Prose from Poetry Magazine

Antagonism: Philip Larkin

by W. S. Di Piero
Temperament shapes taste. I’ve never felt an affinity for Larkin’s style of sadness, and his technical gifts don’t tempt me to sympathy. His melancholy—a wistful, rueful, low-grade spirit-fever—isn’t my melancholy or the kind I’m drawn to in poets like James Wright and W. S. Graham—a lusher, broken-edged unsettledness difficult to rationalize and contain, where formal energies work to cobble together boundaries of reason. Not that Larkin’s sagging sense of endurable aggrievedness isn’t genuine, it’s just tame and listless. His great subject is romanticism gone sour—in nature, household, and heart. The poems tell us, with a cranky sigh, that while we’re born dreamers, we must know our limits and curb unreasonable aspiration, even though we’re enticed by its appeal. He disliked art (bop, literary modernism, cubism) that overrides boundaries and makes formal invention an expression of appetite or desire. “High Windows” acknowledges the appeal of imaginative extremity but tells us that, if we admit the truth, what lies behind high windows is “the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” His owlish contrariness is theatrical and controlling. Most good poems have rhetorical energies. Larkin’s suggest we’re fools (or less than adult) to think about existence differently from the vision the poems give. Line by line, his timing is exquisitely cagey and helps him contrive his cool conversational audacity (we all know what mum and dad do to us, now, don’t we?), and though I have no way of demonstrating this, I sense he rather enjoys knowing better than we do, since he’s the tougher (and sadder) realist. I’d save “Here,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” and his best poem, “The Explosion,” about a mining disaster, which figures forth life’s impermanence in a dream phantom carrying an egg. It bleeds through the amorphous boundaries of form and feeling that the rest of his work stands in modest—resolutely modest and bittersweet—disapproval of. Larkin displaced the Yeatsian register of his first book, The North Ship, with a conversational directness and realism he found in his other exemplar, Hardy, and like Hardy he made diminished expectations one of his subjects. But he couldn’t emulate what I admire so much in Hardy, the restless desire to house in the spirit endlessly inflected griefs and hauntings unmitigated by wisdom, rational measure, or good sense.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

COMMENTS (4)

On August 9, 2007 at 7:21am Michael Spillane wrote:
This is a wonderful web site, I am so grateful to the podcasts, and the other resources that help to rekindle a lost love for the written and spoken word. I am just a bit surprised that a search for the poetry of Philip Larkin under poets revealed ... nothing. Oversight, or intention?

On August 9, 2007 at 12:10pm John H. Dobrovolny wrote:
I am surprised that I cannot find the poem "Aubade" by Philip Larkin on this Web Site. Perhaps I am missing something. Thanks anyway for a great site. jhd

On August 9, 2007 at 4:42pm Barbara Darr wrote:
Yes, I was also disappointed that I could not find "Aubade" on your website. I heard Larkin's poem, "The Mower" this morning on The Writer's Almanac and it made me want to read his masterpiece, "Aubade" bdd

On September 23, 2011 at 11:59am Andrew Hale wrote:
Auden, Bishop, Lowell, Walcott, Brodsky, and many other first-rate poets have admired his work. If poetry is memorable speech, then Larkin must be accounted one of the greats.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2004

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 W. S. Di Piero

Biography

W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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