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The Art of Debunkery

High Windows

by Philip Larkin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 42 pp., $6.95

A glass case in a room called “The English Tradition” is where some people, Americans especially, think that Philip Larkin’s poetry belongs: they imagine he is a kind of old-fashioned taxidermist who fluffs up the wings of dead ducks, like the iambic pentameter and the rhymed quatrain, for a public devoted to almost extinct birds. His admirers, mostly British, feel that he writes with more precision than any other living poet about real people in real places; they can quote him, because his mastery of rhyme and meter enables him to write memorably; and they count among their favorite books of the century The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.1

Both books have long been out of print in the United States, where a generation of poets and readers of poetry has grown up not knowing many of the best poems written in our language in their lifetime. Once a decade, when a new Larkin volume appears in Britain, twenty thousand people buy it. There the trouble is that he is too well established, accoladed with honorary doctorates and a Queen’s Gold Medal. A large number of children, preparing for exams in British schools, have to write essays contrasting his “gentility,” say, with the “toughness” of Ted Hughes. The twist that time has given to his pronouncement nineteen years ago, that “poetry should keep the child from its television set and the old man from his pub,” is quite Larkinesque in its irony. He meant, not by giving them subjects for homework, but by entertaining them better than cowboys or beer.

What he does in High Windows2 is the most difficult thing of all, and it only looks easy because he does it so well: he makes poetry out of common situations in ordinary lives. The popular seaside resort, old age, a welfare hospital, an invitation to a party, money, mixing a cocktail, catching a glimpse of the moon while you’re “groping back to bed after a piss,” hearing about a mine disaster, considering the new sexual freedom: these are typical starting points for poems about living and dying in a farcical, sad, and constricted world, in which he finds less to celebrate now than ten or twenty years ago. Metaphysical despair consoled by an earthy sense of humor pervades his poetry. Time, fertility, and death remain his underlying themes, and oblivion is nearer than ever. But he still enters each poem empirically through actual experience, “letting the door thud shut,” keeping all his wits alert for what’s going on inside.

He avoids speaking as a “poet,” preferring to sound like a man of common sense, or some familiar recognizable type. He seems to be saying with unaffected modesty, “These thoughts go in verse because that’s the way they feel right to me”; and he leaves it to us to decide if we wish to treat what he’s written as poetry. His language is plain conversational English, not mandarin, not literary. Many of his opening lines, for example:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.

are pawns thrown away to give the reader confidence to go on with the game, deceptively banal and antipoetic to draw aside our attention, to open us for a winning onslaught later. Attached to things as they are, he enjoys debunking with mockery, and even self-mockery, any notions he thinks are unintelligible, untenable, or absurd. Religion, magic, and mythology are not his concern, but there is a kind of magic one can believe in, which he often employs: free of hocus-pocus, it concerns the tangible world of jobs and food and clothes and journeys we’re disagreeably lumped with by fate, and it consists of naming them so accurately that they seem to be changed into objects or gestures or motions we can love.

The art of debunkery, which he uses with no less skill than Kingsley Amis, is itself an antimyth, getting rid of the sky’s worm-eaten antique furniture. There’s a strong disturbing tension in this work between his desire to smash up all the tallboys of the past, and his desire to regain what has been lost. There’s a desperate irony, for instance, in using a sonnet rhyme scheme in “The Card-Players” brutally to debunk in Lucky Jim’s zaniest manners the traditional stuff of sonnets, notably what Larkin called in his previous book “that much-mentioned brilliance, love.” It begins:

Jan van Hogspeuw staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark.

and it ends:

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!

The direction it takes is form the ridiculous to the sublime, though this particular excursion goes little further than:

This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Not only inside his poems, but in their arrangement, Larkin likes to juxtapose the funny against the sad, the lighthearted against the serious. As in an English garden, common shrubs can be used to hedge and surprise, while worn paths of weathered brick lead you to breath-taking prospects.

To get things clear is more important for Larkin than to make them new. He wants to preserve an experience accurately for himself, rather than to astonish us or bowl us over. “When writing a poem,” he explained long ago,3 “I am trying to construct a verbal device which will, upon reading, render up the emotion I originally experienced. A poem is rather like a slot machine into which the reader inserts the penny of his attention.” As John Bayley has acutely remarked,4 Larkin’s “intimacy is that of the lounge-bar, never the psychiatric couch.” There are no “confessions” in High Windows, though some of the poems are courageously self-revealing. He never forces us to listen to dreadful “avowals,” such as Lucky Jim loathed having to hear from his girl friend. Yet Larkin’s poems are not machines, nor are they impersonal, as he acknowledged when he qualified his own definition years later. They have manners: for instance, they never order us to change our lives. Their diffident and truly English model is Thomas Hardy, who lived from before the Irish potato famine almost until the crash on Wall Street, but used the same style at the end of his life as he had shaped at the beginning. Larkin likes to quote Oscar Wilde on this subject, who said “only mediocrities develop.”

The renewal of a style so translucent and so richly complex as that of the “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” or later “The Whitsun Weddings” is probably no less difficult than the invention of a different style; especially since the world Larkin writes about, in which “life is slow dying,” has enjoyed no radical change, rebirth or revolution in this period. England, without her empire, is still his paradise, more regrettably lost than ever, under “bleak high-risers” and motorways, with no foreseeable chance of being regained. He includes in the collection a commissioned poem called “Going, Going,” which sadly mocks the country’s future as the “first slum of Europe,” and laments its loss:

The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.

Not nearly so good a poem, I’m afraid, as “MCMXIV” in The Whitsun Weddings or “At Grass” in The Less Deceived, both of which it echoes with rather too thin reverberations of unregenerated nostalgia. In the new book, a pitiful little poem lamenting the bringing home of British troops from foreign countries in 1969 for lack of money has all the weariness of a good life coming to a dull end in a stuffy cul-de-sac behind the village War Memorial, next door to the barking labradors of Colonel Blimp. It’s matched by a farcical caricature of a Jewish American academic, a rapacious, vulgar go-getter, into whose insensitive hands has been consigned, we are to surmise, Larkin’s “posterity.” Of course it’s a joke, debunking what Shakespeare and Horace had to say on the subject, but it travels poorly. Why American, and why Jewish? Both, in this context, are given hateful attributes of vulgarity and greed. It makes one wonder what English academics are like, and why Larkin preferred not to portray one of those; since, as Librarian at the University of Hull for the past twenty years, he must know far more about them, especially the way they really talk. Larkin prefers not to go abroad, and has never crossed the Atlantic.

He seems in this volume to have reached that dangerous period in a writer’s life where Bergotte was stranded by the time we meet him in proust’s novel, trapped in the limitations he needed to perfect his early style. Larkin’s real achievement first came from a deeply resolved acceptance of life’s limits, and from always being “the less deceived.” He himself had survived (as a civilian) the monstrous war which “annulled his childhood” (this is what the hero of his first novel Jill [1946]5 felt after the blitz on his home town); and his writing was deeply distrustful of all gods, heroes, myths, ideologies, and foreigners (which, among poets, included Yeats as an Irish Celt and Pound as an American “culture-monger”). The annulling and the distrust have continued without letup or development. He reduced Yeats to fewer pages than Thomas Hardy in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse which he edited some years ago, and left out Pound, David Jones, and Sylvia Plath altogether.

Long ago, inside the narrow limits he marked out for his poetry, there was a clear and reticent place where “any-angled light” could “congregate endlessly.” But now self-imitation is perhaps a danger. “The Building” is a poem which looks as if the author of “Church Going” had decided to do for a hospital what he once did for a church, with not quite so good a result. Technically, there may be some improvement in the later poem: for example, the rhyme pattern, based on a count of eight lines, overlaps and counterpoints the seven-line stanza; so that tension grows toward that moment when the two patterns coincide in the eighth stanza, followed by the climax:

   All know they are going to die.
Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,
And somewhere like this. That is what it means,
This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend
The thought of dying, for unless its powers
Outbuild cathedrals nothing con- travenes
The coming dark, though crowds each evening try

With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.

Beautiful as those last lines are, it’s just at this climax that I feel “The Building” relies too much on the sad expression of passive suffering: disbelief in the efficacy of hospitals, cathedrals, or flowers “to transcend the thought of dying.” Compare this with the firmer sense of life seen (as it must be) inside the limits of death, which the end of “Church Going” manages to achieve:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compul- sions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as des- tinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Coventry, where Larkin was born on August 9, 1922, and spent his first eighteen years, suffered the annihilation of its great cathedral and most of its thriving industrial life in one of Hitler’s baedeker raids. “It made life seem like an unsuccessful attempt to light a candle in the wind,” he says with strong feeling in Jill; and it made him “see how appallingly little life is.” The “intense and yet commonplace vocabulary of disillusionment” which Christopher Ricks noted finely in his review6 of The Whitsun Weddings in The New York Review (January 14, 1965) may not be unconnected with this event. To restore some kind of decent, private order, after the public mystifications during and after the war, was of the utmost importance to poets of our generation, who came of age during the Holocaust and the dropping of the Bomb. For sound moral reasons, I think, Larkin’s poetry pyrrhonises vague immense certainties with his own individual precise doubts. He fills the unfurnished sky with a galaxy of glittering negatives, frequent little pin-points of absence and rejection, disappointment and dying, sardonic pricks and piercing ironies:

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

But the desire to know a bit more about what he calls “nothing” remains with his readers. Negation as a habit is far less interesting than negation as a moral refusal to be falsely committed.

The title poem, “High Windows,” is worth examining closely; since youth, sex, time, and oblivion all come together in the space of a few lines. In true Larkin style, it contains a couple of interior dramatic arguments, which tend to cancel each other out, “each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal,” themselves put down by an astounding conclusion. It begins with human farce, and ends with a note about the universe. It starts in free verse and evolves quite naturally (gathering more and more life as it grows) into a lyrical rhymed quatrain. The opening lines are brutally coarse; and the last four as pure as anything in modern poetry. This itself is a puritan dichotomy: the poem is truly in the tradition of the regicides against the martyrologists.

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a dia- phragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvest- er,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in
   the dark

About hell and that, or having to
   hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the
   long slide
Like free bloody birds. And imme-
   diately

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.

It’s a poem in which Larkin gives us a look down one of those “long perspectives” of time. He uses idiom to convey a sense of utter remoteness between the post-Chatterley Anglo-American classless voice of the present and the old-fashioned lower-class puritanical English voice of the past, both of which are suddenly transcended by the true voice of the imagination (modulating from a minor into a major key) giving us the crystal image of the last quatrain, a celebration of the void. One could scarcely predict the poem’s surprising destination from its beginning: from murky roots it grows with genuine mystery up into the “deep blue air.”

To hold things together in some kind of “regenerate union,” as he suggests at the conclusion of a richly detailed accumulation of diverse “livings” in a poem called “Show Saturday,” is one positive purpose of Larkin’s best poetry. “I suppose I always try to write the truth, and I wouldn’t want to write a poem which suggested that I was different from what I am,” he said in an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1964.7 This puts him in a class quite apart from those great “liars” of the imagination, Homer and Shakespeare. Yeats and Pound. I think Larkin is closer to E.M. Forster in what he thinks poetry ought to do: what matters for him is to make separate lives, or fragments of life, connect in a work of art. The best of these poems are “connectors” in this sense: “To the Sea,” which brings families together at an annual ritual; “Solar,” which assembles most fertile and generous images in a celebration of the sun, almost in free verse, a fine achievement; and a bewildering triptych called “Livings,” which Clive James has deciphered in a penetrating essay: 8 it juxtaposes three separate lives in far-off periods and places, each full of its own comforting certainties that seem faintly threatened in mysterious ways, the implication being that they are on the verge of catastrophe. What all his best poems hold together are “frail travelling co-incidences,” as when the bridal parties clamber aboard his train from Hull to London.

   …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 be- coming rain.

I only wish there were more of these in High Windows.

Larkin has said that writing a poem is like knitting. You have to set up a certain number of stitches on the needles to start with, and once you’ve got the pattern settled, you keep going until what you’re making is finished. No druidical invocation of dark powers; no yoga or zen; no putting to sea in an open fishing boat; no imagining you’re a hawk about to stoop on a wordy flock of starlings. You can see this in the deeply elaborate rhyme and metrical schemes—as intricate as counterpoint—in a poem such as “The Old Fools,” in which not a stitch is dropped in all the subtle crisscrossing.

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once. This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here….

Though dying is its theme, this poem seems to me a triumph not only of technique, but of art involved with living. For one thing, you have to look back over what you have just finished reading (unless you were prepared for this) before you can say for certain, “Yes, it rhymes!” It seems to me an achieved example of what Proust meant when he said in Swann’s Way: “My mother had to abandon the quest, but managed to extract from the restriction itself a further refinement of thought, as great poets do when the tyranny of rhyme forces them into the discovery of their finest lines.” Larkin’s finest lines—and how easy they are to remember!—earn their freedom by submission to that ancient tyranny; and they do it so well that I believe he is one modern poet who has really confuted by practical demonstration a famous dictum of William Carlos Williams: “I say we are through with the iambic pentameter as presently conceived, at least for dramatic verse; through with the measured quatrain, the staid concatenations of sounds in the usual stanza, the sonnet”: advice which has misled a whole generation in America into thinking that freedom in poetry may be attained directly by writing in free verse. High Windows shows in a living way that meter and rhyme, when skillfully handled by an artist who knows how to conceal his art, can still have useful and noble functions to perform in poetry.

  1. 1

    The Less Deceived can be obtained from The Marvell Press, 33 Compayne Gardens, London, NW6; The Whitsun Weddings from Faber & Faber, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU.

  2. 2

    I found three misprints in the American edition, published seven months after the English; rather too many for such a short and exact work.

  3. 3

    Times Educational Supplement, July 13, 1956. An anonymous, accurate, and informative portrait.

  4. 4

    Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 1974.

  5. 5

    Reissued by Faber & Faber in paperback, 1975.

  6. 6

    Reprinted as one of a good collection of essays in “The Philip Larkin Issue” of the British magazine Phoenix, obtainable from the Editor, Harry Chambers, 8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England, $2.00 plus postage.

  7. 7

    London Magazine, November 1964.

  8. 8

    Encounter, June 1974.

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