Click to read this poem at famous poets and poems.com. (There’s a full stop missing at the end of line 4, by the way.)
This is one of those poems that got me in the gut long before I could understand why. It’s a mere twelve lines of abab stanzas loosely tacked together with half rhymes so unobtrusive you don’t really notice them except as a sense that the poem feels of-a-piece. But it communicates a mood so powerfully. It captures so much about what it can feel like—or rather, what I at least can feel like—in a strange place: the way you notice all the differences from what you are used to, in the smells, the cadences of speech, the soundscape as a whole, the built landscape; the way that those differences show you yourself. But it’s about much more than the experience of travel. It’s a quietly devastating glimpse into what it is to feel ill at ease with yourself—to fear that you’re not “viable” as a person.
Not feeling at home when you’re not at home ‘makes sense’: you aren’t at home. Larkin suggests the relief it is to feel that ‘lonel[iness] in Ireland’ might merely be about ‘difference’. Not feeling at home, at home, though, is a whole different matter. The opening idea of ‘Strangeness ma[king] sense’ is returned to in stanza three, though he doesn’t explicitly say he feels lonely or strange, just as he only uses the conditional form ‘would be much more serious’ rather than ‘is’. There’s something very moving about how he cannot quite bring himself to “own” the feelings—the disquiet, alienation, sadness, loneliness, fear, with which the poem is, quietly, saturated. The poet’s fear that he is ‘unworkable’—a curiously un-personal sort of an adjective: it’s usually problems which are unworkable—can only be named when it is eased; that is, when he’s feeling the reassurance that he’s merely ‘separate’. That’s the ‘importance of elsewhere’: it’s ok to feel bad—or at least, you don’t need to feel bad about feeling bad.
And oh, the economy in that final line: ‘Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence’. The imagery of insurance is so devastating—partly because of the same un-personalness that we saw in ‘unworkable’, partly because it implies there’s something precious—his ‘existence’—which feels under threat. ‘Here’ he has to encounter that doubt of his own “workability” from which he can hide ‘elsewhere’.
In ‘The Pleasure Principle‘, Larkin described how, for him, the writing of a poem ‘consists of three stages: the first is when a man [sic] becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.’
If we’re to judge Larkin by his own standards then, boy, does this poem exist.