Tag Archives: Philip Larkin

Calling the Poem: 11. ‘Inspiration 2’

The poem enters your head as a litter of kittens
brought in by a cat from somewhere hidden,
place of birth unknown.
A word, image, rhyme,
an idea, a tone,
they are brought one at a time
In no order, no preference, no ruling or schooling,
they just need to come in, like refugees at the border.
And they have no order,
they crawl over each other, blind and mewling,
and here comes another, and then here comes another.
So the thoughts enter your head like kittens. Give thanks to the Mother.

*****

Where do ideas come from? No idea. (An oxymoronic observation that is not so different from saying that all the Universe comes from nothing, or that there was no time before the beginning of time.) But simply having ideas is nothing in itself – you can have ideas and ignore them (and generally irritate the Muse that is offering you ideas), and so you will have nothing to show for them. Canadian poet Pino Coluccio recently pointed me at an old piece by British poet Philip Larkin, which begins:

“It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects or things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.”

So, 1) become obsessed; 2) construct a verbal device that captures the obsessiveness; 3) have it read by people who thereby experience your obsession.

This series of poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook focuses on how to be open to the internal wellspring of ideas, obsessions, emotions, words and images to reach Larkin’s first stage (these first 11 poems); and some thoughts about the construction of the “verbal device” of his second stage (the remaining four poems that are coming up). As for the third stage… well, if the poem is strong enough, it will resonate appropriately with those who read it; but how to get it read–that is a different problem entirely.

Photo: “Newborn kittens” by In dust we trust is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Review: ‘The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse’, ed. Philip Larkin

This anthology edited by Philip Larkin (which, despite its title, only goes up to the early 1970s) is the most comprehensive, diverse and inspiring collection of formal and semi-formal poetry that I have ever come across. It has, naturally, some free verse… but even that is entertaining in this selection.

The book has no one born before 1840 (Blunt and Hardy), no Matthew Arnold, no Gerard Manley Hopkins (died 1889), so there are almost no Thee’s and Thou’s… except from Robert Bridges.

It has no one born after 1946 (Brian Patten); poets of today are not in this book.

Larkin chose to exclude writers not “born in these islands (or resident here for an appreciable time)”, which lets him include Kipling and Eliot as well as any Scots, Welsh or Irish that he chooses, but cuts out E.E. Cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost… And Larkin makes no explanation or apology for including Derek Walcott who, born in St. Lucia, lived his life between the Caribbean and the US.

So the anthology is not as complete as could be hoped; but, with 584 poems by 207 poets in 625 pages, it is enormously wide-ranging and full of not just the best of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, but also unexpected treasures by authors barely known today. Here is T.E. Hulme’s ‘The Embankment’, subtitled ‘(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)’:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

And in completely contrasting mood, here is ‘An Epitaph’ by Colin Ellis:

He worshipped at the altar of Romance
(Tried to seduce a woman half his age)
And dared to stake his fortune on a chance
(Gambled away his children’s heritage).

He valued only what the world held cheap
(Refused to work, from laziness and pride):
Dreams were his refuge and he welcomed sleep
(He failed at business, took to drink and died).

All types of (“English”) 20th century verse are in the anthology. It is the most wonderful, wonderful read.

Review: “Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950”

Modern Verse in English

I’m reading ‘Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950‘, ed. David Cecil and Allen Tate, published in 1958. It provides a good look at a large number of poets from that time period–some have lasted, some haven’t. It is an extensive and useful volume, but it raises some concerns:

1. Lord David Cecil‘s introduction (to the English poems) includes “though during the twenties there was a fashion for free and rhymeless verse, it has passed. Most young poets today write in strictly regular forms.” This was published in 1958, remember. Not really prescient, unfortunately, so you question his insight. He regrets omitting “the work of writers who have made their reputation since 1950, for example, Miss Audrey Beecham, Mr. Philip Larkin and Mr. Thom Gunn.” Well, two out of three’s not bad.

2. The ‘1900-1950′ seems a bit misleading, given that the poets include Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins who both died in the 1880s. True, Hopkins’ poetry wasn’t published until the 1930s–but would we consider an unknown Shakespeare poem 21st century if it was only discovered and published today? And as for Dickinson, three Series of her poems were published in the 1890s.

3. Although a couple of poets born in Ireland and South Africa, and Kipling, are included, the volume contains nothing by Canadians (Bliss Carman, Robert Service and F.R. Scott would fit the time line), Australians, West Indians, etc; and nothing by any people of colour such as Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks (one of my absolute favourites). Any of these would be far more worthy of inclusion than, for example, Donald Davidson whose chief merit for the editor of the American poems, Allen Tate, must have been their shared support for racial segregation. The volume would be better titled ‘Modern White English and American Verse, from Emily Dickinson to Richard Wilbur‘. Still not perfectly accurate, but so it goes.

It is a useful book. But it is less complete than its title suggests, and it is tainted.