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The School in August

January 2006

Nomination: The School in August [1943 From Collected Poems (1988)]

The School in August is, I think, the best of Larkin’s early poems, and the least typical. This is the kind of poetry he was desperately trying not to write in his Auden-esque youth: flowery, sing-song, literary. And it has all the surprising charm of a teenager who forgets to be sullen for a moment and lets his natural temperament get through.

‘Make it new’, said Ezra Pound, and his advice has been so taken to heart by poets that even orthodoxy seems too weak a word for it. Poetry should above all be original; the hackeneyed and the threadbare are the supreme foes of art. Turn away from daffodils and churchyards, and disover the poetry lurking in the computer screen and the inner city. And don’t use words like soul or heart or joy; they’re weak from over-work.

But what if the dogma is a lie? What if some subjects are inherently more poetic, and others just aren’t? What if some words affect us more deeply precisely because they have been used so often, so urgently? What if poetry is conventional by its very nature?

Of course, some poetry is just hackneyed and twee. It all comes down to nuance. The mature Larkin may have embraced a more traditional style, but he knew how to season it with conversational turns of phrase and deflating qualifications. In his early twenties, though, he still had a lot to learn. ‘The School in August’ is by no means a great poem. It is patently parodic, on the surface at least. But nobody could overlook the real feeling in the lines. It’s as if Larkin’s tongue slipped out of his cheek as he warmed to his subject.

And his subject is the oldest subject in poetry. It even has a name, amongst people who name such things: the Ubi Sunt motif. Where are they now? The only line of French poetry most of us could quote is “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?”. And the one line of Homer everybody knows (rosy-fingered dawns aside) is surely “As the generations of leaves, so that of men”.

In English, the earliest Anglo-Saxon verse – so reminiscent of Larkin, and strangely not to his taste – harped on this theme incessantly, in poems like ‘The Wanderer’: “Where has the horse gone? Where is the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure?”. Centuries later, writers like Hardy and Housman and Betjeman – Larkin’s fellows in the Curmudgeonly School of poetry – were still busy lamenting lost time. If any theme can get clapped out, surely this it. But it’s not clapped out, and it never will be.

I like this poem because I spent a lot of time in empty class-rooms as a boy. In the evenings my mother would work as a cleaner in the primary school I attended. I would go along, and instead of helping out, I would read for hours, sitting amongst the deserted rows of desks that had been so lively hours before. And of course I would rifle through my class-mates’ personal possessions, the teacher’s register and whatever else hadn’t been locked away.

Probably no Larkin enthusiast was ever the blithe, spontaneous, unreflective creature one is supposed to be in childhood. I certainly wasn’t. Those noiseless rooms that stayed as they were left filled me, even then, with unspeakable melancholy, along with a strange and tender pity. They were like shrines to transcience, monuments to fragility. Another childhood memory is even closer to the poem’s scenario. Every year, my school would compete in a national drama competition. (I was only ever a bit part, needless to say.) One year, when I was twelve, we were put up in a girls’ boarding school for the finals. The girls were away, and we slept in their beds. There was a graveyard outside the dormitory, too – what a set-up for a future Larkin fan!

I don’t think anything I’ve ever experienced made a deeper impression on me; lying on some unknown girl’s bed, looking at posters mounted by these never-to-be-seen strangers, their absence more overwhelming than their presence could ever be. Is any creature as awesome as a final-year schoolgirl is to a boy whose voice hasn’t started breaking? Girls about to go to college, in on every secret to be known, avatar-like in their grown-up wisdom. Where along the line did they turn into giggling teenyboppers?

Benign, we diagnose a case of good old sex… was my fascination erotic? Of course it was, in part. But saying that is saying nothing. I haven’t lingered on the lesbian elements of “The School in August” – they hardly need highlighting, for a start. Also I can’t help believing that Larkin’s absorption in the world of girls’ boarding schools was based on more than ironic prurience. It was the fascination with an inaccessible realm of fulfilment, the notion of life happening somewhere else, to other people. (One book-length study of Larkin’s poems, by Andrew Swarbrick, is titled Out of Reach.) Exclusion, innocence, regret, transience, sweet melancholy… they’re all here, all the great Larkin themes that would echo through his masterpieces. But here, for the first time, they come to us in a song, a rhyme, a bundle of musical phrases the common reader can enjoy and understand. So what if he was kidding? ‘The School in August’ is Larkin beginning to be Larkin.

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

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