CPR Classic Readings: Philip Larkin’s “Broadcast”

While far from being the most ambitious and successful poem in The Whitsun Weddings, “Broadcast” seems to me in many ways among the most essentially Larkinesque of Philip Larkin’s poems, and at the same time the most uncharacteristically romantic. As vividly and as fully of any of his poems, it demonstrates some of the ways in which Larkin characteristically holds experience, and emotion, at arm’s length, presenting himself as a distant but not quite entirely detached observer, emotionally invested while professing his disinterest.

Indeed, Larkin’s poems, individually and in total, chronicle a lifetime of not belonging and of not knowing how to belong, an attitude that is at once skeptical and grudgingly admiring, if not envious, of those who can or do belong. For Larkin, there is always an “elsewhere”—a place where Larkin is not and cannot be present, emotionally as well as physically, but a place of which, nonetheless, he is always highly conscious, and which in a vitally crucial way grounds him, stirs his creative imagination and, to steal a phrase from “The Importance of Elsewhere,” underwrites his existence. The poet’s keen awareness and acknowledgement of an “elsewhere” intensifies his loneliness and longing, gives added texture to his isolation. No less than the poem that bears that title, “Broadcast” gives voice to Larkin’s insistence on the importance of elsewhere.

Of course this theme—or should I say obsession?—is limited to neither “Broadcast” nor “The Importance of Elsewhere.” It permeates “Church Going”; is evident throughout “I Remember, I Remember,” with its evocation of the town “where my childhood was unspent”; and most gloriously weaves through the fabric of “The Whitsun Weddings,” with its poignant glimpses of strangers’ lives seen from the confined and confining space of a compartment of a passing train. (To which one might add the obvious—that the train itself is on its way to an “elsewhere,” a London that, in Larkin’s imagination if not in fact, is connected to Hull only by a thin ribbon of rail.)

The theme also surfaces in, or lies just beneath the surface of, such apparently minor poems as “Success Story” (“To be ambitious is to fall in love / With a particular life you haven’t got”) and “Livings II” (“Radio rubs its legs, / Telling me of elsewhere”). When Larkin declares, in “I Remember, I Remember,” that “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere,” one almost feels that he has stumbled onto another way of saying “Everything happens elsewhere.” And in the poem “Here,” whose title so obviously is the exact opposite of “elsewhere,” Larkin’s ultimate destination is a place where he can only see “unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”

One of the felicities of “Broadcast,” at least for me, is that it lends itself both to close textual (the old New Critical) and to biographically informed readings. Indeed, the two approaches dovetail nicely; they’re not mutually exclusive, but can even be simultaneous. Larkin provides no overt “notes” to the poem, no specific identifications of persons and places—there are no proper nouns except for “ ‘The Queen’ “—and certainly no confessional crie de coeur of the sort in which many of his American contemporaries indulged. The “you” is both exact (a biographical reading identifies the woman as Maeve Brennan) and yet generalized (it could be any “you” loved by any poet). Yet the poem seems intensely personal and intimate, animated by passionate emotions barely held in check. To what extent the “I” of the poem stands for Larkin the man himself and to what extent it represents an invented persona is a question we needn’t seek to answer definitively: either and both are equally valid; the poem works, regardless of how much or how little the reader knows about its author.

“Broadcast” finds Larkin (or shall we identify the “speaker” as a Larkinesque persona?) at home alone “attending” a concert at a distance, not seeing but visualizing the scene, the radio an imperfect instrument for connecting him to an unnamed woman over the distance that separates them, leaving him, ultimately, “desperate to pick out” from the applause her tiny ungloved hands in the “vast . . . spaces” of the concert hall. And it’s not a stretch of the imagination—but then again, maybe it is a stretch of the imagination, and that is exactly what Larkin wishes it to be—that the “air” of “tiny in all that air” refers not only to the aforementioned “vast . . . spaces” of the concert hall, in which the beloved one can scarcely be “picked out,” but indeed, to the geographic space that separates the radio listener in his compact room from the larger expanses of the concert hall itself—all the air that lies between Hull and London (if we may assume those to be the two geographic locations in the poem), and the very airwaves over which the concert is broadcast.

Here, in no particular order of importance, are some observations about the particulars of the poem. Donald Davie, in an essay (“Larkin’s Politics, and Tomlinson’s”) in Under Briggflatts, identifies the occasion of the poem as “perhaps a Remembrance Day ceremony in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s.” But Davie, uncharacteristically, seems misled by “Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces” and “‘The Queen’.” The reader needn’t draw on biographical knowledge (about which more in a moment) to realize that the space itself is “vast”—the Royal Albert Hall immediately comes to my mind—and that the marvelous coined double adjective, “Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on” is a metaphor. Larkin’s concert hall resembles a full church (though this metaphor would have been rather more appropriate to the England of Larkin’s time rather than to ours). It’s clear to me that the “sudden scuttle on the drum” is the drum roll that launches the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” played at the beginning of concerts and other public events (even in the cinema) during Larkin’s time; “ ‘The Queen’” is an abbreviated form (the trope of metonymy?) for “God Save the Queen” (itself a metonymy for the music itself) rather than an announcement that the Queen is entering the hall or church. The “huge resettling” is the audience in the mass act of sitting down after having stood for the anthem.

Suffice to say that another of the many pleasures of this poem is the mastery with which Larkin uses linguistic abbreviations to indicate larger actions. At eighteen lines, the poem is remarkably compact, and yet its reach stretches out from what the reader may imagine as the confines of a small and dimly lit room in a bachelor’s flat in Hull in the north of England, where the listener sits near the radio, across the “glowering wavebands” and “rabid storms of chording” to the distant concert hall itself. And one can read in the poem an awareness of all the distances and elsewheres in between.

The word “devout” in the first line of the second stanza continues the metaphor of the concert hall as church, and the concert itself—and by extension, the act of listening to the broadcast itself—as an act of devotion. The reference to the woman’s gloves makes us think of hands, and from there it is not too far a stretch to imagine her hands as folded together in an attitude that resembles that of prayer, or at least some act of devotion. (Am I being too fanciful in thinking of the separated couple in this poem as a vertical counterpart to the stone-carved, horizontal conjoined couple in “An Arundel Tomb”?) Larkin’s agnosticism might have precluded professions of faith, but it does not prevent him from employing the imagery of devotion. The poem’s almost reverential tone is such that one can believe that Larkin almost wants to hear the concert as a secular alternate for a religious ceremony—though ultimately the focus of this devotion isn’t the music, but rather the image of the loved one whose reality he so desperately strives to conjure.

One might also draw attention to the paradox that although the poem’s ostensible subject is the radio broadcast of a concert, the music of that concert (apart from the national anthem and the applause at the concert’s end) is curiously neglected—the reader is left to determine for himself what particular symphonic work might be characterized by “rabid storms of chording”—and the language and imagery of the poem itself is highly visual, and visually particular. Unable to see the concert, let alone be personally present at it, the poet imagines specific details that he has “picked out.” Dwelling at a distance and unable to see what is happening, he turns an imaginary spotlight onto the scene. But no sooner has the poem’s “I” zoomed in, as it were, on “your face among all those faces” than this vision “goes quickly dark” and he is left with only “the outline of the still and withering / Leaves on half-emptied trees”; presumably the trees are those outside his window, in the dusk on an autumn evening.

Reading the poem aloud, one hears the predominance of S and L sounds in concert, as it were: “Scuttle,” “resettling,” “slithering,” and “shamelessly.” And note the negative connotations, or at least the negative possibilities, of at least three of those four words—and maybe even of “resettling.” Then too there are the connotations of loss in “withering,” “half-emptied” and “dark.”

What else in the poem should attract our special notice? Many details. But ultimately I keep returning to those “gloves unnoticed on the floor,” which seems to me to lie at the heart of the poem’s power and meaning. A small matter, perhaps; but one should remember, as Larkin does (if only unconsciously), that gloves traditionally were emblems of a pledge of love and fidelity. All the more telling, then, that the gloves, the most easily mislaid, forgotten, and losable of all our clothing, should lie “unnoticed on the floor.” (Ah, but that “unnoticed” is Larkin’s way of letting us know that he notices!) Larkin tells us almost nothing about the woman or her appearance; details of eyes, hair, breasts, skin, are all left to our imagination. When he writes of “your face among all those faces, / Beautiful and devout,” Larkin doubtless has a specific face in mind (that of Maeve Brennan, if we are reading the poem biographically), but in effect he gives the reader a blank slate; the face is like that of a stylized saintly face on an Orthodox icon, personifying the traits of beauty and devotion (or devoutness) as we imagine them to be. No: the actual details that matter, as far as the poem is concerned, are found in the woman’s gloves and those curiously “new, slightly-outmoded shoes.”

In effect the poem is about the import of noticing and not noticing, of faithfulness and faithlessness, of possession and loss. Indeed, “Broadcast” is not wholly a love poem, nor entirely a broadcast of love, but also a statement of recognition and acknowledgement that, at a distance, love grows tenuous, our hold on the beloved fragile and fraught with uncertainty. The woman he addresses so longingly, who is elsewhere, not with him, may love Larkin; but it’s as if Larkin can’t believe his own good fortune, or can’t bring himself to believe it, or doesn’t want to believe it. Yes, he’s in love; but is it all more than a mirage, a chimera that might vanish into thin air, into silence, when the distant orchestra falls silent when the concert and the broadcast end? Might not Larkin, or the Larkinesque character who listens to the broadcast, fear that it is he who somehow, carelessly dropped from memory or affection, is the counterpart of that “glove unnoticed on the floor,” and that he will remain unnoticed and left behind as the beloved leaves the hall? He is “desperate” indeed—desperate to see her face among that crowd, desperate to grasp, if only through his creative imagination, her tiny hands. As Yeats reminded us, and as Larkin well knew, “man is in love and loves what vanishes.”

About John Drexel

John Drexel's poems have appeared widely in magazines in the U.S. and Britain, including the Hudson Review, Oxford Poetry, Paris Review, Salmagundi, Southern Review, and Verse, and his work is included in A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play (Sarabande Books, 2001). A former editor at Oxford University Press and past recipient of an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and a Hawthornden Fellowship, he works as a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He also directs occasional poetry workshop-seminars in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and in Cornwall, England.
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