Broadcast (from “The Whitsun Weddings”)
Giant whispering and coughing from
Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces
Precede a sudden scuttle on the drum,
‘The Queen’, and huge resettling. Then begins
A snivelling of the violins:
I think of your face among all those faces,
Beautiful and devout before
Cascades of monumental slithering,
One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor
Beside those new, slightly-outmoded shoes.
Here it goes quickly dark. I lose
All but the outline of the still and withering
Leaves on half-emptied trees. Behind
The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording
By being distant overpower my mind
All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.
This poem makes much more sense if you understand the scenario described: the English speaker is listening to a radio broadcast of a live classical music concert. Hence the title, “Broadcast.” The situation is not not obvious, but just like seeing the arrow in the Fed-Ex sign for the first time, once you know recognize the setting you will wonder why you didn’t see it all along.
This poem is a good entry point to Larkin. Within the poem, we see traces of many of Larkin’s poetic and personal concerns. It is a poem about music. Larkin was a music aficionado, particularly for jazz, and he wrote jazz reviews for many years. Furthermore, it is a poem about crowds and ceremony. Larkin has a good eye for observation about these topics, as evidenced, for example, by his description of a country fair in “Show Saturday” and wedding parties on a bank holiday weekend in “The Whitsun Weddings.” Yet, I particularly think this poem serves as a good entrée to Larkin because of its tender description of love. Larkin is underrated as a poet of love, perhaps because in his poetry, romantic attachments are rarely sources of great joy. You could easily write a collector’s item book of Larkin quotes on love, thereby making a horrible Valentine’s day gift. More commonly, he describes the unfulfilment of romantic and sexual relations. And this poem is no exception.
The speaker’s plight is quite plain: his love is attending a concert, and he is separated from her. Exacerbating his anxiety is the fact that, while the concert attendees are focused on the music, he pays careful attention to the woman, but unfortunately he is too far away to do anything about it. He cares about the details the others ignore. To him, the music is simply “chording” and “cascades.” Instead, his attention is drawn to the glove, a traditional symbol of love and fidelity, that lies “unnoticed on the floor.” He knows enough of her shoes to recognize the ones she wears are new. Yet, ultimately, he is not with her, a fact that leaves him “desperate.” He would pick out her hands from the thundering applause, but that’s impossible.
The speaker focuses on minutiae, yet, sadly for him, the poem’s space is expansive. From the outset — the poem’s name — we are reminded of the wide distances radio broadcasts carry. In the first stanza, even before bringing the focus to any individual concern, we are presented with adjectives describing a humongous space that is “giant,” “vast,” “Sunday-full,” and “huge.” This expansiveness only heightens the break in perspective at the end of the first stanza when the speaker bluntly makes clear the poem is not actually about a concert broadcast, but instead, it’s about a broadcast that spurs a man to think about a face in thatcrowd. In fact, the only time the speaker actually leaves his own room spatially is when he looks out the window at the darkening sky. It is an image of diminution. He can only see the “outline” of “withering” and “half-emptied trees.”
Not long after Larkin’s death, his literary executor, Andrew Motion, published a insightful biography, one that revealed many of Larkin’s darker xenophobic and racist tendencies, and since then we have seen the publication of several volumes of Larkin’s letters. In addition to learning more about his life, we have learned much about the history and autobigographicality of his poems, and while the poem is moving even without knowing the backstory, we actually can pinpoint this concert to a specific date.
Larkin wrote this poem about bout Maeve Brennan, a woman with whom he had a non-exclusive romantic relationship lasting decades. Brennan has described attending a concert on November 5, 1961 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Hull, one that Larkin listened to it live at home. From the Larkin Complete Poems: “Philip, who knows I was in the audience, listened at home. The inscription in my copy of the Listener…where the poem first appeared, reads: ‘To Maeve, who would sooner listen to music than listen to me,’ accompanied by a caricature of himself, enveloped in gloom beside his radio, while I sit nearby, lost in my own musical world, one of my gloves unnoticed on the floor.” She also added that the description of the “outmoded shoes” was an inside joke they shared. “They were an unusual color of pearlised bronze, very smart, with stiletto heels and long, pointed toes….Philip raved about the shows. He used to take them off my feet, hold them up, stroke them, put them down on the sofa and continue to admire them; not just once, but every time I wore them. He thought they were the last word in fashion, until one day, slightly exasperated, I teased, “I don’t know why you go on so about these shows. They’re almost out of fashion now’…He laughed and said, ‘Well, I still adore them even if they are slightly outmoded.”
However, while it is always fun to be able to know a writer autobiographical impulses, Larkin’s poetry — and this particular poem — moves us because this emotion described is so universal. So many of us readers have felt this desperation, this utter hopelessness, longing for the impossible: a person who is not present and is instead with others. This is the magic of Larkin’s poetry. He is rooted in a very specific place and time. His poetry is the very distinct voice of an mid-20th century, conservative Oxbridge librarian, wary of much social change, and yet his poems remain popular because they evoke universal emotions.
The Whitsun Weddings collection includes some of Larkin’s greatest poems: Dockery and Son, Faith Healing, Reference Back, Love Songs in Age, An Arundel Tomb and MCMXIV among them. But the title poem is its crowning glory. It achieves majesty through words that are not majestic. Like Hardy, Larkin had no time for the windy or the grand. Like Hardy, he believed that “the ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own”. And like Hardy, he is loved by thousands of people for whom poetry would otherwise be only a rumour.
There is far more to Larkin than exquisite melancholy, though that is something the English do well. For many years he was The Daily Telegraph’s jazz critic, and his reviews continue to stand out as beacons of good sense. He detested Miles Davis (“a master of rebarbative boredom”), loathed John Coltrane, who he sarcastically dubbed “The Master”, and thought that listening to Sonny Rollins was like “being pelted with slivers of granite”. And that was by way of warming up!
Of modernism, in music as in poetry, he wrote: “It helps us neither to enjoy nor endure.” To his ears, Coltrane was not merely ugly, but deliberately ugly, and if you were brought up, as Larkin was, on Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, you may concede his point. Armstrong sang out with joy. Davis, literally, turned his back on the audience. They weren’t good enough for him.
Fifty years on, why does The Whitsun Weddings resonate? The answer may be found in Gilead, the superb novel by the American writer Marilynne Robinson. “This is an interesting planet,” says one of her characters. “It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
Larkin was a poet of the everyday, not to say the workaday. He gave his attention to the houses in which people lived, the places in which they worked, and the ways they took their entertainment. He described what they saw out of their windows, and reflected on the passing of time and the inevitability of death with a lyricism that makes him unique.
Born in Coventry, he lived most of his adult life in Hull. These are not glamorous places, but he wasn’t interested in a metropolitan interpretation of glamour. Although he was an educated man, and his critical essays on other writers are fountains of sanity, he had no time for “lit-er-a-ture”, or “creative writing”, and the pseuds who pronounce upon it. Were he alive today, and saw Alan Yentob walking down his drive, he would close the curtains sharpish.
There is another reason we should read him. The rail journey he took all those Whitsuns ago winds its way through a part of England that is now home to thousands of people who were not born here but who, in the fullness of time, will become English. And if they don’t, then their children will. How can we show them what being English means?
History plays a part, certainly. Institutions, laws, traditions and customs are important. But the greatest gift our country has given the world is language, and the writers who have used it. No other land has produced so many great novelists and dramatists, and no other land has produced anywhere near as many great poets. We have defined ourselves through language, so if other people want to understand us, that is the best place to start.
Larkin, with his (in the best sense) provincial eye, and his unparalleled ear, is the supreme writer of post-war England. Nobody catches more faithfully the English tone of voice. My copy of The Whitsun Weddings once belonged to an actress, who had received it as a gift from Alan Bennett. Inside, Bennett has written of “the affection and dissatisfaction” for and with England that he shares with the poet.
So, hang the expense, let’s give a copy of Larkin’s Collected Poems to each newcomer to our land and say: “This is the best of us.” And if they want any advice, here it is: turn to the great poem we shall celebrate today at King’s Cross, the one that begins:
That Whitsun, I was late getting away.
Hallowed be the name of Lord’s
Of all the reasons for living in London, one of the most compelling is being close to Lord’s. It is so much more than the world’s greatest cricket ground – and it is, have no fear of that. It is one of the great spaces in the capital, and the pavilion, with its Long Room, through which the players must walk to reach the field, is one of London’s most handsome buildings.
Perhaps the most apposite tribute to this special place came from the mouth of a Frenchman. Philippe Auclair is a journalist, broadcaster, songwriter and, glory be, a cricket-lover. He never misses a Lord’s Test, so he will be on parade when England play Sri Lanka next week in the first of two Tests there this summer, the 200th year in which cricketers have played on the famous square. “Lord’s,” he says, “is a pendant to the Royal Parks.” A chapeau for that chap.
Earful from a true master of the arts
Incensed: Kevin Spacey blew up when a phone went off mid-performance
Kevin Spacey is a great actor on stage and screen, who also happens to be a star. For the past decade, he has run the Old Vic where, the other night, he tore a strip off a theatre-goer unwise enough to leave his mobile phone on. Good for him. These wretched folk should be publicly embarrassed wherever they tip up, though the theatre and art gallery appear to be their favoured breeding grounds.
A visit to the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern was disturbed by the loud talking, clicking of cameras and the making and taking of phone calls. Enough! It is time for strong measures, starting with the installation of stocks outside Tate Modern where offenders may be detained to reflect, as did Uriah Heep at the end of David Copperfield, on their follies. It’s the only language they understand.