Kay Ryan examines a favorite Philip Larkin poem.
Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.
The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
And ankle-length dresses.
There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skilfully (Someone claps time),
And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.
This poem sends feeling down a narrow channel, and you don’t even know it’s feeling until it explodes in a delicious mist at the end. It looks like a lot of scenery, local Dublin color, first the “sidestreets” with their “pewter” light from the “afternoon mist” that causes the lights to be on in the poky shops of a particularly stock-Irish description “above race-guides and rosaries.” Larkin’s art is on intensely quiet display: so much atmosphere is generated in so few words. It’s gray, it’s low, it’s mean, it’s tight, and something is coming. Nice to start with that preposition, “Down stucco sidestreets.” Each element moves into the next: street>light>mist>light bulbs hanging over “race-guides and rosaries.” It feels cozy, damped down, dim. A channel, but for what? Larkin is so good at creating motion in a poem.
A funeral! This is a tiny poem, so all of this happens before it registers. But if one were to anticipate what kind of funeral this would turn out to be, you’d expect it to be … narrow and gray. Which is just what it isn’t. It’s loose and colorful, filled with warmth and exchanges, capers, clapping, song: “A troop of streetwalkers … honouring / One they were fond of.” Larkin gives us their dress, which feels so flowery and flouncy and animated, the opposite of the narrow street—“wide flowered hats, / Leg-of-mutton sleeves, / And ankle-length dresses.” Consider this attention to dress that sounds anachronistic even for the time. These women sound like Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke, attractive like that. And there’s a gang of them, they are their own self-approving community, progressing down the streets after the hearse, flamboyantly what they are, warm, united, and sad.
The poem moves to the interior so seamlessly. The static streets are invaded—the Dublin mist is rent—by this gaudy funeral. First the women’s clothes, then their women’s capers. Things are getting more and more animated. The poem brims with warmth by the end of stanza three, and stanza four brings it home through a single exquisitely baffled detail, a specific so specific that it becomes unspecific: are they singing of “Kitty, or Katy”?
This stanza is a marvel. First notice how cinematic it is. This whole poem has been movie-like; the passage of the procession into and then out of the frame of the poem.
In this last stanza we don’t see them at all, just the disembodied voice “heard singing,” just the trailing voice raised in song. That means we have come to Larkin’s real stage, always: the pure interior. This place tends to be troubled when he gets there, but in “Dublinesque” it is incredibly sweet. Maybe because Larkin has watched like a camera, he hasn’t got his usual gloom spiral going. It’s a sound camera, and doesn’t quite catch the name: Kitty, or Katy. And now the relaxation of this camera discipline: “As if the name meant once / All love, all beauty.”
Enough cannot be said about this ending. Let me point out first the parallels in the rhythm and single instance in the poem of rhyme: of Kitty, or Katy / all love, all beauty.
The unrhymed poem ends, then, with a rhyme, and it opens on two of the great themes in all poetry: love and beauty. It invokes all love, all beauty. And guess what? It works; we feel the tide.
Because Larkin has succeeded in narrowing the opening to the point of blur. Kitty or Katy. This is so specific to this Dublin moment that it isn’t at all specific. Exact identity is lost as love and beauty are lost except absolutely available at the same fuzzy moment. First Larkin goes to the trouble to create a rich moving picture; then he erases it, or at least erases the object of it, Kitty or Katy, then he claps on the two biggest abstractions in English poetry: love and beauty. And it works like a charm.
This is one of those moments when everything coalesces. Everything is available because everything’s gone: no one is there; the street is empty.
I want to think about the genius of “Kitty, or Katy.” Everything depends upon this dislocation, this paradoxical exact focus of all love, all beauty.
It’s an exact focus that can’t find its mark and is therefore slippery and silky word-mist. The focus is baffled and ramified; it’s tiny. We don’t know if it’s Kitty or Katy and we can’t settle. Now Larkin can dump whatever he wants into us because we are between places; that’s exactly where we are: between. It’s perfect for poetry that has to get into the cracks, has to find and work the cracks. There has to be some way to let in the dazzle, to perfume the works.
This poem succeeds because it’s short and brisk; the deep dwelling occurs at parade speed. The parade of bright flowery streetwalkers becomes a gesture, taken all together, a single surprise flowery sweep across pewter. They are the same gesture that Frost’s crow makes in knocking snow onto Frost and giving his heart a change of mood. They bring a gift, then; they change the poet. Larkin is left in the street with the fumes of all love, all beauty.
Kay Ryan was appointed the Library of Congress’s sixteenth poet laureate in 2008. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and other periodicals. She has been the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. Read her Art of Poetry interview.
Excerpted from Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose, by Kay Ryan. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.