A lot of people say they dislike practical criticism: the poem is a butterfly and practical criticism is trapping and killing the butterfly and then pinning its dead body to a board. You may have found a beautiful specimen and mounted it with exquisite professionalism but in so doing, you killed the thing that made the thing beautiful. The examination of the poem leaves the poem lifeless.
For me, the opposite is true. I enjoy unpacking poems. I can read something and not really understand it, but by exploring how it works, what its words are doing, how they talk to each other and to other words in other poems or books or ideas – these things help me understand better what is happening. Unpacking is not an entirely unhelpful way of thinking about it. If the poem is a beautiful piece of luggage that I admire, practical criticism gives me the opportunity to open it up and see what’s inside. Nothing is dead, rather, I have had the opportunity to touch and feel and handle things, and see how they fit together. Does my initial attraction follow through? Is the poem full of beautiful things? Or can I find nothing to interest me inside? And in fact, even something which appears at first glance unpromising can be full of unexpected treats.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to choose some different poems and have a look at them. I haven’t done this properly for a long time but am nonetheless hoping you won’t come back and find me surrounded by a small stack of dead butterflies.
I took my 1992 copy of The Less Deceived on holiday with me this summer. My 17-year-old self really hated Larkin – I’ve written ‘Larkin sold out before he started’ above the final poem, and someone (me?) seems to have stabbed through the whole book with a pair of scissors. ‘Arrogance!’ appears in angry pencil nine times next to ‘Born Yesterday’, a poem dedicated to Larkin’s goddaughter Sally Amis (I think it was the aspiration for her to be average, dull – like other women, that homogenous bunch of creatures that we are – that really troubled me).
I wondered why my English teacher had chosen this book for a group of teenagers to study. Who amongst us could have had the tiniest glimmer of understanding about the misery of a lifetime of work that Larkin writes about in ‘Toads’? At 17, I thought Larkin’s poetry described being too frightened to walk inside the room where the people were dancing, and then went about elevating this terrified outsider/observer into a godlike figure who alone could see the truth.
Perhaps I was half right. Now that I am older and wiser, or perhaps finally as cynical and grumpy as my old English teacher, I had a different reading experience this time round. The poem the book takes its title from, ‘Deceptions’, is about a girl or a woman who is raped in 19th century London. It has a number of remarkable lines (the one about a mind lying open like a knife drawer I found astonishing – it is a line that, in a letter to Julian Barnes, Larkin was delighted to discover Mrs Thatcher remembered – wrongly). It talks about the exactness of suffering, makes the woman into the ‘less deceived’ while the rapist stumbles and bursts ‘into fulfilment’s desolate attic’. Reading this together with ‘Myxomatosis’ – ‘You may have thought things would come right again/If you could only keep still and wait’ – I felt I had probably, horribly, misjudged The Less Deceived. Instead of standing outside the room and wanting to sneer, the poems now describe (for me anyway) being stuck inside with everyone else, getting bounced off an electric fence as we get too close to the edge.