Larkin on Writing Poems
Writing Poems

It would, perhaps, be fitting for me to return the heartening compliment paid by the Selectors to The
Whitsun Weddings
with a detailed annotation of its contents. Unfortunately, however, once I have said that
the poems were written in or near Hull, Yorkshire, with a succession of Royal Sovereign 2B pencils during
the years 1955 to 1963, there seems little to add. I think in every instance the effect I was trying to get is
clear enough. If sometimes I have failed, no marginal annotation will help now. Henceforth the poems belong
to their readers, who will in due course pass judgement by either forgetting or remembering them.
If something must be said, it should be about the poems one writes not necessarily being the poems one wants
to write. Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that
would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem. As a working
definition, this satisfied me sufficiently to enable individual poems to be written. In so far as it suggested that all
one had to do was pick an experience and preserve it, however, it was much oversimplified. Nowadays
nobody believes in 'poetic' subjects, any more than they believe in poetic diction. The longer one goes on,
though, the more one feels that some subjects are more poetic than others, if only that poems about them get
written whereas poems about other subjects don't. At first one tries to write poems about everything. Later
on, one learns to distinguish somewhat, though one can still make enormously time-wasting mistakes. The fact
is that my working definition defines very little: it makes no reference to this necessary element of distinction,
and it leaves the precise nature of the verbal pickling unexplained.
This means that most of the time one is engaged in doing, or trying to do, something of which the value is
doubtful and the mode of operation unclear. Can one feel entirely happy about this? The days when one could
claim to be the priest of a mystery are gone: today mystery means either ignorance or hokum, neither
fashionable qualities. Yet writing a poem is still not an act of the will. The distinction between subjects is not an
act of the will. Whatever makes a poem successful is not an act of the will. In consequence, the poems that
actually get written may seem trivial or unedifying, compared with those that don't. But the poems that get
written, even if they do not please the will, evidently please that mysterious something that has to be pleased.
This is not to say that one is forever writing poems of which the will disapproves. What it does mean,
however, is that there must be among the ingredients that go towards the writing of a poem a streak of
curious self-gratification, almost impossible to describe except in some such terms, the presence of which
tends to nullify any satisfaction the will might be feeling at a finished job. Without this element of self-interest,
the theme, however worthy, can drift away and be forgotten. The situation is full of ambiguities. To write a
poem is a pleasure: sometimes I deliberately let it compete in the open market, so to speak, with other
spare-time activities, ostensibly on the grounds that if a poem isn't more entertaining to write than listening to
records or going out it won't be entertaining to read. Yet doesn't this perhaps conceal a subconscious
objection to writing? After all, how many of our pleasures really bear thinking about? Or is it just concealed
laziness?
Whether one worries about this depends, really, on whether one is more interested in writing or in finding
how poems are written. If the former, then such considerations become just another technical difficulty, like
noisy neighbours or one's own character, parallel to a clergyman's doubts: one has to go on in spite of them.
I suppose in raising them one is seeking some justification in the finished product for the sacrifices made on
its behalf. Since it is the will that is the seeker, satisfaction is unlikely to be forthcoming. The only consolation
in the whole business, as in just about every other, is that in all probability there was really no choice.
Philip Larkin - 1964
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