Cut Grass by Philip Larkin
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.
I know that for some people – Matthew Caley, for example – Larkin represents everything that’s wrong with British poetry and Britishness: parochial, reactionary, old-fashioned, pessimistic, unambitious, and nostalgic. And there’s truth in the caricature – his poems have a fairly narrow frame of reference, he’s politically and technically conservative, and gloomily misanthropic.
But he only reads as old-fashioned if you equate ‘modern’ with ‘modernist’. He may be writing in metre and rhyme, but his language doesn’t stray into the archaic or strain for the poetic. The poems read as of their time – the mid/late C20th. I also think his poems are tougher and more clear-eyed than the nostalgic, parochial image might suggest. His own prejudices are never far away, but they don’t seem to swamp the poems. When you read a lot of Larkin poems together, the cumulative effect is misanthropic and reactionary; but the poems taken individually are more thoughtful and more detached than that.
He’s also just very very good at writing poetry. His poems are not generally flashy, and it’s possible to underrate how well he maintains a natural, almost colloquial voice within quite demanding stanza forms. His vivid, immediate description is also more sophisticated than it appears.
When I made a comment earlier that I seemed to have chosen a lot of minor poems by major writers, this was one I had in mind. But I’ve changed my mind. It may be shorter than Whitsun Weddings or Church-going or Aubade, but it’s still a major poem. The colour-theming of white and green, the use of dimeter, the play of vowel-sounds, the eerie way it makes the stillness of summer into something deathly – great stuff. It actually makes quite an interesting companion piece to the Marvell, though I wasn’t thinking of that when I chose it.
Next up – This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.