Sunday, 28 November 2010

Sean O'Brien on Larkin and the City

Philip Larkin and the City
Larkin tries the sadness of the city on for size, and seems to find it rather exciting – if nothing is happening there is nevertheless certainly a lot of it

Sean O'Brien
November 24, 2010

Philip Larkin is sometimes associated with departures, with poems enviously speculating on other lives decisively lived, as in “Poetry of Departures”:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying, Elemental move.

We know, of course, that there will be qualifications to follow. There may be the temptation to shout “stuff your pension” but, as Eccles remarked, “Everyone has to be somewhere”. And Larkin is also the poet of arrivals. The most famous examples are “Here” (where he ignores Hull’s reputation as a terminus and doesn’t actually stop until the sea stops him) and the visionary ending of “The Whitsun Weddings”, in which the fleeting grandeur of the approach to London by train is a magnificent exception to the rule of disappointment.

Whether going or coming, the anticipation is everything. To be there is to ask, like Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”. In the poem “Arrival” (1950), “Morning, a glass door, flashes / Gold names off the new city”, but this momentary charge of excitement, to which we sense the speaker immediately rendering himself immune, is simply an overture to the re-establishment – by an old man of twenty-eight – of his “style of dying” in the new place. The image of futurity, we learn throughout the poems, is deceptive: in the nature of things and in the nature of our habit of mortgaging the present to the future, we shall never get there, wherever “there” is. In any case, trailed by the “black-sailed unfamiliar” in “Next, Please”, we have already arrived in the only sense that matters, for we are who we are and the passage of time may clarify but not fundamentally alter what Larkin later called the “bestial visor” endured in the morning mirror.

Yet now and then there is instead a moment of promise to offset these grim assurances, for example in the relatively late poem “How Distant” (1965):

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling,

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning,
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

The impulse to foreclose is in abeyance here: this is what the imagination should seize on, the poem implies, the thing that Seamus Heaney describes as “the tang of possibility”. Keep an eye on those windows. (Also: that girl in steerage is perhaps an ancestor of the girls who “collect their separates” from the dry cleaners in “The Building”.) We remember, of course, that Larkin’s poem is called “How Distant” – that is to say, distant from the Larkin-persona’s sense of what is personally possible (which is hard to separate from what is desirable or sought); but also occurring at the kind of distance that gives art the opportunity to name, and implicitly praise, the momentary possibility before the conditions shift to familiarity and set solid. The very remoteness of the poem’s departures are part of their virtue. Those who cannot live – a position in which Larkin’s speakers often find themselves – can nonetheless imagine, and by this means they can propose a form of aesthetic disinterestedness. A simple event “ramifies endlessly”.

For Larkin, it appears the actual city both provokes and threatens this sense of possibility. Only that rare city which is both unvisited and intimately known – the Crescent City of New Orleans in “For Sidney Bechet” – exists perfectly, because it is a work of the sympathetic imagination, its hedonistic generosity of spirit lying beyond the reach of time and decay. To Bechet Larkin declares: “My Crescent City / Is where your speech alone is understood, / And greeted as the natural noise of good”.

Which are the cities named or clearly present in Larkin’s poems? They include Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Chicago, Coventry, Dublin, Leeds, London, New Orleans, New York, “numerous cathedral cities”, Oxford, Sheffield, Stoke, Tel Aviv and Hull. And the most ubiquitous of these is Hull, where Larkin lived much of his life in a condition of public secrecy. “Coventry . . . I was born here”, he declares in “I Remember, I Remember”, a poem which closes: “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”. It would seem that in coming to Hull Larkin had in a sense sent himself to Coventry.

Larkin was a city dweller who like many other English people felt a strong attachment to the countryside, staying often at Monica Jones’s cottage in Northumberland and writing the fine “Show Saturday” about the annual show at Bellingham, and the rather less fine “Going, Going”. The countryside for Larkin somehow is England. A sonnet dated October 1944, “Climbing the hill within the deafening wind”, finds an authentic (strangely submissive) life among the stormy elements (and the stormy poetic marriage of Housman and Yeats on show in this poem). He asks in the sestet:

How to recall such music, when the street
Darkens? Among the rain and stone places
I find only an ancient sadness falling,
Only hurrying and troubled faces,
The walking of girls’ vulnerable feet,
The heart in its own endless silence kneeling.

Larkin is trying the sadness of the city on for size, and seems to find it rather exciting – if nothing is happening there is nevertheless certainly a lot of it – but he also accurately prophesies the emphatic solitude of his depictions of the city, and hints at the recurrent sense in his work of something over before it has begun. Perhaps where the country makes sense, with a ritual frame of the seasons and the place of human mortality inside it, the city is as inescapable as mortality, while denying the consolations of natural authenticity.

This is hardly an original position but it may help to account for what seems to be the comparative rarity of panoramic cityscapes in Larkin’s poems. For much of the time he is on the inside of the city, “pent” there, among its stones, beneath “the roofs of what has nearly been” (“Disintegration”). In “Who called love conquering”, by three o’clock “the dire cloak of dark / Stiffens the town”, not quite coherently. The view is usually partial and particular, as with “the brisk brief / Worry of wheels along the street outside / Where bridal London bows the other way” in “Deceptions”. And in the slightly neglected and slightly Jules Laforgue-like “Autumn” written in 1953, we find this:

a London court one is never sure of finding

But none the less exists, at the back of the fog,
Bare earth, a lamp, scrapers. Then it will be time
To seek there that ill-favoured, curious house,
Bar up the door, mantle the fat flame,

And sit once more alone with sprawling papers,
Bitten-up letters, boxes of photographs,
And the case of butterflies so rich it looks
As if all summer settled there and died.

We have hardly arrived before it’s all over, bar the fine Symbolist effects and the rather Balzacian scene of cloistered neglect: life is not so much elsewhere as nowhere, or confined to memory in the form of papers, letters, photographs, a case of butterflies. It is as if the much later “shit in the shuttered château” in “The Life with a Hole in It” had been deprived of all his advantages. There is, for example, no one to envy him, for this autumnal city has a population of one.

What, though, does Larkin make of Hull, where, with great distinction, he ended up? Those of us attached to the place have long grown weary of the place’s reputation. It is, as Douglas Dunn put it in “Backwaters”, one of the “silent places, dilapidated cities / Obscure to the nation, their names spoken of / In the capital with distinct pejorative overtones”. Larkin seems at times to have managed the “distinct pejorative overtones” while actually in situ. Hull, he wrote to Robert Conquest in 1955, “is a frightful dump”. To another correspondent he explained that same year that the people are “uglier and noisier and vulgarer than the Irish”. (Here he conflates Hullensians with the English, which is really fair to neither.) He complains of the smell of fish, and his most positive comment is underlined: “oh yes well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling”. In 1958, though, he is explaining: “Actually, I just ignore it . . . the first thing I ask of any environment is that it should be ignorable”.

The famous Monitor film from 1964, shot in and around Hull, in which Larkin discusses his work with John Betjeman, seems to show him more sympathetic to the place, but it is perhaps less useful to seek consistency in Larkin’s view of it than to note Hull's usefulness to him. A letter to Monica Jones in January 1966 in the run-up to the North Hull by-election records a Sunday outing: “I took my walk yesterday along the Avenues – between 4 & 5, dusk, dirty snow, Victorian houses, silence, lighted interiors. Fascinating! Jessel posters predominated, then Millward. Lots of television watchers”. The complete run of Larkin, from a possible version of Laforgue’s “petite promenade”, via the lost, remembered interiors of “The Old Fools” and on into the “political” Larkin of “Homage to a Government” is here in condensed form. (To his probable dismay, Labour’s Kevin McNamara held the marginal seat, which may have encouraged Harold Wilson to call a general election in hopes of an increased majority.) By 1967, he reflects: “Sometimes I think I shall never leave Hull – I am growing defeatist . . . . I am not even turning into a regional poet, with his clay pipe and acknowledged corner in the snug of the Cat and Fuddle. Just an anonymous figure, whom people will dimly remember seeing when the evening paper says ‘Hull Man Dies’”. Clearly Larkin is enjoying the opportunity to complain while mocking the self-pity to which he was always prone. It would be unfair to expect fairness or consistency in letters written to amuse their recipients and let off steam while at the same time constructing the curmudgeonly persona with which Larkin has posthumously lumbered himself, but the letters do suggest that what is missing from the poems’ treatment of the city reflects the self-absorption that had long been necessary to his work. The late Frank Redpath, another fine Hull poet, once called Larkin a political ignoramus across the dinner table, and Larkin’s letters suggest that he was not far short of the mark. The twenty-year-old Larkin’s comments, back in 1942, on the Beveridge Report, are both provocative and inane. To Norman Iles, he wrote: “I am not being particularly sarcastic, but I suppose it [the report] marks a necessary step towards an insect-state”. Warming to a wider theme, he continues: “if, as people claim, the earth’s resources can be distributed to give everybody a 2-hour day & free beer & sex & cinemas I assume no one will want to live a life of honest toil”.

There is something paradoxical about the man who wrote this making his permanent home in a conspicuously working-class city which experienced a good deal of the poverty Beveridge had attempted to address, and making his living in an institution whose post-war expansion had much in common with Beveridge’s reforming spirit. It is not surprising that the population – and that of England in general – rarely features as more than occasional glimpsed figures, more category than person – “black-stockinged nurses”, “characters deep in the litter-bins”, “hare-eyed clerks”, the “unspeakable wives” of the dwellers up lanes, “girls in parodies of fashion”. Yet, for all his impedimenta of class prejudice and increasingly reactionary sentiment, Larkin is able to express a direct if helpless sympathy with the loss and suffering of others, though he seems to have had no active imaginative conception of contemporary society. In this regard, he was Margaret Thatcher before she was, though it seems unlikely that she would have understood the melancholy of the solitude he both sought and suffered.

As to the Second World War, we may sense a necessary, understandable and by no means unique self-protection in Larkin’s focusing his letters of the period as far as possible on jokes and peacetime interests and his literary vocation, but it is hard to avoid the inference that at least some of the time the war was primarily an enormous inconvenience rather than the conflict of stark moral opposites later generations have been taught to imagine and by which many have been inspired. It may be partly for this reason that the extremely heavy bomb damage suffered by the city of Hull, reputedly the worst outside London, doesn’t seem to register in the poems. In “Here”, Larkin’s most extended description of the city, the ubiquitous and unmissable bomb sites, still on view when the poem was written, go completely unmentioned. Larkin, like many people who lived through the war, may of course have been sick of thinking about it and reticent in talking about it, but his great poem “MCMXIV” responds with striking power to the more remote outbreak of the First World War. This, Larkin implies, marks the death of England, a death which was in turn to leave many who were born too late to serve burdened with guilt at not being there to attend it. In Larkin’s case, it is as if a life passage goes missing. His weak eyesight rendered him unfit for service in his own generation’s war, and his work as a librarian, taken on to serve the war effort, eventually delivered him to a city which soon became emblematic of his own premature middle age.

If Hull is not really present for its own sake, what work does it do in the poems? “Swerving east”, Larkin writes in “Here”, “Gathers to the surprise of a large town”. Half a century after the opening poem in The Whitsun Weddings was written, Hull remains a surprise to many. When Larkin completed “Here”, on October 8, 1961, Hull was at its most prosperous, confidently expanding its “mortgaged half-built edges” eastwards into the Plain of Holderness. The economic catastrophe that followed the government’s concession of the fishing rights disputed in the Cod War to Iceland in 1976 is not even on the horizon. Larkin’s main interest seems to have been in the city’s provincialism – the “cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling / Where only salesmen and relations come”. With so little presence on its own account in Larkin’s poems, the city becomes instead one of the default settings of his imagination, a set of familiar conditions rather than an urgent novelty. Unlike Auden, an important early influence, Larkin engaged in comparatively little of the kind of Olympian summing-up of cities and nations that prompts poems such as “Macao” or “The Capital”. He also had limited success in striking the public note (see “Going, Going” or “Homage to a Government”), having neither Auden’s authority nor Betjeman’s charm. On the other hand, he does write memorably about institutions such as a church or a hospital, but with a distinct personal inflection, whether he is a presence in the poem (“Church Going”) or the source of a wealth of carefully observed or imagined particulars (“The Building”).

To Larkin, Hull is in a sense nowhere much, a place where there is nothing to prevent nothing from taking place. In this respect it is not hugely different from his native Coventry (the bombing of which he records in a letter, and in a powerful section of his first novel, Jill, from 1946) or from other English cities referred to in passing, such as Stoke in “Mr Bleaney”, and Sheffield (home of the “awful” British Railways pie) in “Dockery and Son”, places which might crop up in the work of “provincial” novelists of the 1950s and 60s such as John Wain, William Cooper, David Storey and Stanley Middleton, who looked beyond London for their settings and subjects. At the close of Jill, the schoolmaster who inspires the protagonist John Kemp to go to Oxford is seen reading a popular novel and sinking into provincial indistinctness, a fate by which Larkin seems in equal measure alarmed and attracted: as he wrote in a poem from 1950, “Wants”, “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”. His own seeming (and fairly public) preference for anonymity found an echo in the remoteness of his chosen setting. The young women with their children in the park in “Afternoons”, being pushed “To the side of their own lives”, the “smells of different dinners” or the “wild white face” glimpsed on a stretcher in “Ambulances” could be anywhere, but they aren’t. They fall outside the metropolitan gaze and are disinclined to serve its priorities.

The bareness and rawness he observes bespeak Larkin’s conviction that there is only death (something he took personally), whether approaching slowly or swiftly, wherever he looks. In “The Building” (1972), the new Hull Royal Infirmary, a dramatic sight in the flat landscape of “close-ribbed streets”, is a secular church, “like a great sigh out of the last century”, built, so Larkin suggests, to house and appease despair, to postpone and propitiate death. It is a permanent ritual, replacing the version of Gray’s “Elegy” Larkin might have written in an age of more formal and widespread church attendance. Pace persistent misreadings of the end of “An Arundel Tomb”, “The Building”, the infirmary, is what will survive of us, and we are all approaching it at different speeds. (The actual building has outlived the adjacent district of tall merchants’ houses and small Victorian terraces, now long demolished.) The infirmary had figured on the horizon of an earlier, unsuccessful poem, “How” (1970): “How high they build hospitals! / Lighted cliffs, against dawns / Of days people will die on. / I can see one from here”. “The Building” is so familiar that it is a shock to consider afresh what a bold and substantial set piece it is.

For Larkin, the efforts of the welfare state to fell the five giants named in the Beveridge Report (Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness) tend only to emphasize the final, unwinnable conflict, and his awareness of this often robs daily life of its savour in advance. In “Aubade”, as each day dawns, he finds that “Unresting death” has come “a whole day nearer”: the city served by postmen “like doctors” might be seen as an unusually dynamic necropolis. In his pessimism Larkin stands firmly in the line of descent from Housman and Hardy, poets for whom no situation was free of grave omens. Society might almost be a complicated distraction from death – a view which tends at bottom to encourage, despite Larkin’s enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher, a form of apolitical small-“c” conservatism. Reform is not among its preoccupations, for example, given that “nobody actually starves”.

Yet the most interesting and haunting of Larkin’s city poems have a rather different emphasis. The first is the sonnet “Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel”, written in 1966, in which mortality is, for one night only, moved from centre stage.

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.
How Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now Night comes on.
Waves fold behind villages.

Douglas Dunn wrote that urban silence “is not true silence”: in the same way, the solitude of Larkin’s poem requires urban surroundings from which its refined quiet can emerge distinctly. And in the interior itself, as in an Edward Hopper painting, a solitary figure emphasizes a larger human absence – “a porter reads an unsold evening paper” – and “In shoeless corridors, the lights burn”.

Larkin might not have cared for the comparisons, but his phrase has its ancestry in the opening of Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu (which he records having begun to read in a letter to Kingsley Amis in 1946, explaining that he is likely to stop but that he enjoys the parts about lesbians). Proust’s early-to-bed narrator compares himself to an invalid in a hotel waiting desperately for dawn; another resemblance is to the enigmatic corridors and mysterious unseen fellow patients in Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

The meantime and the eventless nocturnal hour seem peculiarly modern, like glimpses of an empty core that underlies all activity, when “all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds”. In this melancholy but thrillingly established setting Larkin makes a bold and perhaps influential move, when the imagination, travelling through the hotel, lights on “The headed paper, meant for writing home / (If home existed) letters of exile”. It may be that the “new narrative” poetry of the 1980s written by Andrew Motion and others took a cue from this moment in Larkin’s poem. A further dimension becomes available; an act of imagination within the original act, one that frees Larkin of the obligation to conclude with a moral or philosophical summing-up. Instead: “Now / Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages”.

The very absence of interpretation lends this glimpse of the Plain of Holderness and the sea beyond (with which “Here” also concludes) an unusual excitement as a moment of pure, contemplative consciousness, a sober equivalent to the boozy satisfactions of the “secret, bestial peace!” at the end of “The Card-Players”. The unforced exactitude with which the poem contemplates solitude and silence produces an effect which might best be described as erotic, a rhapsody of facts whose very lack of final meaning carries a powerful charge. From the centre of the city, Larkin has achieved an imaginative location we can recognize as nowhere.

Nowhere is also the destination to which “High Windows” aspires. Written in 1967, this feels like the last word on a subject. One might object that the poem says nothing of the city, but we all know the local address of these high windows:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

In an earlier era, as I suggested above, Larkin might have been writing a religious poem, but by this point the transcendent dimension exists in the power of imagination to complete its own fulfilment, in an image of absence and extinction: “the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”. Closing the poem on a diminuendo, on a weak off-rhyme with “glass”, this is at once accepting and exultant, sorrowing and erotic – precisely the kind of Frenchified aesthetic complexity against which we might think Larkin had long set his face, had it not so clearly lain within his powers to achieve it so memorably in an upper room overlooking Pearson Park. As Neil Young wrote: “Everybody knows this is nowhere”; but how many people really know what to do with it as Larkin does?

This is an edited version of a public lecture given at the University of Hull as part of the Larkin25 series.

Sean O’Brien’s The Drowned Book, 2007, won the Forward and T. S. Eliot poetry prizes that year. His collection of short stories, The Silent Room, appeared in 2008, and his novel, Afterlife, in 2009. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. One of the Larkin 25 lectures I sadly missed.