Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The clouds cast moving shadows on the land.

John Banville's article in yesterday's Guardian, reviewing the Complete Poems of Larkin (edited by Archie Burnett), was a reminder of how exciting Larkin's poetry is. Banville notes that we need not take Larkin at 'face value' - that is, we need not see Larkin's persona (or indeed his authorial voice) as the definitive interpretation of his work. Burnett is a 'definitive' editor, writes Banville, and we should be grateful for this; the work can speak for itself, the voice of the author being a (sometimes useful) parallel to its reality.

Larkin is one of those poets that gets in your head and doesn't leave. It doesn't matter if it's been years or days since you read him, he's still present, still there; an extra voice in any conversation. Lines like 'never such innocence again', 'this is the first thing I have understood' and 'the clouds cast moving shadows on the land'; isn't there something of them that is now, that is the way we live now? Here is a shifting bitterness that comfortably accommodates an honest relationship with death (something we've always looked for in poetry, since Homer; poetry being perhaps the only place that it can be found).
This was your place of birth, this daytime palace,
This miracle of glass, whose every hall
The light as music fills, and on your face
Shines petal-soft; sunbeams are prodigal
To show you pausing at a picture’s edge
To puzzle out a name, or with a hand
Resting a second on a random page –

The clouds cast moving shadows on the land.

Are you prepared for what the night will bring?
The stranger who will never show his face
But asks admittance; will you greet your doom
As final; set him loaves and wine; knowing
The game is finished when he plays his ace,
And overturn the table and go into the next room?
(II from The North Ship, 1945)

I saw the Turner Prize exhibition at the Baltic in Newcastle; the programmer for George Shaw, a painter from Coventry, had given the poem above, one of those Larkin pieces that's never let go of me, as an example of the corrolation between the poet and the painter. At the time I thought it was inappropriate, a misunderstanding of Larkin based on biography rather than on poetry, but now I look at Shaw's paintings again and I understand: Larkin is a poet of this moment, just like Shaw is a painter of it, and the richness of their styles is a celebration - both ironic and heartfelt - of the arbitrary place of birth alongside the inevitable next room of death.

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