Larkin, cigarette unlit, almost gesticulating with it, sitting in a squat, claustrophobic living room, bunny beside him, LPs lining the shelf, is nattering with John Betjeman, & delineates the whereabouts of a Poet’s influences. After remarking that people often criticism him for being miserable (though he believes himself to often be, somewhat humourous & doesn’t explain how he deals with criticism, which is what Betjeman wants to know), he explains that
“One’s poetry is based on the kind of person one is & the environment they find themselves in— one doesn’t choose the poetry one writes…”
with the implication we might add, that it, chooses the Poet. Nice to think that the poems i wrote have a mind & picked me.
What interests me though is how conscious can a poet then be if the poetry has chosen them due to factors, not exactly out of their control, but having been accrued from a lifetime spent in the company of one’s self & their environment? Is all poetry in some sense, inescapably confessional? We must watch our step. If the poem has a mind of its own, does it, in return, confess us? Wish i could have asked Larkin this.
The Confessional as a school of poetry is still disliked by some (i have seen it mocked in Facebook feeds, by poets, with books of theirs on bookshop shelves) & even the writer’s that make up its canon, were none too favourable of the label. Berryman famously denounces it in his foreword to The Dream Songs. Roethke, though i read his book of prose writing On the Poet & His Craft, never (if memory serves) acknowledges it, nor even mentions it. Ted Hughes expresses its influence as freeing him from the fustiness of English poetry at that time, Plath introducing him to it.
—(Aside: perhaps anyone reading this with further insights can add it in the comments— i write all these pieces with the few texts to my disposal, what trustworthy essays i can rummage out of the internet; & these days i’ve found some good podcasts & old documentaries, i am at the will of my own volition, which is worrying)—.
What is the root of this criticism? Well, i’d hazard a guess that its due to the capitalization of “confessional” being viewed as a pointless annexation to poetry. Poetry is organically a medium in which the big I AM takes the proscenium, without much truculent opposition? We expect to read of somebody, of the poet, even when their subject is not themselves. The choice of theme & subject reveals much about the author. It stands in, whether directly or indirectly as an expression of self & environment— we are to interpret what we read after all.
If then, poetry is a mode of expression that capitalizes on confession, it doesn’t need to be endowed with any special relevance by being bent into the laws of a School. If what Larkin says has any validity, it stands to reason that if any noun should represent the poet’s efforts, then the poet’s name is a perfectly acceptable label to mark their poetic style & range.
We might add what his longtime friend Kingsley Amis says, that he is
“Almost [don’t be swayed by his passivity; i interpret this as a rhetorical forage for the correct words] convinced he’s telling me what he feels. That none of the attitudes, none of the sentiments, have been thought for the occasion, or are ones he doesn’t hold.”
So we have some evidence that Larkin is being himself in his poems.
i should outline, before i go on, my definition of both “Confessional” & “confessional”, in poetry, as i want it to be understood, going forward in this essay. My interpretation does not lean on the religious confession of sin or guilt, nothing so secretive, the poem may act as a confessional box, with a divider, behind which the poet may pour themselves outward; but nothing really so, dare i say, sinister— darkness & madness linger behind both; though faith too may be both an existential & spiritual problem for the poet, it is not exclusively a religious one.
Rather, i have always thought of it as a use of self to engage with the world through poetry, an act of cathartic release from the cooped up quarters of one’s mind, a jettison of anxieties that are caused by the world & can in turn, affect the world (of the reader) for good or ill. In short, treatment of environment & self.
Though Larkin is known for writing a you-can’t-fool-me-rational-democratic poetry, he isn’t always straight with us & i would put this down to his Englishness. We English, or at least a good chunk of us, don’t feel comfortable wearing emotions inside out. We cluster everything within & they wend their odd ways out in quirks & fumbling, but usually excessive politeness; Larkin was well mannered in the upper middle class English way.
Larkin, i’d say, reveals much in the locations he picks, which is why he persisted living in Hull for so many years: he didn’t want to be a writer who visits a place & writes as a tourist, but as part of the fabric of the region. Larkin has become synonymous with Hull, something i don’t think he’d quarrel with, though he never felt he belonged anywhere & dreaded that how we live measures our own nature as Mr Bleaney explains from his spartan boarding house room.
In the poem Here Larkin doesn’t tell us he’s swerving east, from rich industrial shadows towards Hull, but his closing line (if you’ve been to Hull) is a giveaway: as you approach Hull, you travel with the Humber to your right, large enough to not see much, if any land beyond it & it feels, once you finally arrive at the station, as if you’ve reached the end of England (or one of its ends). But i would contest that Hull is a figurative front for something celebratory.
Here, is the 1st poem of Larkin’s 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings, which was his 3rd volume, following from 1955s The Less Deceived. He was drip feeding lines, erasing them to re-write them with minor adjustments, which in turn would be erased. For title poem The Whitsun Weddings, this went on for some 2-3 years; i think he began writing the title poem the same year The Less Deceived was published.
During the time of writing The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin was the librarian at Brynmor Jones Library. This casts a different light on his opening line swerving east, from rich industrial shadows. Is Larkin (perhaps, unbeknownst to himself) saying that he has finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel, or ocean at the mouth of the estuary, his route highlighted through the terrain of the creative impulse, having left the shadows of creative industry, the shadows of the quotidian, which, consider, he doesn’t use a bleak adjective to describe, but the word rich? This is an unexpected word choice & illustrates a desire to articulate that he is impressed with his industriousness, celebrates it even as the integral dynamo for his productivity, which despite being slow, does find its way. Larkin says somewhere that he couldn’t, nor would he want to be tasked with writing all day, if he were a full time writer; that he actually enjoyed working a day job, the order & duty. The title Here is telling: as if to say, “I am still here, writing & being industrious, even if you haven’t heard from me in a while.”
Larkin, is often charged with being miserable, as mentioned above, but i think some of this was a character he played. He knew like Dylan Thomas how to appeal to people’s sense of what to expect from a poet’s extrovert personality. His poems reveal much & to me, a conflicted man. The last line of the 3rd stanza leading into the 4th of his poem Here goes
Isolate villages, where removed lives
Larkin never married. He hated marriage. Perhaps, it was a dislike of permanence, of something sticking & growing fetid; which is ironic considering his fidelity to place. Though it may only be the fact of his using the images that tell us so, permanence makes an appearance in the 3rd stanza, as a list of locations, which include tattoo-shops, the slave museum & mortgaged half built edges, which are all permanent things.
But despite the loneliness, there is a Romantic element burrowed away in Larkin’s stanzas. We have the pastoral of ships, the potential to journey beyond restraint, to become changed; a foreshadowing of a more Romantic Larkin, of Romantic content, or even just intent. In addition there is the luminously peopled air which ascends. A clear upwards motion, the people changed from the derogatory cut-price crowd. But then the ending leaves us, well me at least, feeling ambiguous & this is where i really draw my conclusion that Larkin is conflicted. Reaching the land suddenly beyond a beach Larkin concludes that Here may be
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
Now unfenced existence may be a lusted freedom, a freedom we don’t even know we want, like the paradise he expresses previous generations secretly desire, when they see two youngsters who he guesses are fucking each other; but that paradise comes later in High Windows. However, if we are facing the sun, the sun is in our eyes & we can’t see this unfenced existence without squinting, & we can’t trust someone or even something untalkative to describe it to us & we also can’t touch what is out of reach. So all our senses are reduced to being useless fixtures. We are blank. But then we know the paradise is out there, it is ahead of us always. Is that it for Larkin? To exert yourself, with only the hope that the next poem will come? That time will gradually alter everything whether for better or worse, without us ever really witnessing it till much later?
There is always hope as long as the poet remains industrious, on his toes; so long as the confession is always on the tip of the tongue to be chased into form; so long as his characterizations of the tall I AM’s depictions of place, cooperate & soldier onward; then existence, i guess, remains unfenced, it must always be so for the poet;— what would a poet have to write about in a perfect world?
—(i want to repeat, as i have said in previous essays that this is not a definitive criticism with stable foundations, i know many who read these are extremely well read & can bring a lot to the continuation of the essay, through discussion; the comment feed in previous essays was great. So please, the comments are below & i am all ears & willing: do you think poetry is essentially confessional? What does that say about Confessional poetry? Is that the only poetry there is? Should i shut up & go jump in the sea? Do you think Larkin is Confessional or confessional in other way? Do you like/dislike Larkin? How about Confessional poetry? Do you confess [un]consciously in your poetry? If this essay interests you but you don’t feel confident, do not be anxious, people are more magnanimous than you may think & your questions or criticisms with be received fairly. Thanks for reading. One last thing, Larkin’s poem here, for those who don’t know it, can be found easily by searching it in Google, it is very good)—.