, re-establishing the English line and privileging form and meaning." Nevertheless, we are neck deep in the diminishing rear-guard returns of Modernism (perhaps truly free verse can only be written by those who have experienced the shackles of form, as in early Modernism), where line and form and meaning are in abeyance. Do I need to say I don't object to free verse? I don't. I object to slackness and to being bored (that goes for my own poems, too, though sometimes I don't dislike them until they are already circulating, which is annoying.) Clive James calls our own time one in which "almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem" (Poetry Notebook, p. 66.)
All the same, the poem's little dogs at the feet of Richard and Eleanor make me think of Causley's "Eden Rock" portrait of his parents waiting for him on the other side of the Jordan with the little terrier Jack trembling at their feet, while the sky whitens as if from the light of three suns. "They beckon to me from the other bank; / I hear them call, See where the stream-path is! / Crossing is not as hard as you might think." Here comes a stanza break and then the final line: "I had not thought that it would be like this."
Ah, well, maybe I love Causley a lot but Larkin a little after all....