by Philip Larkin
On several occasions, I’ve heard people say they don’t like to be manipulated by art. I have never managed to fathom this view. I stand before art and demand to be spun, flung, pulled, wrenched, twisted, startled and turned and turned and turned to more than a new direction—to a new shape. I want a poem to turn all my tables. To achieve this, poets should be as skilled as woodturners at shaping raw material; they should be turners of would, of possibilities. I ask of the poet, exploit me, take advantage of my rawness, make designs on me. I don’t want art to save me. Let it lathe me.
The turn turns poetry into alchemy. It demonstrates a profound, even radical, movement in imaginative thought. It, in moving, moves. It is both the gulf and the crossing. Turns, which are organic to poetry, instil a religious dimension, shaking loose both poet and reader from either intention in the writing or expectation in the reading.
Some turns come suddenly, out of nowhere. Some come slowly like a dawn, quietly realised when something has seamlessly become something else; an awareness that unrelated or discordant things have imperceptibly merged. Sense has slid into meaning, effortlessly.
However it arrives, the ability to create a turn is a defining quality of the poetic mind. To my mind, it is the one indispensible feature of a poem, and it can unleash a gut-kick, a guffaw, grief, a surrender. Unexpectedness is key. After all, a poem is not a map of how to go, but a glory in uncertainty, in learning how not to know. Turns require a leap of imagination, and the moment of freefall is what makes poetry the most exhilarating and potentially dangerous of arts. Positively catastrophic.
It is my sense that the best turns arrive in the same way for the poet as they do for the reader: whether subtly or suddenly, they come out of the blue. Yes. Out of the clear fine blue they come, direct from the holy imagination—exploding.
Which brings me to Philip Larkin’s ineffable “The Explosion,” where the turn deserves the descriptor epiphanic: the experience communicated in the poem is unsayable and unthinkable in any other place but the church of poetry.
The mine explosion is not described. It happens between stanzas, silently. Similar to Auden’s musings about the coincidence of the monumental and the momentary in “Musee des Beaux Arts,” in Larkin’s poem the cows “stopped chewing for a second.” Only for a second. But in the white space of a stanza break, our gaze is turned from the dread vision of “the tall gates standing open”—the eternal and catastrophic and inevitable annihilation of life, the abyss— to witness men “walking / Somehow from the sun towards them, / One showing the eggs unbroken.”—the everlasting, indestructible wholeness of each instant.
This transformation from irredeemable brokenness to incorruptible wholeness is a spectacular example of the alchemical turn in poetry. The dramatic turn is wreathed in italics. What was before is now after. We have leapt from inconsequence to consequence, from “oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke” to “larger than in life…Gold as on a coin.” The “said” words that effect this radical change seem not to have a speaker as their source, but are language itself as source and resource. Language remakes the men, re-turns them, makes them whole.
Such turns make us re-turn to the very title itself, and question every assumption we made. And when we re-read the poem, it’s as if it has re-written itself, or as if another poem, at first invisible, is now written there. Meaning flows through the openings made by the explosive turn.
In Larkin’s poem we come to see “the explosion” signifies not only the terrible event, but also the vision of eternity the wives are graced with in the presence of catastrophic loss. The turn treats consciousness like “a nest of lark’s eggs”—something to be broken open. No breaking without an ache. “Only an aching heart…,” wrote Yeats. The turn is the silent explosion, the moment a significant emotion for the poet transforms into a communicable experience for the reader. After it, all is changed. In Larkin’s poem, the turn is when we realise that the opposite is also true. The great antagonists, life and death, are reconcilable. And that is always an explosive experience. And for the second time, Larkin tells us that such intuitions of lasting immensity are accessible only “for a second.” The second use of the phrase “for a second” is the final, finest and subtlest turn of the poem: our consolations, too—even our perceptions of the eternal—are momentary. The conveyance of the intricate braid of ephemerality and permanence is masterful.
I have to borrow a group of words written by Seamus Heaney in another context, because they strike me as an exquisitely precise definition of something as exquisitely difficult to contain as the idea of the turn in poetry: the unforeseen disclosing the undeniable. Larkin’s “The Explosion” allows us to see, walking golden towards us, what we did not see coming although we knew it all along. It demonstrates how a poem’s turn unearths what we really know below the crust of what we think we know.
Cally Conan-Davies is an Australian poet currently living in the United States. Her work can be found in Poetry, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Quadrant, The Hudson review, The Sewanee Review, The Southwest Review, and other periodicals, and has been featured on websites such as Poetry Daily.