MIDWAY: Difficult pleasures

One of the joys of reading a poem is lying awake at night wondering what it really means. Last week, in a TV interview, Alan Bennett described the poetry of WH Auden as “too difficult” to be bothered with.

Philip Larkin, on the other hand, was easy to understand and therefore a pleasure to read. I am reluctant to contest the literary opinion of the 26th greatest living Yorkshireman. But sweeping judgments rarely make critical sense.

Auden and Larkin both wrote poems which the reader has to think about and are, in consequence, called hard. And each of them wrote poems which are, superficially at least, easy. Anyway, “hard” and “easy” are ideas which exist only in the mind of the reader. Do not take my word for it, or even Alan Bennett’s. Believe TS Eliot.

There is, Eliot wrote, “such a thing as stage fright. But what some readers have is pit or gallery fright” — a syndrome “caused by having been told, or having suggested to themselves, that a poem is going to prove difficult”. Stop All the Clocks — a poem written by the “difficult” Auden — illustrates the point. No one complains that it is difficult to understand. Nor should they, for it is both simple and sentimental. But the real reason for its acceptance by people who are usually frightened of poetry is its inclusion in a simple and sentimental film. Everything is easy at the Odeon.

Eliot is right to say that we should enjoy poetry at several different levels. A poem can wash over us without requiring much thought and then keep us awake at night wondering about what it really means. And we only understand the full meaning when we can recognise the references and untangle the allusions.

Poetry is a pleasure which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. One important rule is not to be prejudiced by the poet’s character. My last meeting with Philip Larkin was in the (now defunct) French Club in St James’s.

Although we were eating at different tables, he took me by the hand and led me into the kitchen. It was filthy. “Now,” he said, “you will never enjoy a meal here again.” Bennett suggests that Larkin wrote straightforward poetry. I doubt if that was in the power of such an unstraightforward man.