Nomination: The Explosion [5 January 1970. From High Windows (1970)]
Larkin is one of the masters of the English Language and I’m an unqualified reader incapable of judging him on technique and style. I only know I like very much the way he writes.
As to what he writes, I enjoy his sceptical, sidelong, look at life; I enjoy how the sort of jagged acidity of self expression at times seems bordering on self distaste; he seems to find a perverse delight in this self distaste.
But I love the lyrical terseness that sometimes comes out of him almost as though against his will, as it does in ‘The Trees’, ‘Cut Grass’ (which I particularly love), or ‘At Grass’. It is as though his delight at what he sees overcomes any of his more usual tendencies to make a side-swipe.
In ‘The Explosion’, as far as I know, Larkin is detached from his subject (an actual mining accident), in which he can have had little personal involvement.
I was born in a mining village more than 75 years ago and spent quite a bit of my working life among miners before the pit closures. At change of shift groups of miners in their pit clothes would walk up or down the hawthorn lane behind my father’s house. Their conversations were raunchy, often witty and contained interesting words, not infrequently applied to the mine deputy.
‘The Explosion’ isn’t the kind of poem in which Larkin can allow his quick, sardonic ‘back bite’ any rein. It is unsentimental yet lyrical, elegiac. It is apposite and a tribute.
The dead men appear for a moment, “Larger in life they managed –/ Gold as on a coin, or walking /Somehow from the sun towards them.” and then, as a codicil to this last triplet, the single line – “One showing the eggs unbroken.”
I like the ordered gravitas of the triplets. I like the laconic symbolisms, “plain as the lettering in chapels”, “gold as on a coin” and the graphic pictures of men who were once a part of life around me. The poem is their fitting epitaph.