HOLE: Larkin Meets Dante

Wednesday, 30 March 2016 at 17:31

    Big Phil at Paragon Station, Hull

I’ve long been fascinated by the opening of Dante’s Inferno: how he finds himself, half-way through his journey through life, lost in a wild wood, and his subsequent descent into Hell led by his guide Virgil, and I’d used the theme, or variations on the lines, in several poems; my most recent collection Pilgrim Tongues concludes with “Andante”, a poem about getting lost on a hike. I’m also fascinated by satire and the grotesque, shifting worlds it conjures. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Marston’s verse satires voiced through his psychopathic and hypocritical “barking Satyrist” persona W. Kinsayder, and, in various sequences, I’ve tried to summon up the ghost of the Elizabethan  malcontent to see what he’d say about our world.  These sequences seem like vacations from my normal lyric or elegiac mode: holidays of the sort that critics, following Bakhtin, might dignify with notions of the “carnivalesque”, but essentially they’re jeux d’esprit.

A figure you can’t avoid if you live in Hull is Philip Larkin, probably best known for the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Attitudes to Larkin and his work are sharply divided. I have mixed feelings myself, but I’ve had some good mileage out of him: the part of the university I work in calls itself  “The Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing”; the Larkin Society commissioned my anthology, film and exhibition project Under Travelling Skies in which contemporary poets and painters associated with Hull responded to Larkin’s landscapes and work; I’ve written a poem sequence exploring Larkin’s life and attitudes, and exhibited various paintings in which Larkin, pushing his bike, is confronted by the various mythological figures he had no time for. The shade of Larkin seemed a good guide to the Underworld. 

I started “Hole” as a sort of diversion from a project translating French poems, and working variations on their themes. This is obviously more perversion than version of Dante and, as it has rumbled on, other elements have found their way into the mix: medieval Complaint and, hanging round the Larkin figure, an incongruous whiff of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. “Difficile est satyram non scribere”, wrote Juvenal, and it often does seem difficult not to write satire; or as John Marston’s alter ego W. Kinsayder  put it: “Let Custards quake, my rage must freely runne!”

Hole is the March 2016 poetry feature of The Common online: http://www.thecommononline.org/features/march-2016-poetry-feature

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