Nomination: To the Sea [October 1969. From High Windows]
When Alan Bennett and I used to perform our reading of Philip Larkin’s poetry together, it came to me only gradually how precise and atmospheric Philip Larkin’s poem about going to the seaside truly was. I say this because there was a marvellous silence from the spectators when Alan read the poem. It was, I told him, the silence of 250 people in the same space recognising exactly the same experience. I know I never visit Worthing or Ferring or Littlehampton without being reminded of the poem. The white steamer, stuck in the afternoon, the tottering children, the glittering car-parks, O.A.P.s, the inconsistent English weather, above all the flop of the modest waves, the timeless repetition of it, still going on, as he says, all of it, still going on. The poet, as so often before, as in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, and in ‘Show Saturday’, captures something precisely, and permanent in its mundaneness. But Larkin makes it far from mundane. His seaside is full of resonance and mystery. How is it he sees something we don’t? There’s nothing there for us to lose sight of – the very young and the very old teaching each other, but we do. Why do we not see the children, half involved in an animal pleasure, half a rite. I wonder too, if Philip Larkin was inspired for the whole poem by the rhythm of the sea, which guides the entire work.
“The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse.” This is as musical as Debussy’s ‘La Mer’, and as sea-sidey as Frith’s ‘Margate Sands’.