Nomination: Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair [15 December 1947. From XX Poems and The North Ship (1966)]
Larkin famously divided his poems into the beautiful and the true. To some extent the distinction probably reflected his private feelings about different poems, the different kinds of pleasure or consolation he had found in writing them. But we know what he meant, and we know too that the greatest of his poems, the peaks in his Collected – ‘Church Going’, ‘Here’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Dockery and Son’, ‘To the Sea’, ‘High Windows’, ‘The Old Fools’, ‘The Building’, ‘Aubade’ – are both beautiful and true.
Like all his admirers, I’m sure, I love these poems, and they have had a profound effect on what I think poems can and even ought to be. Even more, sometimes, I love the “beautiful” ones among the others – more modest pieces maybe but just as perfect, ‘The Trees’, ‘At Grass’, ‘Coming’, ‘Cut Grass’, ‘Home is so Sad’, ‘Ignorance’… even off the top of my head the list goes on. But ‘Waiting for breakfast, while she brushed her hair’ is a poem I love for its imperfection, its riskiness and vulnerability, as well as its touches of astonishing loveliness. Not perhaps until ‘Love Again’ did Larkin confront so nakedly the conflict, or the choice, that haunted him all his life – between art and life, poetry and love, the muse and a real flesh-and-blood woman: between, if you like, two different kinds of truth, two different kinds of beauty.
The last lines of the poem frame a question, but leave little doubt about which he will choose, or the price to be paid for a solitude in which he will “importantly live / Part invalid, part baby, and part saint”. This is wry, clear-sighted, but no more than that. His vocation is not – not yet anyway – to be slighted with self-mockery.
And though Larkin is thrown by –what? the sudden lifting of depression? the lurch into love? – an access, anyway,of “sheer joy” – how powerfully present and real the vocation remains! The mist that “wandered absolvingly past all it touched”, the lost world “Like a cropping deer strayed near my path again”! Written in 1947, ‘Waiting…’ is only glancingly rhymed, and, in that, unlike almost everything that was to follow, and most of what had preceded it. Larkin placed it at the end of his first volume, The North Ship, when that book was reprinted in 1966 (it had appeared in XX Poems but not since then), and I like to think that in giving the poem this second life Larkin was giving in to his own affection for it, or for lines like those. He says that the poem shows his Yeatsian phase at an end, “the Celtic fever abated and the patient sleeping soundly”, and the impact of Hardy beginning to show itself. The precise and delicate descriptive writing of the undeceived opening lines would seem to bear this out. But it is neither Yeats nor Hardy (nor Auden nor Dylan Thomas) we hear in the visionary lyricism of the poem that takes off from “Misjudgement”. It’s a wholly individual sound we hear, a voice both quizzical and ecstatic, authoritative and hesitant, exact and full of implication – Larkin’s own.