MONSTERS OF POETRY: Philip Larkin!
I read this beautiful poetry analysis today in the Wall Street Journal and, since I didn’t feel like I could possibly write anything any better about this poem, I’ll just present the article in lieu of my own analysis. I don’t know much about Philip Larkin, aside from the fact that he was poetry royalty in Britain, perhaps the most famous contemporary British poet. After reading this beautiful poem and the analysis of it, Well, I think I’ll be picking up the next book of his I can get my hands on – which is really what a good poem and a good analysis should do – make you pick and read more poetry. Enjoy.
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On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face–
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed–
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
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The Poet’s Alchemy
By WILLIAM AMELIA
December 8, 2007
One evening during the Christmas holidays of 1969, Philip Larkin (1922-85), the pre-eminent British poet of his generation, watched a television documentary on the mining industry and its inherent dangers for those in the trade. The program, critics believe, provided the “trigger,” the emotional source, for one of his greatest narrative poems, “The Explosion.”
It is an artful and telling connection because it validates Larkin’s own thoughts on the process of poetry, how poetry happens. Briefly explained, it is a process in which a poet, so impressed with an experience or image, is compelled to construct a verbal device, a poem, that will reproduce his emotional concept, recurrently, in anyone who cares to read it anywhere, anytime.
Larkin’s composition time for “The Explosion” was relatively brief. He already had a sense of the mining culture, for he had read D.H. Lawrence’s writings of life in a mining village. The poem was completed early in 1970, just weeks after the mining documentary was broadcast. It is composed in the same meter as Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” though Larkin said he was not aware of this when he created the poem. Published by the Poem-of-the-Month-Club later that year, it was included in “High Windows,” Larkin’s last collection of verse, released in 1974. The reception of the book was extraordinary, considering that it was a collection of poetry. Thousands of copies were sold in the first weeks, another edition rushed into print and Larkin, who was at the time a prominent figure in British poetry, became — in the words of a reviewer — “a national monument.”
As a poet, Larkin was influenced by the novelist-poet Thomas Hardy, who also focused on intense personal emotion, avoiding sentimentality or self-pity. In a similar assessment, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobelist, believes that there is a “crystalline reality” in Larkin’s poetry that “refuses alibis” about the conditions of contemporary life. With “The Explosion,” Larkin achieves this in a mere 25 lines in eight three-line stanzas and a single, almost isolated, final line. For all its concision, it’s an ingenious accomplishment, a masterpiece of poetry.
In the poem’s first stanza, Larkin begins with an everyday interpretation of the early morning of the disaster. It is cast with a colloquial slant and a neat alliterative end, though there is a sense of the ominous: “On the day of the explosion/ Shadows pointed towards the pithead:/ In the sun the slagheap slept.”
Images of a new day and a rugged camraderie appear in stanza two as we follow the men to the mine. The poem’s journey is beginning: “Down the lane came men in pitboots/ Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe smoke,/ Shouldering off the freshened silence.”
In stanza three, there is a pause in the poem’s movement, an interlude, I’ll call it, that suggests innocence. Along the lane a young miner chases rabbits, loses them but returns to his group with a nest of lark’s eggs that he has found and tenderly returns: “Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.” The use of the “lark” is perhaps Larkin’s narrative signature or emphasis of the playfulness within the stanza.
Then the poem’s pace quickens to its true theme of understanding and accepting our common destiny, which a great poet’s work has the capacity to convey. In “The Explosion,” Larkin pairs death and fatalism, love and beauty, and explores man’s affinity with the environment.
The ensuing stanzas include memorable lines, essential to the poem, with layered depths of meaning, underscoring T.S. Eliot’s suggestion that a poem can communicate before it is understood. “Through the tall gates standing open” is a stark image of a void, an abyss. And then the explosion, reduced to a shudder by Larkin: “At noon, there came a tremor; cows/ Stopped chewing for a second; sun,/ Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.”
Larkin cast stanza six alone in italics, distinguishing it from the rest of the poem. It is more than a dramatic turn; he is separating the miners from their suffering, their previous state: “The dead go on before us, they/ Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,/ We shall see them face to face — “
The remaining two stanzas are Larkin’s images of visions — the bright visions of the miners’ wives. “Plain as lettering in the chapels/ It was said, and for a second/ Wives saw men of the explosion.” In the final stanza, a model of euphony, the poet transforms the miners as they appear in the vision as golden, sanctified figures: “Gold as on a coin, or walking/ Somehow from the sun towards them.”
The poem concludes with a vision of renewal and hope. The lark’s eggs that were found and returned by the young miner now reappear in the poem in the hands of a miner in the group walking out of the sun: “One showing the eggs unbroken.” The darkness of the pit from which they have emerged is lit for an instance by Larkin’s pure poetry.
James Fenton, former professor of poetry at Oxford, lectured there on Larkin’s poetry, writing that it expresses the common experience and “that it has its origin in the commonplace.” To that statement add the sheer pathos of Larkin’s poetry and you have “The Explosion.” Worth listening to is Mr. Fenton’s excellent reading of the poem for “Poets Night,” an audiocassette produced by FSG Penguin Putnam.
Tall, bald, bespectacled and gloomy, Larkin has been called a curmudgeon and worse. He was indeed an accomplished complainer, though his countenance, if the novelist Martin Amis is correct, was of “a mournful, priestly gaze.” Larkin, often self-critical, famously said that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth.
Larkin was a university librarian, novelist and jazz critic, writing monthly reviews for the Daily Telegraph. The reviews were published in a book called “All What Jazz.” He was the leading voice of what was to be called “The Movement,” a group of young British writers who rejected the prevailing fashion for neo-romantic writing. Larkin was a lifelong friend of the novelist Kingsley Amis (Martin’s father) from their university days. In response to Larkin’s detailed suggestions, Amis heavily revised “Lucky Jim,” his hugely popular novel.
Larkin received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1965, though for health reasons he declined the honor of Poet Laureate of England in 1984. He died of esophageal cancer on Dec. 2, 1985. Biographers tell us that his last words were “I am going to the inevitable.” At his funeral in Westminster Abbey, a combo played the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet, about whom he had written a poem.
Mr. Amelia, an essayist and former public-relations executive, resides in Dagsboro, Del.