Wednesday, 20 November 2013

In Praise of Hull: 'Here' by Philip Larkin

Today, Hull was designated "City of Culture 2017". James Burkinshaw considers a paean to the city by Philip Larkin, Hull resident and England's greatest post-war poet.  

Philip Larkin, in Hull
' By the time Larkin arrived, ten years after the war had ended . . . (Hull) was dispirited and run down, several of the big docks in the city centre were empty or filled in and the commercial future was uncertain. Amongst the ruins, people had to be grateful for small mercies . . . Wandering along the wooden cobbles of the deserted high street in the Old Town, past the disintegrating warehouses and sunken boats rotting in inland docks, he felt he was in a place set on the edge of things. Isolated on the hook of land which forms the north shore of the Humber, on the way to nowhere except the North Sea.
Larkin celebrated these qualities in his poem 'Here'. If Larkin wrote anything which gave the lie to his earlier statement that “I have never found/The place where I could say/This is my proper ground/Here I shall stay," 'Here' is it . . . Sometimes he put it simply (“I like it because it is so far away from everywhere else.”) . . . sometimes romantically: “you get some very fine effects of light, particularly in the evenings when you have the sunsets building up westwards down the river, with magnificent pilings up of cloud, all golden and rose and so forth. That, again, is not the sort of thing you’d see in the average mid-England provincial town, and that’s the sort of reason I like being in Hull.”  '

(from 'Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life' by Andrew Motion)                           

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,

Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires -
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers –

A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives

Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

The metrical form of Here, as with so many Larkin poems, involves interplay between regular metre and regular rhyming pattern and a demotic, colloquial tone. There is thus a creative tension, as so often in Larkin, between traditional forms and contemporary discourse. The poem begins with a swerving, suggesting uncertainty, confusion and even fear (swerving to avoid something). The industrial landscape, as in Going, Going, casts (perhaps ominous) shadows. Meanwhile the rural landscape is “too thin and thistled to be called meadows”—in other words, the pastoral is merely a distant memory, or perhaps a complete myth. There seems to be nothing but the reality of the industrial landscape. And yet there are intimations of the Sublime, in almost Romantic language: “The piled gold clouds”, suggesting a sense of transcendence, of promised, of something beyond. For a poet ostensibly preoccupied with the specific details of the world about him as it is, Larkin is surprisingly open to what lies “beyond”. The opening stanza suggests a landscape of solitude, perhaps an objectification of the narrator’s own mental state. The river, meanwhile, suggests a sense of possibility as it is “widening” slowly towards the open sea.
The second stanza is structured to present a density of objects, from domes and statues to the cheap suits, kitchen ware, etc, asyndetic lists reinforcing the overwhelming and relentless nature of the products produced in a modern, industrial, mass society. Words such as “dead”, “raw”, “cheap” and “stealing” evoke a shallow, empty, spiritually bereft society, in which material abundance seems oddly unfulfilling as well as overwhelming. The hyphen at the end of the stanza could suggest the unending nature of the goods being produced but also their fundamental emptiness and lack of value. At the same time, Larkin’s observed detail presents a vivid sense of place. His reference to “grain-scattered streets” and “barge-crowded water” suggests that traditional forms of industry are slowly being erased by the modern culture of toasters and electric mixers. As in so much of Larkin’s poetry, there is a sense of the insecurity and instability of things, of modernity as a relentless process of change.
The people of the city (Hull) are presented as similarly cheap and shallow (“cut price”). The city is described with some irony as “fishy smelling pastoral” (conveying a sense that the people of Hull romanticize their maritime past in an attempt to convince themselves of their significance amidst the modern, deracinated culture of tattoo shops etc. The suburbs are characterized as “mortgaged, half-built edges”, suggesting lives that are insecure, unrooted and perhaps delusional in their aspirations. The villages, here, do not represent a pastoral idyll, but loneliness and alienation (“isolate villages”), although “removed lives/Loneliness clarifies.” Is Larkin suggesting that only when we are most alone do we understand? The sentence “Loneliness clarifies” is itself isolated within the first line of the final stanza, cut off from the rest of the line by the full stop and from the previous sentence by the stanza break. Incidentally, the wheat fields here might remind us of the wheat fields in MCMXIV, suggesting harvesting (or death) in some sense.
The final stanza develops this sense of complete isolation, in contrast with the previous three stanzas and their imagery of empty and confused abundance.  The silence seems substantive (“stands/Like heat”) in contrast to the empty noise and produce of the previous stanzas. The stanza is replete with compound negative adjectives (“unnoticed”, “unfenced”, “untalkative”), reinforcing a sense of emptying out, interspersed with imagery of substance (“thicken”, “quicken”) that, again, suggests isolation and silence as commensurate with depth and truth. It is those aspects of existence that are “neglected” and “hidden” that reveal (“flower”) the most. The sense of “luminous” air echoes the “gold clouds” of the opening stanza, but all is imprecise, perhaps beyond language (“bluish, neutral distance”), “beyond” any sense of shape or structure (“beach/Of shapes and shingle”). Some sort of transcendent truth or reality is alluded to in the final lines but it is beyond words (“untalkative”) or description (“bluish”) or touch (“out of reach”). Where is “here”? Is there a here here? Is the enjambment throughout this poem (breaking the syntactic unit by straddling the end of each stanza) suggestive of this sense of something always beyond, always out of reach, with echoes of Tennyson’s Ulysses perhaps.

The ending of the poem seems very much in a Romantic tradition of fascination with the transcendent, suggesting an almost mystical view of nature itself. However, Larkin is too restrained to be pinned down as a “Romantic despite himself” that easily. The use of the compound adjectives, of the vagueries of “bluish”, call into question whether there is indeed anything “here” at all. However much he may seem to want it to be, Larkin could never be that affirmative or certain. This is indeed one of his most “yearningly pessimistic” poems (with the emphasis on both words).

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