Nomination: Street Lamps [September 1939. From Collected Poems (1988)]
With so many superb mature works available, why have I chosen a poem written when Larkin was a sixth-former? Because I teach sixth-formers, and although Larkin isn’t on any of our current syllabuses (sorry, we’re to call them “specifications” these days), I have a responsibility to my students to enable them to discover the joy of the work of their own city’s bard. Reading from early work onwards also gives us a way into Auden, Yeats and, above all, Hardy, as we follow the development of this extraordinary and – in his early days – prolific poet. Reading work which was written when Larkin was the same age as they are gives them a real wake-up call: this early stuff is crafted. It is not an unmediated outpouring of (perfectly valid) teenage angst, but it is demonstrably worked on. Lineation, rhyme, rhythm and stanza form all show this, (although the “‘Twas” is difficult to defend). The images are as powerful as ever: this scene, and the reflections upon it, resonate across nearly eight decades. Sixth formers can still see what Larkin is describing and now they will think of the “old dunce” (foreshadowing the old fools?). They also note the affected diffidence, the apparent tentativeness of “I think I noticed once”, contradicted by the meticulousness of the images. They can also consider another version of that errant streetlight: eccentric, foolish even, but a tiny bit heroic in its determination to do the opposite of what it is supposed to do. Of having a contrary dream. Just like them.