On Mary Mulholland and Larkin

The Monday before last I went to the Bedford, Balham, for the Live Canon launch of Mary Mulholland’s pamphlet, What the Sheep Taught me. It was and is a beautiful old pub, with an amazing performance space. Before Mary read, her guest readers were Simon Maddrell, Alice Hiller and Chris Hardy, all of whom read their fine poems movingly or entertainingly as appropriate.

What the Sheep Taught me consists of 27 poems relating Mary’s experience of sheep-sitting on a Wiltshire farm. The poems branch out in many directions, including relationships, resilience, the cosmos and beyond. What’s often so intriguing about them is that they rarely follow a logical path and instead invariably go off on tangents. In lesser hands, this approach could be off-putting, if not downright irritating, but Mary has an uncanny ability to trust the reader to follow her (counter-)intuitive leaps into the dream-like, e.g. in ‘Kiss’, which opens thus:

In the yard an olive-brown stone
covered in bumps is skulking away.

Once a man took me boating on the Thames.
He wore a green tweed three-piece, a flat cap,
bought a wicker-hamper picnic,
we saw kingfishers.

The poem gets stranger still, but in all Mary’s poems there’s an underlying truth which means that these ventures into the surreal keep the reader engaged and on their mental toes.

Mary’s pamphlet is available here.


I can’t really not mention Larkin, since yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth. Last week, I spent a few days in deepest Holderness, the flatlands of East Yorkshire between Hull and the North Sea.

It’s the area celebrated in ‘Here’, the opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, and which ends in one of trademark, secular-mystical epiphanies:

                             Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

Nowhere is that sense of ‘unfenced existence’ more apparent than along the spit of Spurn, which protrudes three miles into the last knockings of the Humber estuary, much in the same way that Southend Pier does at the end of the Thames.

A field near Spurn
The North Sea from Spurn
The lighthouse at Spurn

From Spurn Point at the end, you can see Bull Sand Fort, a derelict First World War fort guarding the approaches to the Humber. I wonder if it’s what inspired the strange phrase in Larkin’s ‘Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel’: ‘How / Isolated, like a fort, it is’.

What’s for sure is that Holderness is little changed from Larkin’s time. Since he was still alive when I first became interested in poetry, I somehow think of him as being more contemporary than he is. It seems hard to credit that he was born in the same year as another great writer who inspired me to pick up a pencil, Jack Kerouac, though he, of course, had died long before (in 1969) I came of age. They both inclined to melancholy, and both loved jazz, though Kerouac’s hero Charlie Parker was a figure of hate for Larkin. But I digress. Neither has remained a great, direct influence, but bear repeated, pleasurable re-readings.

6 thoughts on “On Mary Mulholland and Larkin

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