Nomination: The Card Players [6 May 1970. From High Windows]
The aspect of ‘The Card-Players’ that I find most beguiling is its celebration of raw, earthy and unfettered maleness. It’s is a poem about men behaving badly that positively revels in its freedom from “feminine” (speaking stereotypically) notions of decorum, propriety and etiquette. These normal constraints don’t have to be observed because there are no women around to insist upon them. The “boys” can simply get pissed, gamble, smoke, fart, piss out the door and do all the other things that chaps like to do when the “ladies” aren’t around to place checks on their behaviour. Jan, Dirk and the others aren’t the only male transgressors here. Outside of the poem stands Larkin, presumably delighting in the freedom that his secure poetic reputation gives him to introduce into English literature such unsavoury subject matter and bar-room vocabulary: the famous “four-letter Larkin” that is much in evidence in High Windows. ‘The Card-Players’ provides us with a taste of the kind of rude material that had being going into his private letters to friends such as Kingsley Amis and Bob Conquest for decades. We’re also being allowed another glimpse, albeit in a disguised form, of his jazz-loving, falling-down-drunk undergraduate self; the Larkin who’s tantalisingly alluded to at the beginning of ‘Dockery and Son’ by his older, more inhibited self.
Maybe in the morning Jan and his boozy pals will regret the previous night’s excesses, just like a hungover Jim Dixon does when he wakes to discover himself lying in burnt bedclothes in Lucky Jim, but regret is forestalled for the time being. Instead they rejoice in their pissing, farting and smoking and in “the secret, bestial peace” that engaging, unashamedly and unreservedly in these primeval activities bring them. While the obscenely parodic names and other little details reveals the poems inspiration to be Dutch art and society, I think its other most obvious antecedents are English literary classics such as Chaucer’s bawdy Miller’s Tale, or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The “lads” at their piss-up are lost in pleasures that they can only fully enjoy sans women and it’s not really an accident that Jan’s mouthful of spittle hits the queen of hearts. She represents female power over men which derives from men’s desire to form attachments to women and, of course, because of the insistent pull of their sexual desire for them. The queen of hearts is a symbol of all those women in Larkin’s life who offered him love and sex, but at the cost of trying to scupper him on the rocks of marriage and domesticity. She’s a kind of suburban siren who could &ndask; if permitted – transform Larkin into Arnold from ‘Self’s The Man’ (“He has no time at all”). She’s a Belle Dame Sans Merci indeed, but no “faery’s child”. Instead she’s that much more mundane and commonplace creature: a nagging wife who probably disapproves of your deplorable choice in “mates”. In the “lamplit cave” the queen of hearts and her many daughters have been rendered powerless, although only temporarily. The morning will inevitably bring Jan and his friends hangovers and wives demanding explanations of “these incidents last night” and her magesterial power will not only be restored, but will be in its ascendancy.
To paraphrase one of my favourite Ealing comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets, the main reason I respond to this poem is that comes packed with all of the exuberance of Chaucer and, thankfully, with a good measure of the concomitant crudities of his period. Jan and the others manage to delight us and engage us and we find ourselves approving of their riotous carousing (and their happy release from inhibitions and social conventions) even though we know we probably shouldn’t. We should all take away from ‘The Card-Players’ the realisation that sometimes – for men and women – it’s good to go out “on the drink”, get off your face and perhaps even a little out of your head. This is something Larkin had already famously prescribed in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ and I repeat his sage, if slightly ironic, advice here unreservedly:
Books are a load of crap.