(In part three of our 2018: The Year in Books series, we look at a book of poetry WAIT COME BACK. Just give me five minutes, and then you can leave if you’re really not having fun. I promise.)
The Best Poetry Wot I Read Award
Philip Larkin – The Whitsun Weddings
2018 has been the year in which I seriously tried to get into poetry, and read something other than Sylvia Plath for once. But Nick, you say, surely someone who cares about literature should naturally love poetry, since it’s a vital part of the medium, with a longer, more varied history than any other form? My answer to this is: no.
I really struggle with poetry. I fall in love with about 10% of the stuff I read, and kind of absolutely hate the other 90%. I think my problem is that I want a really specific thing from poetry, and can’t stand anything that is not that one specific thing. What I want is: a vivid description of a moment, or a specific feeling, that I feel I can understand (at least in part) the first time around, and that opens up on further readings. What I often seem to get with poetry is something like:
roses on the stairs. A rich
thick stain outside. I Remember u
But you are not you is you. Dark pleated waves when I was four but
but I am not four and never was. My father
was distant sometimes
I just can’t stand it. I don’t want to call this aesthetic bad, but it’s really, really not for me, and it’s absolutely everywhere. At best it feels like English homework: read these opaque words on a page and try your best to figure out what they hell they’re about. At worst it feels like someone in love with their own vocabulary, and the fact that you can Capitalise certain Words whenever You Want.
Call me a philistine. Call me a reverse snob. Whatever – like I said, it’s not for me, and I’ve learned enough in life not to judge something as bad merely because I don’t like it.
So, why did I like The Whitsun Weddings so much? Other than Philip Larkin’s raw sex appeal, it’s hard to say. I don’t want to just answer by saying ‘it’s not all the bad poetry things I don’t like’. But I also don’t want to just say ‘it’s very nice and beautiful with good words’, even though it is. It’s hard to be more specific, but I’ll give it a shot:
(1) I feel, after reading most of the poems in The Whitsun Weddings, that I understand Philip Larkin a little more as a person. They’re personal, kind of esoteric poems (in content, if not in structure), and they paint a picture of a very specific personality.
(2) The poems reward a second reading very well, but don’t require one to be enjoyable, or leave a strong impression. I feel like I got them almost immediately, and didn’t have to Agatha Christie may way towards some secret answer.
(3) A lot of the poems – even the more serious ones – are very funny. Sure, not laugh-out-loud funny, but a dry sense of humour that really works, and that feels true to life. The poems’ moments of listlessness and quiet dread are elevated from maudlin observations of fairly universal emotions, to something that feels personal and unique, and that really resonates with ol’ Nick ‘listlessness and quiet dread’ Keirle here.
(4) I like basically anything where someone goes ‘oh god, I’m old now and life passed me by’, so I was bound to like this because there’s loads of that good shit.
So that’s what I think about The Whitsun Weddings. If you’re still not sold on it, read the titlular poem (which is very nice and beautiful with good words), and if you don’t like that then it’s probably not for you. If you want to try out something a little different, I’d recommend Sylvia Plath’s Crossing the Water, which I also read this year. And if you want to try out something very different that’s mostly poems about getting drunk or having a cat or doing a big poo, I’d recommend Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense.
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