Nomination: Born Yesterday [20 January 1954. From The Less Deceived]
Tightly-folded bud this poem is, with its riveting three-beat line recalling Robert Graves’ “Counting the Beats.” With a daughter of my own, I was happy to wish this kind of ordinariness on her (although she must now wait for age to temper her beauty). It is fellow to Yeats’ more expansive “Prayer for My Daughter” in which he makes the extraordinary observation that beautiful women often “choose a crazy salad with their meat.” As a teacher, I watched too many lovely and intelligent innocents fall for lunkheads who offered only certain ruin. On one occasion in an outdoor restaurant in Mexico, I gave voice to these lines from what I thought to be a safe distance from a couple who typified Yeats’ insight. You would think after such a near-death experience, I would have learned to be less loud.
Larkin is less loud than Yeats in his wish for this daughter to be average, not only in looks but also in any other unusual, and so “unworkable”, qualities that would “pull you off your balance.” Going altogether in the wrong direction, his wishes resembling a curse, he bottoms out by wishing her to be dull. Well, it is one thing to offer sympathy to one who is dull, but my students would think Larkin gone-in-the-head for wishing it on the daughter of a friend. Of course, after this comes the rush upward, and with it the tightly-folded expression of what it might take to be happy: Skill. Vigilance. Flexibility. Nuance. Thrall. Transience.
Larkin is often mocked for his dullness, a charge I find astonishing. Can one write such things and not know them? I like to think that in the conclusion to “Born Yesterday” he is revealing aspects of his own approach to finding happiness and so giving a gentle rebuke to his dull critics.