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Essential Beauty

Nomination: Essential Beauty [26 June 1962. From The Whitsun Weddings]

Although “Granny Graveclothes’ Tea” must surely be an invention, no doubt there are scholars of Fifties and Sixties advertising who could identify the source of Larkin’s images in this underdiscussed poem. It is a fine example of how Larkin could pictorialise thought while “thinking in verse”. In this case he plays off the perfections of idealised products with the realities of disappointment and death. Part of the final image, the smoker, must be “the lonely man” from one of ITV’s early ads, and which was very famous in its time, iconic in fact, and now preserved for ever in a higher form of art.

In a radio programme edited by George MacBeth, Ted Hughes said “Philip Larkin’s poetry is very sad, and the sadder it is the better I like it.” I quote from memory. I was in the studio and was astonished and delighted by the boldness of Hughes’s candour. Perhaps we should be more honest with poetry and not be afraid to celebrate the quality of a poet’s melancholy.

Douglas Dunn

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