This year marks 100 years since the birth of the great English poet Philip Larkin, best known for his collections The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows. Award-winning poet Imtiaz Dharker, an honorary vice president of the Philip Larkin Society, has written a poem, Swiping left on Larkin, in celebration of the centenary. Here, she discusses why she decided to imagine what the poet would be like on a dating app. Scroll down to read the poem in full.
I was in the bar of the station hotel in Hull, and imagined seeing Philip Larkin sitting alone at a far table drinking a beer. Would I go up to speak to him? Never. Would he even see me? No, of course not, I would be nothing more than an unwelcome blot at the edge of his vision. Playing with that thought, I moved on to resurrect him as a young man, and began to construct his imaginary profile on a dating app. If he were ever on such an app, what would he give away about his “IRL” (in real life) self? Not much more than a shudder of horror, I thought. He would certainly distance himself from online intimacy.
In his poems, Larkin often plays with the idea of being close and distant at the same time. The thought of extreme closeness generally triggers a reflex: he seems to prefer pulling away, standing outside or away from the experience, being elsewhere.
In Here, he describes his city of Hull, “Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach”.
You see it in so many of the poems, even in the first line of Talking in Bed, about one of the most intimate moments: “Talking in bed ought to be easiest.” He sets it up right away, the “ought” leading to the inevitable “Yet” that starts the next verse. Instead of talking, “more and more time passes silently”. With the expanding silence the distance expands too, over nature and weather, to reach the harsh truth: “None of this cares for us.” The poem becomes about more than just two people in bed, but about all of us, bedfellows in a world that is too close, closer every day, pulling aside curtains of privacy, showing unwelcome truths about other people and ourselves. Even mid-poem, in the midst of life, Larkin is always halfway to the thought of death.
There is nothing more revealing than Twitter-sharing and all the broadcasting on social media, which Larkin never knew. But it’s almost as if he did know, as if he’s writing about us now. In all this oversharing and false closeness, there are reminders of the abysses that separate us, whether we share a bed or a country or a world. I find this often happens when I read Larkin: although he is so specific about a moment, he is also writing into now and the future. He takes the trivial and makes it transcendent. His poem, The Mower, on the death of a hedgehog, ends with the following lines.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time
It was an amusing exercise, putting Larkin on an app. Would he be laddish, showing off to impress Kingsley Amis, self-deprecating, socially and sexually timid, provincial, petty, flawed? Perhaps, but the pleasure was in knowing that no app could hope to contain or explain what he became when he put pen to paper. He turned the mess and the terror of being alive into a jazz of poetry, a dazzle of rhyme more expansive than he could ever hope to attain IRL.
Swiping left on Larkin by Imtiaz Dharker
Here he is younger, his shoulders
thinner. She flicks a finger,
swipes left. He
is dismissed without a flicker.
If they pass on the street, she sees
a boy trudge by with a book and satchel
under the arm, on the way to a lifetime
of drudge, easy to overlook.
In the edge of his eye she is a blur
between staying or dying,
a whiff of abroad, the chaos
of prams and infants teething.
At the end of every birth is grieving.
He takes the dark for a walk, his light
on a leash through the sputtering streets
of a town caught in the act of drowning.
From a window a curtain is waving
but his back is turned. Shops shut up
and shutters come down on the chatter
of living, the guttering years.
All roads lead to a leaving.
He goes in to the bar of the station hotel,
sits for a while. When he leaves, he leaves
a pale ring on the table. Gold
spills out of basements over his feet.
He walks down a street and out
of his name. Beyond rumour and fame,
a flurry of letters blown into gutters,
the glitter of language on cobbles,
his words remain
bright as believing or half-believing,
At the end of the world there is always
the sea and its breathing,
swiping right, swiping right
across a blue screen
to something beginning.