But if it shouldn’t, then
Larkin’s poem in the new AQA GCSE Anthology, was dedicated to Martin Amis’s sister, Sally. It has an arch, tender playfulness that downplays its seriousness until we have met with its meanings , slowly, as they unfold like the ‘tightly-folded bud’ of its first line.
For we live in a hectically aspirational world where ‘we’ are encouraged to better ourselves without considering what ‘better’ actually means. Larkin’s GCSE poem anticipates our current preoccupation with fame, fortune and achievement, inviting us to consider what it is that makes for happiness, for the fulfilled , contented life. And Larkin’s secular prayer, rather wonderfully suggests in his poetic butterfly net that our equilibrium is this : ‘catching of happiness.’ I find this one of the most perfect descriptions of joy. It is passing as all life is, but it has a freedom evocative of the innocence of play and then release. Happiness is not a right, it is respectful of the moment and not restricted or owned.
So the Larkin poem opens with a birth and offers up a recognisable image for the potential for growth that life brings.’ Tightly folded bud.’ The image is a metaphor for potential, for the unfolding possibilities of being alive and growing into our identity. It is suggestive of ‘blossoming’ reminding us of the wonderful naturalness of life, the miracle of becoming alive, of being born.
The poet speaks as ifhe is cradling or holding the baby, all ‘tightly’ wrapped up, as we listen to his poet’s secular prayer for the new child’s future. For there is no hint of orthodox religious belief in the poem and yet as with so many Larkin poems, the spiritual seems present after all.
The poem was originally published in the collection, The Less Deceived and this poem is an apt member of the collection, replacing deception with a philosophy both revelatory and practical. For what Larkin is drawing attention to in this poem is important. He is reminding us that our spiritual equilibrium is essential for our happiness, for without it, we are dismantled.’We’ simply do not ‘work’ as human beings without equilibrium, for we are out of balance with ourselves and our world.
Larkin adopts a conversational tone in the poem. Carol Ann Duffy has inherited something of this slightly avuncular tone, where a poet can casually speak of ‘stuff’ and it works. Larkin is gesturing away at the gushing, inspiring hyperbole about new born babies! He is NOT going to join in with those platitudes. But just in case you have not noticed what they are, he jokes about them in a casually assembled list: ‘innocence’, ‘spring’, ‘love’ etc. He admits that you may get them, and then you would be ‘lucky, but his worldly wise tone suggests he doubts this happening as the norm! The word ‘lucky’ challenges the haphazard nature of our existence. too many wild cards to trust to luck perhaps? Larkin offers up something more tangible and workable as a philosophy of life in the second stanza.
The second stanza opens with a shrug at the end of the first. The poet is not pretending power or pathos. He speaks in a tone perfectly causal and reasonable. ‘Then may you be ordinary.’ The word ordinary is belittled today. The extraordinary is celebrated daily in a lexis of endless hyperbole. The media tells us about striving for the extraordinary without suggesting how we deal with those days and years when we are ourselves, Larkin uses bathos therefore to great effect. A quietly gentle plea for acceptance:’May you be ordinary.‘ How ironic is he being we wonder? Should we read him at his word and then he continues on: ‘have an average of talents…’ I smile here at the unlikely event of any Head of School advocating his/her students to be ‘average.‘ Yet if we tell the truth, we are all ‘average’ in many ways and this is how we enjoy the pleasure of fitting in of happy invisibility. Any focus that singles out one particular aspect of the self may lead to imbalance, a loss of equilibrium. ‘Nothing uncustomary /To pull you off your balance.‘ Here Larkin suggests that the uncutsomary may betray us. we may lose our way through life by having only one way. Holistic health is the key!
Larkin then continues his meditation on the future of his small charge, with the admission that the ‘unworkable’ aspects of our personality, those perhaps that do not integrate or settle into understanding/accommodation destroy the overall machinery of the self. We break into non- functioning pieces.
And then finally because Larkin is the consummate linguist, he reveals his secret poetic conceit: he alters the signification of ‘dull’ unpacking it for those inattentive non believers, non listeners to true happiness and human success. ‘…may you be dull- if that is what a skilled, Vigilant, flexible…‘ Larkin’s list goes on, closely anlaysing those qualities necessary to survive and thrive. Interestingly both the ‘un’ words and the ‘en’ words can combine happily to find the ‘catching of happiness’ we may all seek but finds escapes us because we are unprepared for Larkin’s ‘ordinary’ or ‘dull’ lives that demand resourcefulness and challenge stagnant expectation.
And I still see Larkin’s happiness in terms of a butterfly net…we can only be ‘enthralled’ when we accept our ‘dullness’!
I am a highly approachable Independent Expert Private English/English Literature Tutor located in Greater Manchester with over twenty years teaching and tutoring experience from Secondary to Postgraduate Degree level.
The Woman in Black
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