If I was any good at Photoshop, this picture of poet Philip Larkin would have shown him wearing shorts. Great big baggy shorts and, below them, bare feet. You’d imagine he was just about to go for a paddle and laugh like a drain. But unlike Steve Austin, the Bionic Man – remember him? – we don’t have the technology.
Larkin did – as much as he needed, anyway. He took this proto-selfie using a timer. Behind him rises the steel skeleton of the brand-new university library where he was to serve out his working days as Chief Librarian. The following poem – perhaps his last – was written on an 80th birthday card to the university’s Vice-Chancellor, after whom the new Brynmor Jones Library was named:
By day, a lifted study-storehouse; night
Converts it to a flattened cube of light.
Whichever’s shown, the symbol is the same:
Knowledge; a University; a name.
Contrasting images become resolved in a wider concept. The zoom lens of the poet’s attention moves in and out, shifting its focus, seeking deeper truths within life’s random clutter. Philip Larkin’s shorts – short poems, of course, and not truncated trousers! – resemble his photographs, I think, in that both capture a whole world in a sudden flash of insight.
My favourite Larkin photo has to be this one. I imagine him setting up the timer and then composing himself with canny deliberation for this knowing self-portrait at once serious, gentle, vulnerable, revealing, funny. And above all, like his poems, honest.
This is the first thing’
This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.
‘To put one brick upon another
To put one brick upon another,
Add a third and then a forth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.
But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven bawl
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.
Darkness; a desire to stretch, to scratch.
Then has the – ? Then is it – ? Nudge the thatch,
Displace the stiffened leaves: look out. How cold,
How dried a stillness. Like a blade on stone,
A wind is scraping, first this way, then that.
Morning, perhaps; but not a proper one.
Turn. Sleep will unshell us, but not yet.
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold. As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.
Home is so sad
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
As Bad as a Mile
Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more
Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.
Take One Home for the Kiddies
On shallow straw, in shadeless glass,
Huddled by empty bowls, they sleep:
No dark, no dam, no earth, no grass –
Mam, get us one of them to keep.
Living toys are something novel,
But it soon wears off somehow.
Fetch the shoebox, fetch the shovel –
Mam, we’re playing funerals now.
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set. And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.