Nomination: Days [3 August 1953. From The Whitsun Weddings]
I first read Larkin poems at secondary school in the early 1980s in an anthology called This Day and Age. We studied ‘Born Yesterday’, ‘Toads’, ‘At Grass’ and ‘Wires’ and in all honesty they weren’t my favourites of the poems that we read at that stage (I preferred the Sassoon, Frost and Auden in the same book). It was only later (and possibly also when I was starting to write poems myself) that I realised that my heart belonged to Larkin’s work far more than to any other poet’s. I liked his secret recipe (some misery, some cynicism, some humour, some harshness, some softness – who knows the exact mix of ingredients…) and I liked his unique tone and choice of words. Before too long (and as I wrote more and more myself) he became my out and out favourite poet (living or dead). For one thing I love the fact that the writer of ‘This Be The Verse’ can also be the writer of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and so much else besides. To me the greatest writers know the importance of variety and range and don’t have to struggle for it because it is just there. Larkin (in poetry) could do it all, I think.
At some point in my 30s I was talking to my mother about books and saying how Larkin was now my favourite poet. She told me he had been my father’s favourite poet too which was more than slightly surprising to me as I had never really known my dad (he committed suicide in 1973 when I was 6) and I had certainly not known anything about his taste in poets. Even before he died I had never really had much contact with him as he was a busy GP in his own one-doctor practice and, in my lifetime, he was always either working, asleep or in some kind of medical facility. Finding out that we shared a taste in poetry so precisely really meant something to me – it was like finally communicating with him in some way, odd as it sounds. Although he was a much loved doctor he did have dreams of running away from all that responsibility and being a writer (and a poet in particular). I have a folder full of his scribbled poems and rejection letters from publishing houses (in amongst my own folders of poems and rejection letters…we have that in common too!).
I like something about pretty much all of Larkin’s poems but I have a particular soft spot for ‘Days’ because it displays the Larkin secret recipe par excellence – it has ups and downs, light and dark, gentle and harsh and all in such a tiny, apparently simple package. Most of all I love it because it mentions ‘the doctor’. My Dad had long legs and I see him laughing at the image of the doctor running through the fields. There’s something beautifully ‘Father Ted’ about the whole thing.