For years, I have been meaning to blog about Philip Larkin, my favorite poet. I first read Larkin my last semester in college, and his poetry immediately spoke to me. The first poem of his I fell in love with was “Church Going,” a poem that captured (and still captures) perfectly my own feelings on religion, the enduring power of religious buildings, and the reason they still attracts atheists like myself. Since then, other poems have become beloved, and more importantly, they often manage to describe the exact feelings I have on various issues.
I think Larkin is so moving because his works encapsulate so well the emotional challenges modernity and the 20th century pose to the individual. On the one hand, these changes offered a remarkable degree of personal freedom, with secularization and sexual revolution undoing many of the bonds that previously structured social behavior. Paradoxically however, rather than offering us pure joy, “a brilliant breaking of the bank, a quite unlosable game” (from his poem “High Windows,” these new freedoms have laid the groundwork for an increasing atomized society, and people are forced to face the challenges of life without the comforts of community and tradition. Ironically, it is new found freedoms that most imprison us within our fears.
Beyond that, Larkin has wonderful insights about other topics, like urbanization, decolonizations, and visual culture. I have consistently found him useful to think with, as well as a pleasure to read. Of course, to say he is valuable to think with is not to agree with him. The fact he is an apologist for empire does not mean you are for enjoying his poetry. It simply means, however, that we can understand that viewpoint better - and what it means for a society to eschew empire - by looking at him. We can understand the practical effects of social change with him, both by looking at the details of everyday living discussed in his poems and because his poetry does a god job of exploring the interiority of someone living through great social change.
How this blog will work?
I intend to write a post every ten days about Larkin. I hope that making this vow in a public manner will spur me on to keep my word. I want to write different posts for each poem, looking at both the pesaht and drash of a poem. In tradition Jewish scholarship, two ways to look at a text are peshat and drash. The peshat is the simple meaning, the literal interpretation. The drash is a different type of analysis, one that isn’t wedded to literalism. It is a more expansive reading, one that can interpret the text in a unconventional fashion, placing it in a different context. I want to do that with Larkin. At first, I will write a post that simply discusses the poem in a literal manner, unpacking the poem itself. The follow-up posts (or posts) will look at Larkin more expansively, using him as a spring board for thinking anthropologically with his poetry.