Harriet Lane’s first novel was Alys, Always; her nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian, Vogue, The Observer and other publications. She spoke to me by email and by phone from her home in London.
Harriet Lane: Philip Larkin is a good fit for teenagers, who tend to recognize themselves in his spectacular square-peggishness. Certainly when I was an adolescent his poetry felt like a balm, even as it filled me with gloom. I liked the saddest, most hopeless poems best of all: not the despairing fury of “This Be The Verse” but the moments when, overcome with the grotesquerie of life, he seems almost to swoon away from it. Yes, I thought, as I sat in the big wooden library, popping yet another ink cartridge into my pen. Yes, that’s how it feels.
Then I’d go and have a cup of tea and a jam tart in the dining room: the backstage clatter of roasting tins as the kitchen staff attended to supper, the gossip about who had chucked whom, the boisterous cheering when a third-former dropped a tray, a long pale streak of milk all over the floor.
Larkin is the poet of post-war shabbiness and missed opportunities, of sputtering gas fires in rented rooms with damp towels slung over the backs of chairs. At my English boarding school in the 1980s—where I always seemed to be cold, hungry and misunderstood—these things resonated like mad. Larkin’s pose was that he was perpetually on the very edge of things, appalled by cut-price crowds and “teashop behaviours,” the “soft horror of living.” He was plainly frightened of people; and, endlessly surrounded by other adolescents, I (often lonely and yet never satisfactorily alone) knew all about that sort of thing.
I’m older now and less scared of people but Larkin’s economy—the bleak precise nature of his vision, his ability to sum up a life in a few devastating details—still speaks to me. And yet, predictably, I’m increasingly drawn to the moments where he seems almost to weaken, to give an inch, to gesture in a mysterious unresolved way towards hope. Is that what is happening in the “The Trees,” with its beauty and sadness and feeling for the passage of time?
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
There’s a lovely tension in this poem. Larkin resists it, the idea that trees symbolize rebirth and renewal: They only “seem” to suggest a fresh start. It’s an illusion. The “looking new” is nothing but a “trick.” Though the final line—“begin afresh, afresh, afresh”—is sort of irresistible (just the sound of the words themselves: so beautiful, so evocative), there’s the sense that he’s not buying it. This ability to undercut what he’s saying is very Larkin.