I suspect that like most Larkin aficionados of my generation, I first came across Philip Larkin’s poetry when I was at school. Naturally, the poem that most struck a chord with any angst-ridden, rebellious teenager was “This Be The Verse”. Even committing this poem to memory felt like a delicious act of subversion. When I first heard Larkin’s unique laconic rendition of this poem, it all made sense. It was Larkin’s ironical detachment and ability to distil complex ideas with lucid language that proved to be appealing. It wasn’t poetry concocted in an ivory tower but poetry rooted in experience.
Sometimes, Larkin’s poetry didn’t always make an impact in the classroom, precisely because we were compelled to read it and butcher to death the various poetical tricks that Larkin’s deploys, where all that was crying out was for the language to be assimilated. It is only when I branched out and explored his poetry independently that I fully understood Larkin’s philosophy that poetry should “communicate and give pleasure to the reader”. For this is the genius of Larkin and why he has such timeless appeal – across generations, gender and background. He speaks to all of us about the sundry themes that constitute life and living, in an accessible way, which warrant re-reading throughout our lives.
To choose one poem from an incredible array of poems that Larkin produced is nigh on impossible. There are many that I love: “Wants”, “Toads”, “Spring”, “Days”, “Water”, “A Study of Reading Habits”, “The Trees”, “Aubade”, “Party Politics”. The list is pretty extensive. But if I were to choose one, it would be “The Mower”. All of Larkin’s virtuosity as a master of his craft is on display here. His command of language, acuity of observation, precision with punctuation and all-round technical brilliance. It is Larkin at his conversational best. Like all great poets he knows how to use language and how to get maximum power out of a word or a phrase.
Every time I read this poem, the words “killed” and “unmendably” hit me, exactly as Larkin intended. But perhaps what I love most about this poem is its concluding statement. Larkin, despite being cast as a melancholic chronicler on the vicissitudes of life was able to hit the heights of understated optimism and offer the occasional uplift to leaven his lugubriousness. Like the ending of “The Trees”, Larkin removes his ironical cloak and speaks with searing clarity. One of Larkin’s great gifts is for writing the appropriate phrase. The sentiment he expresses at the conclusion of “The Mower” is a worthy one to live up to, no matter how hard it might be to put into practice all of the time.