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Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album

February 2005

Nomination: Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album [18 September 1953. From The Less Deceived]

Since Poem of the Month has been going for so long now it is no surprise that most of the ‘best’ and best-known pieces have been chosen but it does come as some surprise that ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ isn’t listed here yet.

It achieves some typically Larkin balances between, for example, the respectable diction, its conscious imitation of the poetry of a previous century in its title and the not-so-faintly suggested pornographic intentions of the poet. It describes a private shame honestly admitted.

It regrets the poet’s ‘exclusion’ from the young lady’s subsequent future while celebrating the freedom it allows to enjoy the captured moment; it praises the honesty and accuracy of the camera while enjoying the artificial nature of each ‘pose’ and the ‘fraud’ of the smiles.

Larkin’s habitual understatement contrasts with the ironic over-use of exclamation marks; the common-sense, empiricism and candour contrast with the muted, jealous camp of ‘Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole’. His usual eye for the telling sign of the slightly incongruous item or unfashionable detail shows him both endeared to but ‘less deceived’ by the object of his admiration.

We are advised in critiques of Larkin’s poems to notice the way in which his perspective often pans out from specific, everyday minutiae to a wider, more philosophical view. By concluding that the distance time has put between him and the date of the photograph, ‘smaller and clearer as the years go by’, he does the same thing – diminishing the immediate erotic impact of the photograph and objectifying it.

The word-perfect, tight-rope walking, ambivalent method of this poem puts it safely for me among those he should be remembered for. Not just for the immaculate control of the rhyme-scheme or the way that conversational phrases fit the formal demands he chose for the poem but because it does so much within them and, typically, because it does it all so accessibly.

David Green

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