By Daniel Seifert


The Montréal Review, May 2024



Fear of mortality, the fragility of relationships, the beauty lurking in the everyday. These are common themes in modern poetry — cliches, even. Yet in the hands of a master poet, they feel vibrant and fresh. Such was the skill of Philip Larkin, a defining poet of the 20th Century. But to truly appreciate that skill, we need to lean close to Larkin’s techniques and process. Only through slow, close reading can we see what makes his work so effective and enduring, decades after his death. As it happens, 2024 will see the 50th anniversary of his final collection, the celebrated High Windows (1974). But like so many literary icons, their well-known poems (in this case High Windows’ This Be the Verse, or Annus Mirabilis) can hog the spotlight from other, equally transcendent pieces. The Mower, in his Collected Poems (1988) is one of those masterpieces — but we’ll get to that. The hedgehog can wait in the wings.

We can start by ignoring, for now, the way Larkin wrote. How poets create other forms of art can be a useful back door into what they stand for. Larkin’s process is a lens through which he was able to craft work that, as former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion notes, told readers ‘difficult truths about their lives — love will fade, chances will be missed, death will surely come — but he did so in a way which was oddly consoling in its honesty’. The word ‘lens’ is a useful flag when examining Larkin’s oeuvre, as he was a passionate photographer. His images hint at what made his writing so powerful. Clear-eyed and spare, they frame everyday scenes: friends on the beach, the quotidian ritual of shaving, busy high streets — and more morbid sights, from WW2 bomb craters to rotting boat hulls and graveyards. Speaking to poet John Betjeman, Larkin elaborated on why he sought out the latter space: ‘I find when I go [to the graveyard] on a wet afternoon in December, when it’s not at all romantic, it gets my worries into perspective, and everything I write has the consciousness of approaching death in the background.’ You could do worse than using that single quote as a skeleton key to unlock Larkin’s entire career.

A poet’s job, we can surmise from his graveyard fancies, is to seek out discomfort and record it clear-sightedly. As essayist Tomas Unger notes, Larkin’s words present ‘a knowledge newly felt, founded on real seeing’; in short, making us experience real life with new eyes, as the best poetry should. This clear-sightedness isn’t just external: equally important to Larkin was to turn the gaze inward, connecting to lived experience. Looking back at his early work, he grumbled that he found it ‘the most awful tripe […] without any possible reference to my life as I was living it’. A poet, then, must continually improve by seeking authentic moments, then writing in their own voice, rather than aping other poets — in speaking of his early tripe, Larkin may have been alluding to his poems written in the vein of William Butler Yeats that did not represent, as The Poetry Archive notes in its biography, his ‘mature style’ of ‘plainness and skepticism’. This allowed Larkin to achieve what enduring poetry does, to be, as Gwendolyn Brooks says, ‘life distilled’. Distillation, as seen through Larkin’s simple, direct voice, can be regarded as a call to both condense language, and to transform ordinary life experience into something transcendent. In this craftsman’s hands, poetry is alchemy.

A close reading of Larkin’s The Mower reveals what techniques create this sense of powerful distillation, of difficult truths seen against the backdrop of death. A mere eleven lines long, with a deceptively prosaic title, it is one of his most affecting poems not despite, but because of its simplicity. The piece opens with the image of ‘The mower, stalled; twice’. We are lured into a banal moment of domestic annoyance, before being shown ‘A hedgehog jammed up against the blades, / Killed.’  The tone, brutally direct and spare, gains further heft by the powerful enjambment of ‘Killed’, the single distilled word coming as a blow as our eyes fall to the next line.

The meeting of small woodland animal and a faceless modern machine encapsulates what author John Le Carre felt was the basis of good writing: conflict. ‘The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story’. The same can be said of powerful poetry — opposing forces, rubbing up against each other to create sparks, creates more than the sum of those antagonistic parts. Mere elegant description is not enough to create a work that says something about the human condition. In The Mower, conflict sits between the machine and the hedgehog. The spark is what this conflict of death and life has created; the life-affirming realisation in the poetic narrator during the final stanza. In ending the poem with a coda, Larkin shifts from distanced description (his camera’s cold lens, you might say) to an aside speaking closely to the reader: that having been visited by death, ‘we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time’.

Only Larkin could make such avuncular, slightly condescending advice hit so hard. The anaphora of ‘we should’, and the half-rhyme of ‘kind’ and ‘time’ adds a lyrical quality, almost that of a nursery rhyme to soothe readers. Juxtaposed against the early visual of the ‘mangled’ hedgehog, we are left both consoled and unsettled, warmed by the reminder to connect, yet chilled by the presence of death. That Larkin achieves this emotional resolution so powerfully is due to his masterful objective correlative of two everyday sights, mashed together: a hedgehog and a mower, objects the poet loads with philosophical meaning. The mower stands in for the Grim Reaper (a clever slice of dark humour: even though the word Reaper is not used in the poem, the scythe, a mower-like tool wielded by Death, is a common trope in the Western literary canon). Meanwhile the hedgehog is an innocent victim, a double for the reader who will also die one day.

Contrast The Mower, written in 1979, with an earlier poem, 1946’s Deep Analysis, and we see how Larkin grew as a writer. Where Mower uses spare, un-emotive language to ‘show, not tell’ grief, Analysis features melodramatic language that is ineffective and blunt. ‘That my own heart drifts and cries, having no death / Because of the darkness’ leaves no room for subtlety, instead aiming to lead readers by the nose to feel sadness at the death of a relationship. Comparing this cruder early poem to works like The Mower highlights how Larkin developed his voice — by allowing his work to reveal darkness, not revel in it.

One reason for Larkin’s continued popularity is the approachability of his writing, offering readers images and narratives that are rich thanks to their open simplicity. It’s a skill not to be undervalued in a form dogged by accusations of opaqueness — type ‘how to understand poetry’ and search engines spit out over 179 million results. Poet Michael Dana Gioia notes how Larkin ‘brought a novelistic sensibility into his verse’ grounding readers with clear signifiers of plot, place and character. More importantly, Gioia adds, Larkin’s poems ‘had personality; they were simultaneously savage and yet compassionate, very depressing and very funny.’ Larkin’s peppering of colloquialisms in his work, such as ‘his lot’, ‘get stewed’, and most infamously ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’ do much to add this humour, exulting in conversational speech that, parked against more formal language, create a pleasurable intimacy thanks to variegations of tone. A first-time reader can feel like they’re sat next to a besuited old relative, suddenly sharing a risqué joke. As Carol Ann Duffy notes so perceptively, ‘Poetry, above all, is a series of intense moments […] I’m not dealing with facts, I’m dealing with emotion’. Larkin’s intensity, whether delving into mundanities such as dead hedgehogs or empty churches or train-rides, comes from delivering a profound range of emotions: wistful nostalgia, acidic distaste and everything in between.

Through his writing we understand that the poet is a go-between between experience and reader, adding clarity and richness to the everyday. Heartfelt authenticity, not intellectualization, are the key tools to achieve this mix, Larkin noted in an interview: ‘No [literary] device is important in itself. Writing poetry is playing off the natural rhythms and word order of speech against the artificialities of rhyme and meter’. Underscoring this, elsewhere he emphasizes that ‘one doesn’t really choose the kind of poetry one writes; one writes the poetry one has to write’. We see how writing is a feeling exercise, and less of a thinking one for Larkin, echoing Emily Dickinson’s mantra that good poetry should ‘take the top of your head off’. Inexact and intimidating though this acid test may be, crafting work that evokes physical reactions in writer and reader alike is a stirring call to arms, and an apt testimonial to Larkin’s legacy.

Now more than ever, Larkin’s catalogue is a deeply rewarding study in opposites. It is sardonic yet warm; approachable but layered; steeped in the malaise of post-war England yet, in our own age of anxiety, universal. Almost haiku-like at times, his work harnesses deceptively concise and clear language to monumental effect. Like a master photographer, Larkin’s poetry presents images that stop us in our tracks. First to interrogate how he builds deep narrative power from the mundane—then to return, time and again, to marvel at the beauty shining underneath.

Daniel Seifert's writing is published or forthcoming in The New York Times, Time magazine, Open: The Journal of Arts and Letters, and the anthology Missed Connections: Microfiction From Asia. In 2023 he was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and longlisted for the Letter Review Prize. He is currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore. He tweets @DanSeifwrites




The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911