*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)