Nomination: Take One Home for the Kiddies [13 August 1960. From The Whitsun Weddings]
I have chosen this seemingly simple Larkin poem because it beautifully exemplifies the way I feel about animals and just how cruel humans can be to them. It makes me feel “Yes, I know what you mean, life is like that”. I also like it because it shows a side of Larkin that is all too often ignored – the caring, compassionate, loving and gentle side; the man Maeve Brennan knew, who was sad that he had accidentally killed a hedgehog. And yet the poem is cutting, incisive and sharply focused. Every word counts. The word “huddled” for instance is perfectly chosen to create an image of misery, distress and despair, whilst the “empty bowls” add to the sense of neglect suffered by these animals.
When I was a girl there was a pet shop in West Street in Hull. It was next door to a very popular wet-fish shop; and whilst my mother queued to buy fish, I used to look at the animals in the pet shop window. They were as Larkin describes in the poem. They were all young, and displayed according to their species; sometimes puppies, or baby rabbits or hamsters, and occasionally kittens. Whatever kind of animal was on show at the time, the window seemed to be full of them; they didn’t have enough individual space and children like me crowded round pushing each other to get a better view, knocking on the glass to attract the animals’ attention. To us they were “living toys” and to this day I am very glad that my mother refused to buy me one.
The final line of the poem sums up the fate of many of these baby animals bought on impulse by parents for their children who were passionate to own one, but for whom the novelty would soon wear off; or who would maybe, literally, love a tiny animal to death. The slogan which came out many years after this poem was written – a puppy is not just for Christmas – reminded me of Larkin’s perceptive, critical and highly skilful treatment of the same subject matter. The poem remains one of my favourites.