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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 August 2022

The craftsmanship of Larkin’s words is what drew Malcolm Guite to his poetry

THIS year, the centenary of his birth, has been a time to celebrate Philip Larkin — or, at least, to celebrate and remember his poetry, since, for many, if not most, there is much to regret about the life and opinions of the man himself. For me, it is the poetry that remains and, indeed, grows in stature as the years pass; I leave judgement of the man to others.

Larkin is the poet who restored my faith and rekindled my interest in “modern” poetry. Having come to poetry through Keats and Shelley, I was attracted as much by the sound, the music, the cadence of a singing line of verse as by its diction, its reach, its meaning. When I read many of the poets who were being published in the 1970s, my formative years, that music seemed to have vanished — with lucidity, coherence, or any other concession to the bewildered reader. And then I discovered Larkin.

I bought High Windows as a 16-year-old in the year that it came out, and then worked my way back through the three preceding slim volumes of his poetry. And, at first, it was the elegance of his verse, the quiet understated rhyme schemes and rhythmic patterns, that attracted me. Here was a poet who could use traditional metre and rhyme and yet retain a completely contemporary voice, never distorting word order for the sake of rhyme and metre. His deft craftsmanship never draws attention to itself, but simply undergirds and supports the poem, like the unseen push and response of a sprung dance-floor.

It was all there in “To The Sea”, the first poem of that first book I bought: the classic cadence, and yet the completely contemporary voice, and that eye for ordinary prosaic details that are, nevertheless, lifted into poetry by the understated music of the verse:

To step over the low wall that divides
Road from concrete walk above the shore
Brings sharply back something known long before —
The miniature gaiety of seasides.

It is a good poem to remember in “idle August”; for I, too, can wander down to the beach at Mundesley and see and hear it all again, just as he did, but with my sight and hearing focused by his wonderful lines:

Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand. . .

And when I think to myself, “How wonderful that it’s all still going on, just as Larkin described it 50 years ago!”, I realise, with a little shock of recognition, that I am still in Larkin’s poem; for that is just what he felt and said: “Still going on, all of it, still going on!”

These yearly trips to the sea have become, in Larkin’s words, “half an annual pleasure, half a rite”. Indeed, by the end of the poem, Larkin, so shy of religion, has discerned something more going on in this pilgrimage to the sea, this sharing between the generations. He famously wrote: “If I were called in To construct a religion I should make use of water,” and perhaps there is something of an unacknowledged religious rite, in those final lines of “To The Sea”:

It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to the water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

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