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October 2013

Nomination: Deceptions [20 February 1950. From The Less Deceived]

It is with a degree of uneasiness that one nominates ‘Deceptions’ as a ‘favourite poem’. This is, after all, a work which is about an act of sexual violence. And yet, again and again, I return to it, its value and its impact never diminishing. It is a truly remarkable work.

‘The more sensitive you are to suffering the nicer person you are and the more accurate notion of life you have’, Larkin said in an interview with John Haffenden. Morally simplistic as his language may sound there – the word ‘nicer’ sits a little languidly – the idea of becoming attuned to suffering in order to become a better, more empathetic and understanding person, is a powerful one. This is one of the things literature can ‘do’. For me, Larkin’s work can be read as a lifelong attempt to get inside the skin of others, to understand their lives and their situation in the world. ‘Do you think I should trouble my head about a prostitute down in Amelia Street, and not safely tucked away in Mayhew?’, he asked Monica Jones in a 1953 letter. Of all the cases of poverty and misery documented by Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor, it is the sad words of that Amelia Street prostitute which provide the poem’s epigraph. It is, I think, unlikely that she articulated herself in the polished manner given by Mayhew, but one of Larkin’s achievements here is to find her another mode of expression, not in the verbal sense, but in far more affecting ways:

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.

From the very outset, the poem’s narrator inhabits her suffering. No matter how ‘distant’, historically or otherwise, this is done in the most intimate of ways, through what narrator and subject have in common: the human body, and the physical, sensory, aggressive experience of the drugged coffee, which tastes bitter, and of her grief.

‘Deceptions’ has attracted some of the most controversial criticism found anywhere in studies of Larkin’s work: in particular the question of whether the poem somehow privileges the suffering of the rapist whilst letting the victim’s suffering slide into insignificance. This debate, which is problematic to say the least, is something I intend to deal with in my own work on Larkin. But for now, it must simply suffice to make this point: that much of what makes Larkin great is here in this poem: his technical mastery, his poetic precision (‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives’), and, most vitally, his unrelenting emotional honesty:

        I would not dare
Console you if I could.

I remember those lines stopping me dead in my tracks, like a blow to the stomach, and no matter how many times I re-read them, they never shed their utterly devastating power. This one, largely monosyllabic sentence carries immense weight: both in its acknowledgement of failure, lack, verbal breakdown, but also in the care and the respect it affords to the victim. Larkin could have written a different version of this poem, an emotionally easier version, but instead he opted to say what was most difficult, thereby making the poem truer. He’s right to ask the question ‘What can be said’, in the context of this horrifying act of violence. And no, the woman most probably would not care that she ‘were less deceived’ than her rapist. But in saying what would otherwise be left unsaid, Larkin – as with so many of his works – refuses staunchly to bow ‘the other way’. The attic may be ‘desolate’ for both the victim and the perpetrator, but, a century later, Larkin has shown it to us, and we are the better for it.

James Underwood

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