"Elbowing Vacancy": Philip Larkin's Non-Places

Article excerpt

To consider the significance of place in Philip Larkin's oeuvre may seem a foredoomed endeavor. For one whose particularity in rendering the quotidian is almost a signature trait, it is revealing that of the 172 poems Larkin wrote between 1946 and 1983, as compiled in Anthony Thwaite's edition, only 16 include references to specific English sites, and most of those are merely nominal or passing allusions. (1) Indeterminate locations, blurred vistas, and generic topoi are the typical milieu of this writer for whom, as his antipathetic poem "I Remember, I Remember" strikingly concludes about his birthplace, "'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere'" (36). Allowing for the disparity between Larkin's actual experience of growing up in Coventry and his mythologized version thereof, the line still tells us much about the poet who could not discover what in "Places, Loved Ones" he terms his "proper ground" (3). Even of Hull, his "home" from 1955 until his death in 1985, he admitted, "I like it because it's so far away from everywhere else. On the way to nowhere, as somebody put it. It's in the middle of this lonely country, and beyond the lonely country there's only the sea" (RW 54). In the same interview he went on to say, "I very much feel the need to be on the periphery of things" (55). Given the fact that this widely heralded successor to Thomas Hardy and T. S. Eliot maintains that time rather than space is our defining element (CP 106), we perhaps should not be surprised by his marginal, attenuated landscapes. "Larkin," comments Laurence Lerner succinctly, "is a poet of absence" (31). Granted, but how we construe Larkin's engagement with vacuity will shape our estimation of his unique status as an equivocally postmodern author.

We can begin by recognizing that if what we inhabit is an "uncaring / Intricate rented world" (46-47), as Larkin declares in "Aubade," it is ironic but instructive that he commits himself so assiduously to "elbowing vacancy" (CP 27)--to exploring absence, nullity, and displacement, as though intent on plumbing these states fully. In this regard Calvin Bedient's rather pontifical judgment that Larkin is an inveterate nihilist with "a metaphysical zero in his bones" (70), one who has accepted "domestication of the void" and "simply taken nullity for granted" (71), proves suspect. Conveying the gray, often morose, mood of skepticism in post-World War II England, Larkin may indeed write a "poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations" (Davie 71), but he frequently qualifies such bleakness with fleeting images of a transcendent reality that lies just beyond the verge of recovery. Latent in Larkin's work is the implied construct of a mythic wholeness or immediacy whose unavailability in the present leaves merely the "kodak-distant" mapping of a desacralized sphere (CP 74). Especially noteworthy here is the fact that among the earliest scholarship published on Larkin were two articles by James Naremore and Barbara Everett that identified variants of an Edenic "lost world" in his corpus (CP 20). (2) For this poet, then, dispossession is our universal heritage, and he recurrently surveys what loss of that aboriginal "ground" of being continues to mean. Read from this perspective, his texts trace the outlines of a spectral "something" that now manifests itself only as the abysm of "nothing."

The 1954 poem already cited, "I Remember, I Remember," projects Larkin's characteristic stance well. Traveling north "in the cold new year" (2), the speaker finds that his train has stopped at Coventry to take on passengers. While they board, he leans out the window searching for "a sign / That this was still the town that had been 'mine' / So long" (6-8). Unable to detect any recognizable landmarks, the persona resumes his seat as the train lurches forward again, whereupon a friend making the journey with him asks, "'Was that [...] where you "have your roots"?'" (13). That last exhausted cliche, appropriately enclosed in quotation marks, triggers nineteen lines of sardonic reflection in which the narrator recalls what Coventry never was to him:

  No, only where my childhood was unspent,
  I wanted to retort, just where I started:

  By now I've got the whole place clearly charted. …