Nomination: The Building [9 February 1972. From High Windows]
Looking down the list of previously chosen ‘Poems of the Month’ it was no surprise to find ‘The Building’ wasn’t there. Of all Larkin’s major poems it seems to get mentioned the least (someone will immediately notify me of the six articles, three books and one international conference that have been devoted exclusively to ‘The Building’ in the last month).
Nevertheless, there is a natural reluctance to enthuse about it; I can’t see it being anthologised in ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’, can you? I’m reminded of Larkin’s ironic exclamation: ‘The Oxford Book of Death! How marvellous!’ in a review of the same. A poem about dying in hospital is always going to have its work cut out competing for our affections with, say, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, that monument to ‘untruth’. Even amongst Larkin fans I detect a certain squeamishness.
But then, what Larkin poem isn’t about death? Perhaps death is only all right so long as we, or rather Larkin, is talking about it metaphorically. ‘Aubade’ won a recent poll of ‘best Larkin poem’ on the Larkin Forum web site – what a hardy lot we are (no pun intended)! But are we? Medical death, now that’s a different kettle of fish. ‘The Building’ got no votes in the poll.
The poem certainly is strong medicine. I think it is the prime example of what Larkin called his ‘true’ poems (as opposed to the ‘beautiful’ ones). Is that why it’s hard to take? I think it’s both true and beautiful but there’s no doubting that ‘An Arundel Tomb’ slips down easier (if making you feel a little queasy afterwards).
Kingsley Amis called Larkin’s poetry ‘invigorating’. Bracing, one might almost say – you feel better for it afterwards. I read ‘The Building’ when I want cheering up. A bit of de-sensitisation therapy always works a treat for me.
Some people, even some other poets, have described Larkin’s poetry as timid, even cowardly. How wrong they are. It takes courage to write truthfully about what scares you, so that others may feel less afraid. Oh, and genius of course, to do it so memorably. When the day arrives for my appointment in ‘The Building’ I know whose words will be keeping me company.