There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps.
Silken it seems at a distance, yet
When it is drawn up over the knees and breast
It brings no comfort.
Where has the tree gone, that locked
Earth to sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?
What loads my hand down?
Philip Larkin, from The Less Deceived (1955)
I am a Larkin-denier. It wasn’t always so. I discovered and fell in love with his work relatively late in the early burst of my non-required poetry reading (is there another one like it?), during my final year at university. Prior to that I had been a Larkin-avoider. Piles of copies of The Whitsun Weddnings and The Less Deceived adorned the shelves of the room I was taught English in, and from their toady jacket colourings and frowning typography I deduced that Larkin was definitely not for me. I am not sure who blinked first, me, or him. I recall that my flatmate Squirrel also discovered him around the same time, and we would spend evenings trying to outdo each other quoting passages of The Whitsun Weddings, Talking in Bed, Mr Bleaney, Afternoons and Home is So Sad, the longer and sadder the better. We knew how to live in those days.
I devoured the lot, including Jill, A Girl in Winter and Required Writing. By the time I began publishing my first poems a year or two later he was still a presence in my life, largely because he went and died, prompting me to read him all over again. Thereafter, I am probably not alone in experiencing his work through the lens of the publication of his Selected Letters in 1992, and biography a year later, with their revelations of his racism, pornography-use and right wing politics. Had I been paying attention, I would have seen the clues all along: ‘I adore Mrs Thatcher.’ Overnight, he went from love affair to guilty secret.
As I began to get to know other poets I saw that my own equivocation was far from standard. I recall a no holds barred shouting match one evening at the Totleigh Barton writing centre between two senior British poets as to Larkin’s continued merits, or lack of them. Like one of those epic 50-setter tennis matches we seem to endure each Wimbledon, they are probably still at it, neither having given an inch. What started off as infatuation and developed into animosity, had come to rest in divorce in everything but name. Until the other day, I had not picked him up in years.
The occasion? A clear out. Having culled my shelves at home, it was now the turn of my office at work. A large pile of unlooked-at-for-years books of poems began to teeter on the floor. In one hand the classic set of four slim volumes, three Faber and one Marvell Press (did they ever do anything else?), in the other the clotted cream hardback of the Collected Poems. Having found him first there, I could not bring myself to jettison the four slim volumes. But the Collected? Had I quoted from it over long sessions of cheap Bulgarian red? Had I taken it round London in a rucksack, fallen in love to it, read it in the bath?
The book opened by itself at ‘Going’. Though not published until 1955 in The Less Deceived, it was written in 1946, and marks the start of what we think of as mature Larkin. Had I read it before? I had. But not for a lifetime, which included marriage, children, cancer. Never before have I recognised with such force that I thought I knew a poem only to discover that the person who first read it was in fact dead. I wondered, literally: ‘What is under my hands,/ That I cannot feel?’ Like the evening described in the poem, I found it ‘silken’, and though it brought ‘no comfort’, I was grateful to be in its orbit again, if only because it had stopped me in my tracks for a brief moment in a long day, my hand no longer loaded down as I returned it to its home on the shelf.