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Why read poetry? It's hardly the most popular art form; most of us prefer to escape into a film, a soap or fantasy fiction. To be honest, I don't often read it myself. One or two poets, though, keep me coming back. Philip Larkin is one of them. I know he's unfashionable. His views on politics and women were not the most enlightened. His image was miserly, xenophobic and antisocial. His poems were firmly set in the world of buses, billboards, bedsits and boredom.

And yet, and yet... despite all this, he wrote some lines which forever echo in my mind. And the solitary, gloomy persona in his poems was not, by all accounts, the irreverent, sociable man he was in reality. To add to these contradictions, I'd suggest that by dwelling on the mundane and the everyday, he revealed essential truths about life, the universe and everything.

His poems offer little in the way of comfort or escape from the dreary realities of life. He confronts and exposes the deceptions behind the gloss, the death that awaits us all. Believe it or not, that's why I enjoy his poetry. His unflinching honesty, his seeking after truth, and his ability to endure the harshness of that truth, is oddly inspiring.

The Whitsun Weddings was written 40 years ago. Of its 32 poems, few of them take up more than a page; some of them are only half a dozen lines long. They nearly all rhyme, and are metrically ingenious but easy to read.

Which is not to say they're glib or simple. Some - 'Naturally the Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses,' 'A Study of Reading Habits' and 'Self's the Man' - have a tongue-in-cheek facetiousness ("Books are a load of crap"). But most of them are finely-wrought, often complex expressions of thoughts and impressions that demand to be read, pondered and re-read.

It's not an overstatement to say the cornerstones of this book are some of the greatest English poems of the twentieth century. 'Here', 'MCMXIV' 'Ambulances' 'An Arundel Tomb' and the title poem are the most frequently anthologised. And rightly so. They share Larkin's characteristic method of taking the most everyday experiences: looking at an old photograph, sitting on a train, wandering round a church, and moving - often tentatively - beyond the quotidian towards something eternal.

The poem 'Here' which opens the book, happens to be about Hull, where Larkin lived for 30 years until his death in 1985 and where I still do. He describes its people as "A cut price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling / Where only salesmen and relations come". But his final verse suddenly soars - out beyond the city into the empty, open plains where "Silence stands like heat". Far from being the unromantic poet of urban grimness, here Larkin is offering something redemptive in loneliness and solitude among nature.

Similarly, the closing lines of the title poem break free of the solitary rail journey he takes towards London, gradually noticing the newly-married couples boarding the train en route to their honeymoons: "...there swelled a sense of falling, like an arrow shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain". Is this about promise unfulfilled, or hope for fruitfulness to come, or both? Other poems in The Whitsun Weddings are rather less lyrical about family, marriage and the possibility of love, and it would be very unlike Larkin to allow a sunny day and a relaxing holiday to lull him into a romantic reverie.

In fact, the recurring theme of the book is doubt about the possibility of love, distaste at perpetuating suffering by producing children. Something is pushing the young mothers of 'Afternoons' "To the side of their own lives". 'Dockery and Son' imagines that his former college-mate's son is an addition to his life; to Larkin "it was dilution". The apparently loving couple immortalised in stone in 'An Arundel Tomb' are "transfigured into untruth"; the idea that "what will remain of us is love" only "almost true".

I can see why some people find this too much like Larkin's justification for his own unmarried and childless existence. While I don't agree with the specifics of his choices in life, I can understand the determinism which informs his viewpoint. He faces what he calls in 'Mr Bleaney' "the dread / That how we live measures our own nature". That may be painful, but it is painfully honest too.

If such an attitude strikes you as bleak rather than bracing, there are celebrations of life among the gloom in this slim volume. Sidney Bechet's clarinet is like "an enormous yes". "Earth's immeasurable surprise" awaits lambs born into snow when spring arrives. A simple glass of water becomes the basis for a religion. Leaves, trees, growth and decay are recurring images, suggesting that being part of natural processes is the nearest we can come to a purpose for our existence.

The fact that 'The Whitsun Weddings' presents this view of life with such uncompromising clarity, such determination not to be conned, makes it worth reading for me. That, and the freshness of its language and accessibility of its form. When we often have so little time to consider what life is all about, there should always be time for poetry like this.

Published by Faber and Faber £8.99

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Comments about this review »

kevin121 22.04.2012 18:40

A first rate analysis.

venice105 29.03.2006 16:05

Very nicely written, I haven't read any Larkin, that I can think of, then again much of the English major experience is largely a blur so he's probably in there somewhere. Have you ever read James Tate? (he's American) I'm not big into poetry but do like him, really funny, weird poems...

magdadh 09.08.2004 21:32

You did it again!!! Truly beautiful and in so few words. And also managed to get away from biographical interpretations as much as possible fro Larkin. Now, I find reading English poetry hard work as as you know I am not a native speaker and somehow my realtive fluency in reading contemporary prose does not extend to much poetry - especially more clasical in design; I still read poetry in translation, but you knwo what they say about translating poetry. /// Now, I am going to read this collection and maybe it will be like with my first English novel - I thought I would know English enough to read one, and few months later I did.

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Product details

Type Poetry
Title The Whitsun Weddings
Author Philip Larkin
ISBN 571057500
EAN 9780571057504

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