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I too am here in Denver at AWP, where I was on the tribute panel for Craig Arnold. And I was going to post some more about literary friendships, and about poets who have vanished from life into their words in the past few years. But I am suddenly moved today to write instead in partial response to Mark Nowak’s post on the West Virginia coal mine disaster. Words can seem inadequate to human suffering, and yet part of our job as writers is to try to rise to that challenge. I do know of at least one terrific (in both senses) poem on such a disaster, a very atypical Philip Larkin poem, and one of my favorites of his, “The Explosion.”
On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face –
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
I love this poem, and I hope it won’t seem callous of me to go into why, exactly, and look at some of the techniques that make this so effective for me.
The meter starts off rather subtlely, ambiguously even, so it may take a while to realize we are in that very rare thing—unrhymed trochaic tetrameter. (The only other example in English that immediately springs to mind is “Hiawatha.”) We associate trochaic tetrameter with such incantatory verses as “Tyger, Tyger,” and “Double, double toil and trouble.” But something about its being unrhymed here makes it soberer.
Mostly it is full trochaic tetrameter, ending in a falling rhythm (the heavy-footed “pithead,” the diminishing “silence”), but occasionally it is missing a syllable at the end (catalectic), as in the tense ending of line three (“the slagheap slept”—but we know, too that it is coiled to awaken from the opening and the title, pregnant with menace.)
Wonderful, too, the Anglosaxony monosyllables, like lumps of coal themselves, earthy and epic and Beowulf, the “oath-edged” talk and pipe-smoke. Because we know this will end tragically (the beginning, the title), the affectionate portrait of the men going to work, with the muscular “shouldering off the freshened silence,” in the promise of morning, is fraught with tension. The sudden exact coincidence of words and metrical feet in “Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter” evokes in a few strokes–as if laughter and nicknames were also kin–the whole scene, the intact world, about to be shattered.
When it finally happens, in stanza five, we know because of the catalectic meter (missing a syllable at the end) and the jagged enjambments, syntax exploded across the linebreaks. “The cows/ stopped chewing for a second.” We never hear the actual explosion–we feel the tremor, we see its effects, almost as in a movie.
The italicized words seem hymn-like, and in the aftermath of the explosion, the meter goes slacker and iambic, before the meter takes up again the burden of the trochees.
The ending image of the men, haloed almost in the gold light of the explosion, figured against it as on a coin and stuck for a second in that moment, just as they were at that moment, is terrifying in its quiet. And the last image of the unbroken eggs, with its stumbling meter, also, somehow unbearable.
Apparently Larkin wrote this in 1969 after watching a televised documentary on mining. Many of us are moved by events in the news (“tragedies” as that tragic chorus the media labels all catastrophes willy-nilly), but it can be hard to respond with authentic poetry, rather than exploiting it and congratulating ourselves on our rare sensitivity. This poem shows it can be done. In this case, perhaps, there is something about the form itself, so un-typically Larkin in many ways, more impersonal and bard-like, making of these anonymous fathers and brothers epic heroes, translated into timelessness, that enables him to speak for those who were silenced.