THE Philip Larkin centenary has provoked mixed responses. While the OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA) exam board has seen fit to remove his work from the GSCE syllabus, Radio 3 happily devoted a week of The Essay to the poet’s attitude to faith, inviting five writers to reflect on a well-curated selection of poems (and eschewing some of the old, commentary-worn favourites).
In “Absences”, Larkin imagines a seascape: nature at its most pure and ego-free. “Such attics cleared of me!” It was a curious choice for a series in which the poems were not objects of commentary so much as vehicles for the presenters to talk about themselves. Thus “Absences” sparked in Sinéad Morrissey reflections on her upbringing as a Communist in Northern Ireland, and Helen Mort was inspired by “Going” to recount the last days of her father. The latter was especially poignant, but one wonders what the grumpy old librarian of Hull would have made of such indulgences.
Larkin is not himself averse to the first person; but a poem such as “The Mower” is, as Raymond Antrobus astutely observed, a kind of sermon, whose final lines turn outward: “We should be kind while there is time.” And the best sermons are seldom about the preacher.
For a dose of bracing objectivity, we might turn to the world of sub-atomic physics. There is a kind of surreal poetry in the world explored by Roland Pease in Discovery: The mysterious particles of physics (World Service, Monday of last week), with its Higgs fields and super-symmetric wimps. There is also a great deal of faith required, not least from those scientists who have, for 30 years now, been watching at the bottom of a deep-shaft mine for signs of dark matter.
Beyond the hype — a necessary strategy, bearing in mind the gazillions of euros spent on an institution such as CERN — there are indications of fatigue. The search for dark matter has become, in the words of one interviewee, “frustrating”; and, over at the Large Hadron Collider, we heard from another eminent physicist nervous that the 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson was all that they were going to manage with this facility.
As a critic, one occasionally longs for the literary equivalent of the audio “sting”: a short burst of music which serves to underline a specific emotional state. Last week’s episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz (released each Wednesday on www.20k.org) explored the library of audio emoticons and, in particular, the history of the “Dun dun duun!” that is used as a comic shorthand for shock-horror. (For music-readers, we are talking about three notes, arranged as a falling minor third followed by a rising tritone.) We even got to meet the composer whose orchestration of “Dun dun duun!” has become the go-to version for filmmakers. Who cares how many earnest sonatas he has composed? This is where the money’s at.