Larkin, Not Really in Translation

Philip Larkin, sculpture, with shadow

“Counting” is a beautiful little Philip Larkin poem that I had not read before encountering it in a bilingual collection, with French translations: La vie avec un trou dedans.

Thinking in terms of one
Is easily done —
One room, one bed, one chair,
One person there,
Makes perfect sense; one set
Of wishes can be met,
One coffin filled.

But counting up to two
Is harder to do;
For one must be denied
Before it’s tried.

This may also be the poem that the translator, Guy Le Gaufey, does best with, not only considering what each word seems to mean, but finding an equivalent, French poetry. I will try not to turn off English-language readers by giving all of the French, but just what might be called the second half:

                                un ensemble
De vœux, ça se comble ;
Un cercueil, ça se remplit.

Mais compter jusqu’à deux
Est plus hasardeux ;
Car un doit être nié
Avant d’y arriver.

It may be noted that, in order to get to poetry, Le Gaufey departs from Larkin’s exact meaning. Where Larkin says “harder,” Le Gaufey has hasardeux, risky. And in the end Larkin is only trying to love; Le Gaufey is going to arrive at loving.


Though La vie . . . was published in 2011, it was just this summer that I heard of the book. I quickly picked up a copy, being both one of Larkin’s many fans and in the habit of wallowing once a year or so in the challenges (the impossibility) of translating poetry. When interviewed by the Paris Review, Larkin went ever further:

I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude . . . But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever.

It’s not enough to know the meanings or foreign-language equivalents of words; you need to know the associations of a word or phrase within its source language and culture.[*] The window example relates to one of Larkin’s best known poems, “High Windows,” which, in its final stanza, speaks of a specific feeling of an English person within an English chapel or cathedral.

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.


Many of La vie’s French texts might be called translations, but not poetry. Routinely, Le Gaufey ignores Larkin’s meter and line lengths (number of syllables), and he often ignores the rhymes as well. Since the French language does not use tonic accents, translating English meters is more than a huge challenge. But it should also be noted that the phrase “metrical perfection” has been used to describe Larkin’s greatest virtue, and the poet himself once remarked, as many a poet might, that “form and content are indivisible.”[†] So if the form is ignored . . . ?

We might take any number of Larkin’s great verses—

“This be the verse” — They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra just for you.

“Sad steps” — Going back to bed after a piss . . . The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness”

The most immediately striking feature of Larkin’s work is this using of meter and rhyme to make poetry of the vulgar.[‡] (And this feature can become tiresome à la longue, if one reads too much Larkin in a single sitting, but . . . See the wonderful “Sunny Prestatyn,” quoted in full not far below.)

Reading poetry in translation becomes a way of re-reading favorite poems and finding new ones.

This said, however, what Le Gaufey (along with a consultant, Denis Herson) generally focuses on instead of Larkin’s meter and rhyme is getting his vocabulary right, finding the best equivalents for all of his words and phrases. There may be something a bit odd in this; it may be based on a false assumption: that the meanings of words in poems are independent of the poetry, the lyrics, in which these words are found. Nonetheless, with the occasional exception, in La vie this work of translation is quite well done, and the result may be particularly useful for francophone readers whose English is good, but not perfect. They can read the English originals given on the verso pages, double-checking words they are unsure of in the French texts on the recto pages. But this would be to say that La vie is a reference book and not a book of poetry in translation.

I must stress that Le Gaufey is hardly alone in facing this challenge or arriving at this result. And there have been plenty of poetry translations that have opposite problems; they rhyme and have meter, but have to depart from sense to do so, and they are poetry lacking the coup de genie (the inspiration) of the original writer. In line with Le Gaufey’s approach, in an old Dover book, Introduction to French Poetry, I found a translation of a lovely two-stanza Victor Hugo poem, “Nuits de juin” (June Nights). The second stanza in French and in English translation:

Les astres sont plus purs ; l’ombre paraît meilleure ;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel ;
Et l’aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

The stars are purer, the darkness more inviting;
A vague half-light tints the eternal dome;
And the sweet and pale dawn, awaiting its time,
Seems to be wandering low in the sky all night.

It seems to me that in the first three of these lines the English translator (name unknown) is going along quite well, and he or she has clearly worked to duplicate the twelve syllables and the caesurae (breaks) of the French “alexandrine” line; and the giving up on rhyming does not seem too problematic here. But English simply does not sound like French (in which, for example, “our” percussiveness is replaced by the gentle lengthening and shortening of vowel sounds). And thus, where Hugo’s poem reaches its dying “climax” in the sweet sign-off of the last line, the English version, and particularly its last few words, are pedestrian and ruin the effect—the whole point, we might say—of the poem. June nights such as Hugo is describing feel like the words he has found for them. The English translator’s June nights remind me more of the college students who on June nights and many others stumble past the picnic tables below my bedroom window.[§]

Prestatyn beach, sand castle, boy

I will now offer another, longer Larkin poem, and this, above all, because it is a favorite of mine and shows various aspects of Larkin’s art—his finding poetry in the seemingly mundane; his attachment to England on its post-war downward slope; his juxtaposition of the vulgar and lyrical and of misandry and sentimentality (“She was too good for this life”).[**] It may be noted that not every line rhymes, and some of the rhymes are half-rhymes, and yet (“scrawls . . . balls”) the rhymes are essential.

While I will not quote at any length from Le Gaufey’s version, I note that it does not try to rhyme, and a compressed, five-syllable line such as “spread breast-lifting arms” turns into these fifteen syllables: “Prolonger ses bras tendus pour faire ressortir sa poitrine.”[††] Note, too, that Prestatyn is a seaside resort in Denbighshire, Wales, on the Irish Sea coast. It may be a beautiful place. Whether it is, in fact, sunny or not . . .

Sunny Prestatyn

Come to Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin.
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
Hotel with palms
Seemed to expand from her thighs and
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March.
A couple of weeks, and her face
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed;
Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were scored well in, and the space
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while
Someone had used a knife
Or something to stab right through
The moustached lips of her smile.
She was too good for this life.
Very soon, a great transverse tear
Left only a hand and some blue.
Now Fight Cancer is there.


What can certainly be said in favor of poetry in translation is that it becomes a way of re-reading favorite poems and of finding new ones. And if the translation(s) appear in a bilingual format (original side-by-side with translation), a reader’s attention is naturally drawn to the poet’s particular choices of words and style. Noticing how something has been translated, and perhaps asking, “How would I have translated this?”—this is a nice way of engaging with a poem.

I like how a writing project can turn into a reading-writing-reading-writing project.

I also like how a writing project can turn into a reading, or reading-writing-reading-writing project. Working on this piece not only led me to read Le Gaufey’s work more closely; I was led on to various other things. An Ogden Nash feeling in certain Larkin verses led to the realization that Larkin had himself written admiringly, if rather briefly about Nash’s work.[‡‡] A survey of New York Review of Books pieces on Larkin led me a review by the distinguished critic Christopher Ricks, which piece included an excerpt from the most notorious paragraph in Larkin’s writing on jazz, the paragraph in which Larkin disses not only Charlie Parker, but modernist art more generally, lumping Parker with Pound, Picasso, Henry Moore, and James Joyce’s “declension from talent to absurdity.”

Before quoting from Larkin’s text, I would note that this seems a particular case of a writer being simultaneously spot on, as the English say, and spot off. And I would also recommend highly Required Writing, a collection of Larkin prose which includes these words on jazz and modernist art. That Larkin is expressing his individual perspective is one of this book’s virtues, along with the intelligence and clarity of the mind and prose doing the expressing. Herewith the notorious sentences on Parker et al.:

. . . I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound, or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power.[§§]

La Dolce Vita, Fellini, party, near end; movie still 

Reading-writing-reading-writing. I will close this series with Larkin’s “We met at the end of the party,” a poem Le Gaufey does not translate. It was first published in the Larkin Society newsletter in 2002; that is, seventeen years after Larkin’s death. Slate published an article about the discovery of this poem and another. Among the Slate’s writer’s proposals: Larkin was a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist, and thus did not wish to publish this work.

However that may be, please enjoy the poem. In my humble opinion, it is the choice of words for the last line—along with the reduction from the hymn-like alternation of 8 and 6 syllable lines to the last line’s mere four syllables—that makes “We met…” a great love poem.

We met at the end of the party

We met at the end of the party
When all the drinks were dead
And all the glasses dirty:
‘Have this that’s left’, you said.

We walked through the last of summer,
When shadows reached long and blue
Across days that were growing shorter:
You said: ‘There’s autumn too’.

Always for you what’s finished
Is nothing, and what survives
Cancels the failed, the famished,
As if we had fresh lives

From that night on, and just living
Could make me unaware
Of June, and the guests arriving,
And I not there.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor

Yellow Rose of Texas, page from score


[*] In his 1949 Lettre aux Américains, Jean Cocteau makes a similar point, and a good one. Americans (or foreigners, more generally, we might say) don’t read French literature; we read a book here, a book there. Even if we read the original French texts, since we have not read the works surrounding these individual volumes, we cannot understand them. Or rather, we might say, our understandings are eccentric. I have at times argued that, for something like this reason, Americans have “misread” much of Sartre. But all readings are, in a sense, misreadings, and if we have been able to make our own, meaningful Sartre (or Freud, Plato, etc.), or if M Le Gaufey is able to help the French make their own, meaningful Larkin—more power to all of us?

Cocteau writes of « des steppes mortes qui doivent s’étendre à vos yeux entre une de nos œuvres et une autre, qui vous sont parvenues sans lien entre elles et comme les épaves d’un navire. » The lifeless steppes that must extend before your [Americans’] eyes between one of our works and another, which have come to you without links between them and like bits from a shipwreck.

[†] Larkin’s remark is from his interview in the Paris Review. “Metrical perfection” is a phrase from the poet Derek Walcott in the New York Review of Books. In the same vein, Walcott writes:

Pound had written: “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” but for Larkin the great achievement was not to betray the pulse or the breath of the pentameter by abandoning it or condemning its melody as archaic, but in exploring the possibility of its defiant consistency, until technical mastery became freshness. The patience and subtlety with which he succeeded in writing “the Larkin line” were not achieved by tricks.

[‡] When interviewed by the Paris Review Larkin put the matter more generally: “Writing poetry is playing off the natural rhythms and word order of speech against the artificialities of rhyme and meter.”

[§] A question raised here, but which would have to be for another piece or for other writers, is whether poetry is a form of music or not. When I read contemporary poems published in various distinguished publications, I rarely have a sense that contemporary English-language poetry has much, if anything, to do with music. But certainly—before pop music became so omnipresent?—most of our poets sought to make a kind, or kinds, of music. For example, Emily Dickinson’s meter is that of hymns, and it has become a commonplace that her poems can be sung to the tune and rhythm of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Certainly there is a simple music in many of Larkin’s lines; for example in these famous ones from “I Remember, I Remember” (about a return, in his mind, to his hometown):

And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,

And as regards Dickinson, hymn meters, and singing along with “The Yellow Rose,” see Larkin’s “We met at the end of the party,” quoted at the end of the present piece.

[**] The poet and poetry editor Paul Muldoon’s nice phrase is: “The atmosphere of the Larkin poem would soon be publicly, and popularly, recognized as being perfectly in harmony with the doubting, dowdy, dutiful, down-in-the-dumps environment of Britain in the 1950s.” Wikipedia reports of Hull, England, where Larkin long lived and worked as a university librarian: “After suffering heavy damage in the Second World War, Hull weathered a period of post-industrial decline, gaining unfavourable results on measures of social deprivation, education, and policing.” A Larkinesque environment.

[††] See, again, Walcott’s review of the Farrar, Straus/Marvell Press collection of Larkin’s poetry:

Larkin continued to rely on the given beat of the pentametrical line throughout his career. He shadowed it with hesitations, coarsened it with casual expletives, and compacted it with hyphens . . . to the point where a hyphenated image, with its aural-visual fusion, was powerful enough to contain a minipoem in itself.

Walcott then offers examples from various poems: “Some lonely rain-ceased summer’s evening . . . That vast moth-eaten musical brocade . . . time’s rolling smithy-smoke . . . dark, shining-leaved cabbages . . . sun-comprehending glass . . . Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water”.

In fairness to Le Gaufey, it should be noted that hyphenated compounds such as these would read as much odder in French than they do in English.

[‡‡] “Missing Chairs,” first published in the New Statesman in 1961; collected in Required Writing. The most memorable feature of this, perhaps 700-word piece is that half of it is quotes from Nash, to include these lines, not Larkinish in meter, but certainly in attitude and diction:

Ah woe, woe, woe, man was created to live by the sweat of his brow,

And it doesn’t make any difference if your brow was moist yesterday and the day before, you’ve still got to get it moist again right now,

And you know deep in your heart that you will have to continue keeping it dewy

Right up to the time when somebody at the Club says, I suppose we ought to go to what’s-his-name’s funeral, who won the fifth at Bowie?

That’s a nasty outlook to face.

But it’s what you get for belonging to the human race.

[§§] More of Larkin being Larkin from the Paris Review interview:

It seems to me undeniable that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it, painting represented what anyone with normal vision sees, and music was an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones. The innovation of “modernism” in the arts consisted of doing the opposite. I don’t know why, I’m not a historian. You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.

Philip Larkin - illustration by Iain Burke (New York Times review)

Credits & Links

Images (from top to bottom): Statue of Larkin by Martin Jennings, outside Paragon station in Hull, England. Photograph, from the beach at Presatyn, was found on a Trip Advisor site, and there credited “Darren M, Jun 2012.” Film still from the party at the end of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Sheet music from “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The illustration (at right) of Larkin by Iain Burke; accompanied Muldoon’s Times review (see below).

As regards the “Yellow Rose,” it should be noted—since it has been largely written out of the record, removed from the song—that, in the original version, the rose’s yellowness referred to the fact that the girl was, as it used to be said, “colored,” and was loved by a man presumably darker than her. Thus, in the earliest known version, Christy’s Plantation Melodies, no. 2, published under the authority of Edwin P. Christy (Fisher & Brothers, 1853), the song begins:

There’s a yellow girl in Texas
That I’m going down to see;
No other darkies know her
No darkey, only me;

Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber, 1983). This collection reproduces “Missing Chairs” (Larkin on Nash) and Larkin’s Introduction to All What Jazz: A Record Diary, which was itself published by Faber & Faber. Required Writing also includes Larkin’s interview, by mail, with Robert Phillips, which appeared in The Paris Review (The Art of Poetry No. 30).

——. La vie avec un trou dedans, translated by Guy Le Gaufey with assistance of Denis Herson (Thierry Marchaisse Editions, 2011).

Stanley Appelbaum, editor, Introduction to French Poetry: A Dual-Language Book (Dover, 1969).

Jean Cocteau, Lettre aux Américains (Grasset, 1949). See my Cocteau, Americans, Dignity, Slinkys, which concerns this text.

Eric McHenry, High Standards: Is the new Philip Larkin poem worthy of publication? Slate, February 10, 2003.

Paul Muldoon, These Be the Verses: Philip Larkin’s ‘Complete Poems’New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 19, 2012.

Derek Walcott, “The Master of the Ordinary,” New York Review of Books, June 1, 1989. Review of Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/The Marvell Press, 1989).


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Larkin, Not Really in Translation

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