by Tomas Unger
from The Threepenny Review, Fall 2016
At least twice in his life—once in a passing remark and once in a perfect line—Philip Larkin, who played at being merely dour, used the word lovely. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that photography (almost his second art, as this selection of Larkin’s prodigious output reveals) is a close presence in each case. The poet, on a trip to the country, turns positively exclamatory on seeing, of all things, some cows. “How lovely they are!” he writes in a letter, not having to explain, really, not explaining away. He takes several snaps in close-up. The loveliness on offer at the close of “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” is of another order: “It holds you like a heaven, and you lie / Unvariably lovely there, / Smaller and clearer as the years go by.”
It can be striking to return to Larkin’s unobtrusively assured statements on the nature of poetry—in interviews or occasional essays—and find that they envision the poem as being very much like the photographic image in its essential function: preservation. Larkin had this to say in an early interview with the Telegraph:
Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt or perceived. I feel it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation, since one’s deepest impulse in writing (or, I must admit, painting or composing) is to my mind not “I must tell everybody about that” (i.e. responsibility to other people) but “I must stop that from being forgotten if I can” (i.e. responsibility towards subject).
Elsewhere he commented, “I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience).”
Any photograph involves us in just such a complex experience. How can the young lady of Larkin’s poem, fixed in a picture, grow at once “smaller and clearer”—no fading here—“as the years go by”? It must be that the revisited image puts her, a very certain image of her, again in the mind’s possession: a presence thought and felt, seen in the mind’s eye.
Perhaps Larkin would frown on this immodesty of interpretation, unlovely talk. And his own ideas about either art would be very much beside the point if the poems were not, as we more readily see now, so—what, exactly? What is the fitting counterpart of “painterly”? (“Photographic” doesn’t quite capture it.) If in one mood Larkin could look in the mirror and do no more than rail at the obliterating force of contingency (“I meet full face on dark mornings / The bestial visor, bent in / By the blows of what happened to happen”), what outstares such bitter turns is a quality that is very quietly instinct in poem after poem, a really rare sensitivity to another variety of contingent experience: as against the blows of what happens to happen, set the “sharp tender shock” of what happens to be seen.
That phrase comes from “An Arundel Tomb,” a poem in which Larkin risked the one word which all talk of loveliness at once shies away from and tends toward: “What will survive of us is love.” This great close is saved from seeming merely monumental not just because the poet seems to place it under some scrutiny with the line just prior (something in him moves to call that “almost intuition almost true”), but because the poem ably dramatizes those chance noticings, those slight shifts in perception, that can sometimes give new life to old truths. Larkin’s closing insight, in other words, seems just that: a knowledge newly felt, founded on real seeing.
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
We sense—very much as in “The Whitsun Weddings” or “Church Going” or “At Grass”—that the poet is pretty entirely involved in the business of figuring out just what he’s looking at. Which is to say, too, that those little dogs punctuating the first stanza are set there as much more than ornament. A poet without the eye or temperament to spot them, without the almost loving inclination to assign them a place, would not go on to discover the withdrawn hand of the earl with so much finely controlled feeling. In “How Distant,” Larkin paid tribute to moments when something as ordinary as “the chance sight / Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage / Ramifies endlessly.” I can’t read those lines without thinking of Bill Brandt’s image of a washing-girl in London’s East End, framed by an open doorway, kneeling by her pail with a look of inwardness and an eloquence of pose that far transcend the outward event. (It’s an image that would likely have been familiar to Larkin, who knew and admired Brandt’s work.)
If these photographs are invaluable for the way they send us back to the poems with new eyes, now and then you alight on a Larkin image that seems to stand as achieved art in its own right. There are some striking crowd-scenes, such as a photo inscribed “To the Match”: a procession of football fans trooping toward the grounds, some walking, some on bicycles, their backs turned toward us, any hints of identity subsumed by the suggestion of a common motion, so that the scene takes on the somewhat disquieting energy of dream-vision. For another picture, Larkin got in close to capture the streetside spectators of some public event (kept artfully out of view, indeterminate), their richly varied expressions—exuberance, boredom, anticipation, faint concern— showing the photographer’s sensitivity to the everyday drama of massed individuality. He wouldn’t have begrudged the fact that one girl in the group, only one, has turned away from the scene, a wary and kindred eye landing squarely on him (and now us). Larkin could draw as much emotion out of less peopled places, as in a touching take on Warwick Common toward winter, lined by commandingly bare trees, or of a boy standing by the Walls of Derry in what looks like a weather of shocked quiet, or of the window of a shop in Hull strewn with messily taped, handwritten notices advertising, say, Plentey of Sumer Cotton Top Skirts Cheap, or 60 Foot of Horse Rubber, or a Loveley Wedding Dress.
On into his thirties, whenever Larkin had to take a train somewhere, he’d carry little notes of his own to hand to the ticket agent: a bad stammer would flare at the first shyness, and he couldn’t always count on being able to relay his destination. Then there was the poor eyesight marring his student days, which also kept him from military service. Is it idle to read Larkin’s turn to photography, of all pursuits, in light of these facts? Perhaps one of the early attractions of the camera, which he picked up in his youth (and we have this to thank for an endearingly comic picture of his father Sydney looking through a lens of his own at the eleven-year-old portraitist), was the way it allowed him to escape from the first difficulty and transcend the second. In this capacity, I think of the way suggestions of inarticulacy and imperfect vision, of a certain insurmountable vagueness at the self’s core, haunt Roland Barthes’s words on the telltale pull of any resonant image: “The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence.”
Why, looking through these particular pictures—of, say, Monica Jones, the most striking of Larkin’s loves, gazing out the window of her Leicester flat, or of Maeve Brennan, something less than a smile discernible through a screen of tall grasses—do you feel so acutely their condition of silence, the sharp tender yearning toward and away from words? In his poem “MCMXIV,” that unnaturally affecting elegy to an innocence the poem neither suffers from nor has lost, you come by image after sketched image, a run of fragments seeming to float free of tense—“The crowns of hats, the sun / On moustached archaic faces,” “dark-clothed children at play,” “the place-names all hazed over / With flowering grasses”—and then this:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word.
Barthes, in his Mourning Diary, left three bewitching fragments on the one image which his Camera Lucida is ultimately in quest after, a picture of his mother which he chooses to preserve for the reader by words alone, the image itself being an inadequate testament to what he has seen/thought/felt (“I cannot reproduce The Winter Garden photograph… For you it would be nothing”).
Photo of the Winter Garden: I search desperately to find the obvious meaning.
[Photo: powerless to say what is obvious. The birth of literature.]
“Innocence”: which will never do harm.
If that bracketed bit suggests that literature begins where images, in their necessary unsaying, leave off, Larkin’s lines help bring into focus a contrary resonance. Photographs wouldn’t leave us so powerless to say what is obvious if they didn’t so powerfully impress us with the obvious’s inarticulable force. Is “innocence”— Barthes’s word as well as Larkin’s—a provisional attempt to come up with the “obvious meaning” of the image? Those quotation marks, so like Larkin’s “almost true,” concede the powerlessness of words to encompass what an image conveys.
In their many earnest attachments, Larkin’s photographs remind us that he was a poet not just of lacerating wit but of the lacerated heart. Both Larkins make an appearance in “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.” No sooner has he dismissed photography as “faithful and disappointing!” than instinct pushes past the posture, on to a very different sort of exclamation, improbably—what’s the word—innocent. “What grace,” Larkin says,
Your candour thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place.
Vacillation comes quickly—“Or is it just the past?”—but by now this registers as real hurt, not faithful disappointment.
If a good many of these pictures are more Family Album than Fine Art—just the past, minus art’s spell of presence—they seem no less lovely for it. Here’s Larkin horsing around with his peers in Oxford. Or, at the same age, trying his hand at painting, in fond emulation of his friend Jim Sutton. (Camera timers let Larkin carry out a lifelong experiment in self-portrait.) Here are Monica and Larkin’s mother Eva in conversation, Eva white-gloved and quite guarded, studying the younger woman a touch too intently, Monica either lost in thought or shying at the inspection she’s come under. There are cameos from friends, especially the Amises (Kingsley, Hilly) and people he knew from his work as head librarian at the University of Hull, as well as peers in the art. Then there are shots brought back from Larkin’s travels through the countryside with his late love Maeve, of churches he haunted in “awkward reverence,” or of the library’s “religious light,” or of rails and reverently collected place-names. A perfectly forgettable photo of a hedgehog—such a trifle—stopped me. Larkin once inadvertently crushed such a creature with a mower. Occasion for a casual curse, a dark joke? No, not for Larkin, not by a long shot:
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
Looking at the picture of that hedgehog and the poem it may have played a part in bringing about feels a bit like looking at Blake’s drawing of his Tyger, which—by design or not—shows the unholy terror cut down to size, something cute. Here the divergence is a reminder of just how much Larkin must have had within him, if that creature, nothing but, could move him to these words, nothing less.
The image of Larkin I like best, never caught by a camera, seems well worth preserving. He’s driving at a quick clip down the highway, about seventy miles per hour, with the radio on. The program is called “Time for Verse”—dull enough, so he’s paying it no attention, really. And then: “A lovely summer day… Someone suddenly started reading the Immortality Ode,” that utterly undiminishable poem of Wordsworth’s which culminates in those thoughts that “lie too deep.” Larkin hadn’t come across it in ages. “And I couldn’t”—goddamn lovely man! This is what he says—“And I couldn’t see for tears.”
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