On mis­under­stand­ing Larkin

I never used to get poetry. On my more conciliatory days, I might admit that I could see there was occasionally something in it, but most of the time it came across as deliberately obscure. Trying to sound profound by being cryptic. If you have something important to say, why not say it in a way that people can understand? Yes, there were a few poets who called a spade a spade, but most of them, as far as I could see, were just trying to sound clever.

In recent years, I’ve begun to appreciate poetry a bit more. I still think there’s a lot of pretentious, obscurantist bullshit out there, but, every now and again, I’ll come across some poetry that I really enjoy. Alice Oswald’s Dart, for example, or Kathleen Jamie’s The Tree House and her particularly wonderful The Overhaul.

Once in a while, a few lines from an individual poem will leap out the page and grab me by throat. A favourite example, for many years, has been the following snippet from Philip Larkin’s Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album (1953):

…But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Hall’s-Distempter boards,

But shows the cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is, what grace
Your candour thus confers upon her face!
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place…

This passage, to me, sums up the true wonder of photography: its ability to show the world as it really is, double-chins and all. Not always, obviously—the camera, despite its reputation for veracity, very often lies—but photography has the potential, like no other art form, to depict things as they really are.

It wasn’t until many years after I first encountered the above passage that I heard a recording of Philip Larkin reading the poem. It was then that I realised I had fundamentally misunderstood the first line quoted:

But o, photography! as no art is

I had interpreted this to mean ‘but o, photography! as no other art is…‘. In other words, I thought Larkin was describing what makes photography stand out from other art forms. But Larkin’s reading makes it quite clear that he doesn’t think of photography as an art form at all.

At first, the photographer in me was affronted. How dare Larkin claim that photography isn’t art! But, the more I think about it, the more I think he might be right. Perhaps the best photography isn’t art at all. Perhaps it’s more important than that.


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