I can't remember enjoying an essay on a poet by a novelist as much as I enjoyed Martin Amis on Philip Larkin in the Financial Times. Amis's essay is rich, pungent, razor sharp and unshakeably convinced of Larkin's greatness. It's lovely watching him dismantle the criticism that makes Larkin ‘minor’ because of its own misguided snobbery, and kick away some of the rubble of correctness that still litters writerly lore. It's refreshing to read someone interested primarily in literary effect, and mostly regardless of politics, reputation, or canon.
Amis cites the concluding lines of “The Trees” as an example of Larkin's “instantly unforgettable” quality, and his ability as a phrasemaker of many registers. It has a particular resonance this week as the last, yes the very last, week of winter. Cold, naked Canberra is coming into bud; blossoms are blossoming, green shoots are shooting. Amis calls the poem an “onomatopoeic prayer for renewal.” Like other Larkins, it has a demotic simplicity that's deceptive. Rhyme and heavy alliteration disguise the complexity of thought, the deep ambivalence of a primarily ironic cast of mind. He wants to but can't quite believe the promise: the trees almost say, seem to say, that life is renewable, but it's a trick, he knows the truth. But he's caught by beauty anyway, and the trees have the last tantalising word.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.