How can Philip Larkin's poetry be used to address the marginal or neglected?

Essay by madsxxxUniversity, Bachelor's March 2009

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The ‘marginal or neglected’ can be seen to refer to individuals, a class or nation, to ideas that have been marginalised, to neglected forms such as poetry, and to the marginalised self. Philip Larkin is renowned for his use of the colloquial in his poetry, and he renews the importance of everyday language and words, that have been ‘neglected’ and ‘marginalised’ in forms of expression. His poems have the “tone of the ordinary day”. Through this use of language, he reflects on the loss of identity and to the neglected state of England due to modernisation and industrialisation. Poetry itself is a specialist form; however Larkin’s poetry can be seen as homely and less dramatic. He brought back poetry as a relevant and accessible medium, as it is easily marginalised. Larkin is a poet who concentrates on ‘absence’ and ‘reality’, the mundane, small and intricate aspects of everyday life that are important, but often ignored.

He depicts an English post-war setting, struggling with destitution and despair, affectively describing dislocated humanity within the disruption of modernism. His poetry produces a sense of agency, and his own marginalisation and loneliness is also reflected.

Larkin’s poem, ‘Maiden Name’ is a meditation on identity, memory, language and tradition. He represents the ‘name’ as a disposable object, commenting on the preserving of values and the loss of them. The new consumerist age of ‘disposal’ can be seen to be referred to here. He creates a sense of an unused, neglected old self and a past identity that has been lost through marriage. The woman’s maiden name has been used and neglected, being “a phrase applicable to no one” (l.8).

The use of iambic metre gives weight to Larkin’s everyday language, emphasising how easy it is to ‘lose’ your identity. The meter makes a seemingly congested line easy to read, as the stresses make it flow naturally; for example, “It means what we feel now about you then” (l.15). The rhythm reflects the want to ‘take time leisurely’, rather than being hasty, as perhaps the marriage in the poem was rushed, leading the woman to forget the past as she was “thankfully confused” (l.4). Larkin does not say that the name ‘means’ the person, he says it meant her “face” and “voice” (ll.2-3), and that “it was of her that these two words were used” (l.7), being “applicable” (l.8) like an adjective. The word and the person are never completely melded, reflecting the disunion between a name and the self. This ‘disunion’ is reflected in the last line of the second stanza; “No, it means you. Or, since you’re past and gone” (l.14), suggesting that the woman’s self is past, whilst her previous name still exists. Larkin uses relatively commonplace words, but their simplicity emphasises his argument about how easy it is to discard and neglect a word, a name, and so serious weight is given to everyday, often ‘neglected’ language in poetry.

Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ is a didactic poem, commenting on the rapid process of pollution and the changing environment. It is an implicit critique of the contemporary English environment, which has become alienating. The poem has a despairing edge, his view of England being fatalistic and apocalyptic, as he prefigures a complete destruction of the countryside and national wholesomeness and identity of England. He produces a sense of agency, and this poem reflects Morrison’s thought that Larkin’s poems were “serving the needs of postwar Britain.”The title refers to the language of the auctioneer who, when selling something to the highest bidder, will say ‘Going - going - gone’ before slamming down the hammer. This suggests the idea of parts of the country being sold off to those who can afford them, in quick succession, with no regard for the social cost. At the start of the poem, he uses the first person, ‘I’, to express what his past anxieties and thoughts of England were. He saw the countryside as having a balance between the rural and the urban that would last his time. He has assumed he would still be able to escape the modernisation to the countryside, by driving to it. The images of “bleak high-risers” (l.11) and “louts” (l.4) are suggestive to a industrial change at the start, yet it can be read that the people who live the high-risers have a bleak outlook, and emphasis can be put on the louts coming from a “village” (l.4). In the fourth stanza, he describes what he feels “now” (l.18), and the use of mass images suggests a loss of identity. For example the plural images of “the crowd”, “kids” (ll.19-21), “More houses, more parking allowed, / More caravan sites, more pay” (ll.22-3). England is becoming meaningless, having no individual identity, where “greeds / And garbage are too thick-strewn” (ll.51-2). The “spectacled grins” (l.25) represent the blandness of businessmen as they contemplate a commercial manoeuvre without taking account of the possible human consequences. Yet they are still mere ‘grins’, and not ‘people’.

Modern industrial images are contrasted with the images of nature, such as the “M1 café” (l.20) and “concrete and tyres” (l.49). Industry is marginalising the countryside, neglecting it. In the third stanza he expresses the fairly naïve belief that ‘nature’ is stronger and more resilient than man and it will be able to recover. Later in the poem however, the strength of nature, how the “earth will always respond” (l.14), is trapped. The only parts that will be “bricked in” are the “tourist parts” (ll.39-40), yet the reason for the tourism is suggested to be because we will become the “first slum of Europe” (l.41). The marginalisation of the importance of the countryside is unnecessary, as the dales are not ‘depressed areas’; “move / Your works to the unspoilt dales (Grey area grants)!” (ll.29-30). Larkin can also be seen to refer here to how governments have failed to maintain ‘green areas’, as now the ‘green’ is ‘grey’ due to industry and commerce.

Larkin’s use of semi colons increases the fluidity of the verse, and the fast rhythm, appearing casual, reflects the speed of change and the carelessness which the poet sees all around him. Some stanzas flow into each other, reflecting his sense of an inevitable drift from a more orderly, responsible society towards the unplanned. In the fifth stanza, a sentence is finished with an ellipsis, reflecting a sense of loss and the disappearance of nature; “And when / You try to get near the sea / In summer…” (ll.31-2). Because he does not bother to complete the sentence, it reflects how common this image is, consisting of the traffic jams and pollution – the results of commercialisation and consumerism.

Larkin presents the view that the rising generation is marked by an increasing greed and by an increasing emphasis on profit at the expense of care for the environment. The poem ends with the apocalyptic statement, “I just think it will happen, soon” (l.51).

He suggests that traditional and neglected England will only survive through memory. Even the old characteristics of poetry will be lost and neglected; “that England will be gone, / The shadows, the meadows, the lanes / The guidhalls, the carved choirs” (ll.44-47). In literature and art, old England will only “linger on” (l.47). Larkin uses language, structure and the view point of the ordinary observer, to comment on the marginalisation and neglect of England and its countryside.

Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’ is also apocalyptic, reflecting on personal extinction through death, with the self inevitably being beyond the margin of life. An ‘Aubade’ is traditionally a musical announcement of dawn or a sunrise song. However, in contrast Larkin’s poem is a depressing meditation on his approaching extinction. He begins with successive statements in the first person that establish an image of loneliness. A monotonous routine is described; “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare” (l.1-2). He presents a marginalised self, lost from the outside world. He is alone with his thoughts: “when we are caught without / People or drink” (ll.36-7). In Larkin’s poetry, he often distances emotion, partly by using a rigid structure. In ‘Aubade’, he uses iambic pentameter as a means of imposing a structure and control to the lines and his ideas so they are not sentimental. A rhythm is forced on the poem despite the overall mood being solemn. This regularity is due to the ten lines in each verse and the ten syllables per line reflecting composure, and keeping his ideas controlled and coherent. Unlike ‘Going, Going’, the stanzas do not flow into one another. This makes the iambic pentameter more obvious and gives the poem a factual structure.

Larkin speaks of ‘death’ as an everyday reality, continuously living in his thoughts, “making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die” (ll.6-7). His repetition of negatives emphasises the lost state and ‘nothingness’ of death. For example, “no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste to smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anaesthetic from which none come round” (ll.27-30). This stanza is made up of only two sentences, emphasising the eternity of death. He speaks of death as “total emptiness for ever” (l.16) and as “the sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always” (ll.17-8). This concentration of thought had developed because of the speaker’s marginalisation from society and the outside world. He is removed, but ironically, he is meditating on a subject that is universal. He refers to the world as “uncaring” and “intricate” as it “begins to rouse” (ll.46-7) in the dawn of a new day, suggesting it is heartless and neglecting of thought. ‘Death’ is presented as a disregarded subject in everyday life, not thought about enough. An ‘aubade’ is a poem about lovers separating at dawn. However here, the persona is being separated and marginalised from living.

Throughout all of these three poems, Larkin effectively uses colloquial language to communicate. He reflects on the neglected, past identity. By the use of structure and rhythm, he makes the reader aware of time and the use of it in everyday life. The slower pace gives time for neglected thought. The seeming simplicity of his imagery reflects how easy it is to lose history and its meaning. He comments on the universal themes of loss, identity, consumerist culture, the environment and fatalism, through commonplace, ‘neglected’ vocabulary. He effectively describes dislocated humanity within the disruption of modernism. Through his “average voice” , he brings importance back to the mundane everyday aspects of life that are ignored and neglected. Ironically, the poet himself is not separated or marginalised from his reader, because of his effective use of informal and colloquial expression, and it’s content.

Bibliography:•Larkin, Philip, Collected Poems, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 2003).

•Morrison, Blake, The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

•Walcott, Derek, ‘The Master of the Ordinary: Philip Larkin’, What The Twilight Says, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1998).

•The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press, [accessed February 2009].