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Could wish to lose hands

November 2007

Nomination: Could wish to lose hands [before September 1940. From Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia]

Many reviewers of Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenil (Ed. A T Tolley, Faber, 2005) enormously enjoyed noting the obvious – that the young writer had not yet attained the great distinctive voice of later years. Rather than loftily looking back and down at these poems over the heads of their potent, weighty successors, it is more rewarding to read them as if they were fresh-made by a new poet-on-the-block, a poet decidedly but unpredictably promising. Imitations there are, of course, but all sorts of graces, surprises and suggestions of originality. My choice for Poem of the Month, ‘Could wish to lose hands’, has a startling, jazzy jolt to its rhythms, register and imagery. The energetic wish to conduct creative lightning, contrasted with the desire for river-like absorption into nature, is expressed in a Blakean image rendered striking and faintly bizarre because it involves toes as well as fingers. Poetic development entails risks and there is a sense here that the speaker is on a tightrope. He wobbles now and then (that end-of-line ‘And’ – which seems a residual rhyme for ‘hands,’ is perhaps a hold-your-breath moment) and the grammar is certainly odd, but he somehow makes it. Larkin’s poetry will continue to argue with itself, and negotiate in much greater depth between ‘beauty’ and ‘truth.’ But already at the age of eighteen his technique – and his courage – are working characteristically to make the potentially ‘beautiful’ poem awkwardly ‘true.’

Carol Rumens

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