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Discovering poetry: Larkin’s ‘Here’

2 March 2011

6:48 PM

2 March 2011

6:48 PM

In a recent review of Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Robert Macfarlane remarks that the English scrubland between town and countryside is a theme that seems
currently to be occupying the national consciousness.  The border country that this book describes is the territory which people pass through on their way to other places; the no man’s
land traversed by motorways and criss-crossed by telephone wires.  Macfarlane is completely right: not only have two poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, written a book about the
edgelands, but the BFI is organising a short film festival on the subject of ‘liminal Britain’ later in the year.

The idea of edgelands immediately reminds me of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Here’.  The first stanza of the poem swerves ‘through fields/ Too thin and thistled to be called
meadows’, pausing every so often at a ‘harsh-named halt, that shields/ Workmen at dawn’.  Unless I have mistaken Larkin’s meaning, this is a picture of the
edgelands.  The poem describes a journey which has begun in ‘isolate vilages’ ( ‘isolate’ suggesting the word ‘desolate’) and ends in a grey market
town.  The land in between is abandoned and unnoticed, a dead zone skirting settlements.  The poem stretches its gaze away from the ‘cut-price’ commerce of the town, beyond
the wasteland where ‘Hidden weeds flower’, and out towards the sea.  Here finally is a truly empty landscape, not neglected, but out of reach.


Here

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,
Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster
Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,
And residents from raw estates, brought down
The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires –
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers –
A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling
Where only salesmen and relations come
Within a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;
And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges
Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives
Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.


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