What makes an effective poem? As this is a rather ambiguous question, I think it is important to first clarify what I think makes an effective poem. The most obvious aspect of a poem that makes it effective is language, imagery and some sort of rhythm. However, this does not make a poem complete. For someone like myself who does not appreciate poetry much unless it evokes some sort of emotion in me, would definitely think that it is emotions, which are integral in making poems successfully effective. Another aspect of a poem, which makes it powerful, is its ability to revive the reader’s imagination and amuse them.
A good poem makes you feel like you’ve been there before, takes you back to a feeling you have had before, a situation in your life that you have experienced or want to experience. Larkin’s poems are known to be depressing but to what extent are they depressing, is this a negative trait and does it stop them from being effective? To explore this idea I will look closely at two of Larkin’s poems, Ambulances and A study of reading habits to discuss the techniques and ideas Larkin uses which make his poems depressing and effective.
I chose to explore A study of reading habits because I think it is one of Larkin’s poems, which amuses me the most. Larkin uses rather colloquial language in his poems, which immediately involves the person reading it. He does this from the very beginning of the poem – “getting my nose into a book” and “Had ripping times”. This technique interests the reader and familiarises them with the situation, which is effective in that it is easy to read if we can relate to the poet. In this poem Larkin is talking about a topic, which most people reading his poem would most definitely be able to identify with – reading.
It is quite a lighthearted poem and this is due to the fact that Larkin is talking about the “familiar” storylines of the novels he has read which usually include well-known cheesy fiction with characters like “the dude/ Who lets the girl down before/ The hero arrives” and “the chap/ Who’s yellow and keeps the store”. Larkin is saying how after all his reading he’s just one of those pitiable characters and not the “Evil”, exciting character with the “cloak and fangs”. This is quite amusing because we can relate to this.
Aspiring to be the heroes and exciting, popular, attractive characters is something most readers have in common. The second stanza in particular is exciting to read as it depicts a dream created from the books he reads, that people have – to be the evil powerful villain. On the other hand the poem could be viewed in quite a sinister and perhaps a depressing way. The image of the “ripping times in the dark”, clubbing women with sex, and breaking them up like “meringues” portrays an image of his reading making him aspire towards sexual violence which gives a negative, fearful feeling to the reader.
The two characters he mentions to be familiar with are the “chap Who’s yellow” and “the dude who lets the girl down”, and not the exciting villains or heroes which is depressing in the fact that he has realised that his role in the world is like that of these boring, failures. At the end of the poem he seems to scorn the books because of his bitter, painful realisation that he cant be one of the characters in his fantasies when he concludes, “Get stewed:/ Books are a load of crap” Contrastingly and on a more amusing note, this final line could also be amusing in that it is quite ironic for a poet to say that “Books are a load of crap”.
The slang use of words, make him seem fed-up like a common person who finds something he reads difficult to comprehend. Ambulances is rather contrasting to A study of reading habits in both its content and effect. The poems central theme is that of death. Larkin again involves the reader, firstly by talking about a subject universally linked with every person and in the first stanza says that ambulances “come to rest at any kerb/ All streets in time are visited” It paints some rather morbid images to create the scene of a dead person being carried out of their home.
Larkin describes the ambulance as being “Closed”, giving the sense of a coffin, untouchable and cannot be entered by choice but only with the invitation of death. It is also compared with confessionals, which gives a death of something sacred and very private. The ambulance drives into a street, which contrasts to itself, having children about and the image of mothers walking up and down. The “different dinners”, paints an effective image of all the different lives progressing in each of the different houses on the street.
Putting the dead body in this environment is effective in that it includes all readers into the situation, as all people have experienced death around them. Larkin mentions the “wild white face” which is particularly moving as it contrasts with the richness of the “Red stretcher-blankets” and the colours that could be imagined to be associated with the children. Larkin morbidly emphasises our dehumanisation after we die as the body is depicted as a lifeless object to be stared at with no power, comparing the body to luggage – “carried in and stowed”.
There’s a rather sinister feeling created by this imagery, it makes the reader quite sad that this is what life amounts to in the end, and that everything that we worry about is pointless. The third stanza of this poem is particularly depressing as Larkin comes to a sort of realisation of the “emptiness” in the lives we live, in “all we do”, the things that matter so much to us in our lives today, are in effect – empty, as the time comes closer for the ambulance to come and carry us away.
The idea of death is present in a lot of Larkin’s poetry and I think this is effective as he is showing us that the one thing that we avoid and mask with unimportant fancies is just a part of life and a part of the vital cycle that keeps life going. Another aspect of Larkin’s poems that make them interesting is that they criticise many human activities and behaviour like in “faith healing” where Larkin looks at the extent to which people go to feel a kind of love or hope, talking of their responses to the “healing” as universal and fake.
The prime example of this I can think of is his poem, The Whitsun Weddings, which shows several people going through the same process of getting married, believing that it is something individual and special, when in fact every wedding is the same. It shows that people’s lives are all a train journey, going the same route and then ending at the same point. To conclude I don’t agree with the statement that Larkin’s poetry is too depressing to be effective as I think that it is its morbidity which makes it so successful.
A poem, which can evoke strong emotions in the reader, is effective, and Larkin shows that he is capable of doing so. He uses images and language to create saddening and sometimes revolting images, being open about the imperfections of life. One of the aspects of his poetry that people find “depressing” is his theme of death, which he includes so openly and effectively, making us think about the absurdity of our actions that try to cover up the acknowledgment of out eventual end and showing us that death is a part of our everyday lives.