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August 2008

Nomination: Oils [14 March 1950. From XX Poems]

‘Oils’ appeared in XX Poems in 1951. It is the first in a diptych of poems, ‘Two Portraits of Sex’, which while not ekphrastic (descriptive of particular pictures), as are ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ or ‘The Card-Players’, hinges on two contrasting techniques of the visual arts. First comes the wet, rich colour of oil-painting, then the dry, acid-traced black and white lines of an etching. Few readers of Larkin are unacquainted with the second poem, originally named ‘Etching’ but republished in The Less Deceived without its companion as ‘Dry-Point’. However, the first poem, ‘Oils’, is generally disregarded. Larkin never republished it and it is certainly not a masterpiece, as is ‘Dry-Point’. However, it is a fascinating poetic exercise, and Larkin’s deliberate mimicking of two pictorial techniques in the literary medium of words shows the ambition and complexity of the challenges he was setting himself on the brink of his full maturity.

‘Oils’ and ‘Etching’ are the same poem in two different modes. Both are portraits of sex as the awesome well-spring of existence, indistinguishable from life itself, driving its victims to expend themselves in desire and procreation. It is a stark abstracted version of the great Eros/Thanatos topos of Western art. Love, or in Larkin’s reductive masculinist version, sex, is, as we dimly apprehend, simply Death in another guise. This is what the stories of Romeo and Juliet, Don Juan, Tristan and Isolde, Aida and Radames constantly prove. In ‘Oils’ Larkin uses all the gaudy imagery of the ‘Apocalyptic’ poetic manner to evoke this force with a bardic gravity worthy of Ted Hughes. Lawrentian blood-consciousness rules, a Layardian shaman shakes his magic weed as he dances, and the poet’s language itself is born out of sex (‘Root of Tongues’). The second stanza takes us into the womb (‘Working-place to which the small seed is guided’), at which point the poet’s gravity seems to wobble a little. The indelicate line ‘Inlet unvisited by marine biologist’ is surely a joke. He recovers his aplomb, however, and there is real archetypal force in the strange slow-motion spondaic beat of ‘New voice saying new words at a new speed’. The third stanza obscurely laments the iron grip of sex on life, its control even extending to ‘the dead’ whom death grips and ‘begin[s] to use’ (presumably a strained expression of the abstract truth that the organic matter of life constantly recycles itself between the living and the dead.)

Powerful though it is in parts Larkin was right to disentangle ‘Dry-Point’ from this slightly bad-faith exercise in a bardic mode with which he felt uneasy. Paradoxically, however, the sense of awe and apocalyptic seriousness at which ‘Oils’ aims is actually achieved more securely in the reductive, ironic context of the second poem. By relieving himself, in his crude punning title (‘Etching’ / ‘itching’) of the need to pretend to high seriousness, Larkin gives himself the licence to use the most extravagant rhetoric in his evocation of the vague poignancy of orgasm (‘The wet spark comes, the bright blown walls collapse, // But what sad scapes we cannot turn from then…’ Mannered gestures which have an air of pretension in ‘Oils’, are here humanised, and given a pathos beyond the range of the first poem. The final lines give a startling archetypal vision of an impossible imagined ‘padlocked cube of light’ where sex obtains no right of entry. It is an anxious modern variation on Marvell’s masculinist vision of a ‘happy garden-state’, an Eden where man ‘walked without a mate’, where creation was unchanging, static, perfect and male, and the cycle of procreation had yet to start. This is where ‘Oils’ begins, at the point where everything first went wrong with the invention of sex: ‘Sun. Tree. Beginning. God in a thicket. Crown. / Never-abdicated constellation. Blood. / Barn-clutch of life…’

James Booth

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