David Reads “The Trees,” by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin in a library. Photograph by Fay ...
Philip Larkin, writer and librarian. Photograph by Fay Godwin. © The British Library Board (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Coming in at the end of day 17 in my Poetry Month personal challenge of recording a poem per day this April. If you followed at all last year, you’ll remember the challenge involved all videos on my YouTube channel. This year I’ve modified things a bit because I don’t actually have the three to four hours extra time per day. First, the majority of these are actually being recorded on my SoundCloud stream, and only a few so far have been on YouTube. I’ve made a conscious effort to record them this year in as few takes as possible, often in only the first or second take. Now, that might mean that all the readings won’t be as polished, but this approach forces me to read the poem several times through first, then not piddle about, and concentrate on getting it right the first time.

Also, I kept myself to 30 poets in 2012, but this year I’ve done some repeats. Actually, I did repeat Kenneth Koch by accident last year, but oh well. You can click here to check out the playlist for last year’s challenge, or click here for April, 2012 as it appears on the pages of  The Dad Poet. Sorry, it scrolls backwards in the archives, but I tended to write a good deal more commentary here on the blog than I did in the video descriptions.

And this year I am not being as hard on myself as to whether I get the recording done by midnight, as I work a lot of evenings. Generally, you might notice that after about a day, I adjust the time of the reading to a short bit before midnight. If I miss it’s generally only by only a few minutes anyway. The reason I do this is not to be deceptive, but so that by month’s end the archive will have each day’s recording on the proper day whether I finished on time, or missed by a minute (or an hour). Seriously, it’s past midnight now, but since I haven’t yet been to bed, to me it’s still Wednesday, and it’s already been the 18th for five hours to my friends in the UK, so time is pretty relative anyway.

The point though is that poetry is not just something to be seen, but also something to be heard. And it’s been sort of my personal mission for a while now to try to help bring poetry alive to people whose hearts were dead to the art form (usually killed off in high school, which is, as Billy Collins says, ” where poetry goes to die” ). I contend that awakening can happen when people hear it read, or even better, when they read it out loud for themselves. So really, you need to try it yourself! Can’t quite wrap your brain around the style, the cadence, the diction, the odd line endings of a poet with whom you are unfamiliar? Read her/his work out loud, and you’ll be surprised how soon you start to get a feel for it.

English: Larkin toad, Hull (10) This is the La...
This is the LarKin (sic) Toad, painted to resemble the poet himself, in the Princes Quay shopping centre, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire. .Part of the Larkin with Toads series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my greatest influences in this was by the good man from the SpokenVerse channel on YouTube. He goes by the pseudonym Tom O’Bedlam. And he does a better job than I at reading today’s poem by Philip Larkin. Click here to hear the poem in Tom’s incredible voice. His visuals also include the view from Larkin’s “High Windows.” O’Bedlam also has a link to a clip of Larkin reading the poem himself. Poets are not always the best readers of their own work, sad to say, but Philip Larkin’s version is quite lovely.

There are things about Larkin that remind me of Tomas Hardy, though that might seem like a leap to you. It’s something about the dark humor and the themes of death, though Larkin seems to have a lot more light in his poems than Hardy did. This one is a good example of what I mean, with its talk of new life and starting over. Like yesterday’s poem from Emily Dickinson, it is fitting for the spring season. It’s called “The Trees.”

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

–Philip Larkin

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for doing a reading of this one, David. My own knowledge of Larkin extends only as far as the obscene and delightful “This Be The Verse” (which takes his “dark humor” to the very darkest end of his humor spectrum). “The Trees” treads there, but lightly, and still hauntingly.


    1. “This Be the Verse” is a favorite of mine too. Here is one of my favorite readings of it, from IBlamePoetry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmUfkyItPic

      But yes, this one hit me beautifully.


  2. Lovely.

    I see you have a link to Roger McGough (my favourite poet) in the Guardian. I’d like to hear you read Roger McGough. I think the difference in accents would be interesting.


    1. hmmm. . . I may give that a try! Thank you. 🙂 My friend Suzie enjoyed my Keats reading “To Autumn,” in part she said, because I didn’t have the accent, or wasn’t trying to imitate the right one. I just listened to my friend Ygor read my poem “Decorum” in his gorgeous Brazilian Portuguese accent. I swear he made the poem sound so much better than I could have.


  3. Psst. . . I just added a bit about the recording time.


  4. I often think other people read my poetry much better than I can.

    Carol Ann Duffy read at my graduation ceremony and she was dreadful! She mumbled her way through the poem and never looked up once. I was so disappointed – and a little embarrassed for her!

    I listened to your Keats; lovely again. Your readings are always enjoyable; your love of language shines through every time. I was interested to note that you paused at the end of each line, even when there was no punctuation mark. I was taught to follow the punctuation and read poetry like prose in that sense.

    I love that there is no right way to enjoy poetry; that every poem we read is personal to us.


    1. The pauses. Yes, that’s been a topic of discussion before. I was taught the same thing as you were, in order to avoid the “sing-songy’ nursery rhyme way poems can end up. But if you listen to Yeats reading his own poems, or even poets as recent as Robert Frost, those guys seemed to really like the lilt of the verse. There is a story Tom O. talks about with Yeats, how he was insulted when he heard someone read his poem in sentences. He said something to the effect of, “I worked hard to put those lines into verse, and I’ll be damned if I’ll allow him to turn it into prose!” 🙂 So over time I’ve developed some of my own theories about line endings. I try to keep it subtle, but if the rhyme, meter and music seems to depend on it, I pause more noticeably.

      But even in free verse, I figure that the line ends where it does for a reason, even if that reason is hard to figure out, so I keep it in mind. Should I stress that word more strongly at the end of the line? If the line ends on “of” or “if” should I stress more strongly the first word in the next line? I believe those things become more important to think about if the poem is not already guided by a structured meter. But it seems I get it wrong sometimes, even in my own work. Or at least I’ll hear someone who reads it better. I too have heard poets read their own work and it sounded so much better in my own head.

      Like you, I think the various interpretations make it interesting. In the three versions of the Larkin poem, Tom’s, Larkin’s and mine, there are obvious differences, but they are all legitimate I think. I am partial to Larkin’s reading of this one. 🙂

      Thank you so much for the delightful discussion. Always! Way past bed time for me. Eeek! Goodnight, good morrow!


    2. I like your reasoning, which never occurred to me!

      The joy of poetry – learning something new 🙂

      Sleep well.


  5. I remember my mother reading me High Windows at the breakfast table. Love The Trees on a chilly morning.


  6. slpmartin says:

    A perfect poem as spring begins its journey across the various parts of the world…and another excellent reading.


    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Charles!


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