Nomination: The Large Cool Store [18 June 1961]
This one embodies one of the main reasons I love Larkin’s poetry – the ability to find something transcendent in humdrum everyday lives. It’s a simple poem with a simple theme, but it says something fresh about poetry’s favourite subject, love.
The poem was inspired, I have heard, in a visit to Hull’s branch of Marks & Spencer. The first stanza is a brisk tour of the store, where the narrator finds ranks of affordable clothes for ordinary people. These are practical, hard-wearing clothes. The colours are muted – “browns and greys, maroon and navy” to reflect their functional nature.
In the second stanza, the narrator reflects on the unglamorous lives of the people who wear these workmanlike clothes (“factory, yard and site”), before walking past Modes for Night – women’s nightwear. The contrast is striking. The colours are seductive and beautiful, although the material is thin and cheap – sexy nighties that seem to pout and flounce.
Larkin realises that this reflects the place that love, and sex, have in these lives, something spiritual and unrepresentative, and how ultimately unrealistic it is. He implies this is primarily a delusion of young men, before the realities of life, and women, and sex become clear to them. There is a great feeling of sympathy in the poem for this.
As is often the case with Larkin’s poems, the payload is all in the last stanza, which takes a while to unpack, but it is I think a lovely thing, all ringing phrases and quiet, intense passion. Love (or sex) is “separate and unearthly”, and women become something other than themselves through love (or during sex) – they are “natureless in ecstasies”. A wonderful poem, from a man who spent a lifetime yearning for love and sex, while running from the practical realities they entailed.