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Winter Nocturne

December 2011

Nomination: Winter Nocturne [December 1938. From Collected Poems (1988)]

My choice reflects the month of shorter days, Philip Larkin’s first published poem, now 73 years old in its original incarnation as printed in his school magazine The Coventrian of December 1938. The embryonic Larkin imagery is already there — the winter nights, the bleakness, the graves of faded summers — as well as what was to become his poetic trade-mark, the killer last line. And remember this is the work of a 16-year-old.

The scenes evoked were no doubt inspired by Larkin’s exploration of the local Coventry countryside, its woods and commons. Given sufficient inspiration, imagination and information, armed of course by detailed maps and wearing sturdy footwear, you can still walk in the young poet’s footsteps. Try tracing the muddy paths to Canley Ford or trek over Hearsall and Stivichall Commons to conjure up the sort of atmosphere described in ‘Winter Nocturne’. If it is pouring down and there is a howling wind with the light fading, all the better to embrace the spirit of the poem.

‘Winter Nocturne’ is still neglected and little known; often far too airily dismissed as derivative juvenilia, it remains well outside the accepted Larkin canon. Tom Courtenay has been one of the few to have recognised the poem for its worth. In his improvised and often-changing one-man show Pretending To Be Me he has at times ended his performance with that shivering last line ‘Dark night creeps in’, as the 63-year-old poet faces the final curtain and the stage becomes bible-black.

Incidentally, those who have access to Watt’s magisterial Larkin Concordance (1995) might be as surprised as I was when in choosing ‘Winter Nocturne’ for December’s Poem of the Month, I checked to see how many other Larkin poems mentioned ‘December’ either in the title or body of the poem. There aren’t any.

Don Lee

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