Nomination: I dreamed of an out-thrust arm of land [1943. From The North Ship]
I used to be inclined to take Philip Larkin’s remark that his rhymes more or less find themselves as a variety of intimidation, until I read his earliest poems. Then I realized that what he’s talking about is mastery, and that he achieved it through intense practice early on. You can form some idea of how intense this practice was by checking the dates of the juvenilia (handily supplied in the Collected Poems, 1988).
From the awkward versifier of sixteen (clever phrasemonger, though: the sky in ‘Winter Nocturne’ is hard as granite and fixed as fate’), to the twenty-year-old who writes ‘I dreamed of an out-thrust arm of land’: it’s enough to make you wish you hadn’t wasted your own teenage years memorizing sports trivia.
What’s remarkable about this poem as juvenilia is that the only thing that qualifies it as such is the Young Werther tone. Once you get past that you notice how assured the prosody is, and how well Larkin already knew his perceptual strengths. The sharp ear and eye, the deft progression from dream to waking – someone could write a longish paper on his ability to move a poem through leagues of perspective in a line or two – everything is in place except a final gradation of self-knowledge and with it a larger perspective. Here you find Larkin on his way to becoming a craftsman, having nearly mastered the idea (expressed to Norman Iles in a letter of April 16 1944) that he wanted to be, literarily speaking, a ‘pure instrument’.