“Words as plain as hen-birds’ wings
Do not lie,
Do not over-broider things --
Are too shy.”
A chicken wing has eight bones and three sorts of feathers. To call it plain may be misleading. Only in death – that is, in the kitchen or at table -- is the complexity and elegance uncovered. It’s a part of the chicken I never cared for (I’m a breast man, so to speak). The bones of all birds are the envy of structural engineers. “Over-broider” appears nowhere else in the language. “Broider,” an echo of our “embroider,” is now in linguistic hibernation. The OED gives “to ornament with needle-work.” Larkin’s meaning is clear, and states an ideal. Such words are every honest writer’s aspiration.
“Thoughts that shuffle round like pence
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense
Another ideal. One would like to think of our best thoughts as those that survive, tested against reality, like stones polished in a rock tumbler. Larkin uses the more familiar image of coins worn smooth by time and use. Their worth remains unchanged.
“Weeds are not supposed to grow
But by degrees
Some achieve a flower, although
No one sees.”
Some of the prettiest flowers – including my favorite, G.K. Chesterton’s dandelion – are weeds in anybody’s book. But “weed” is among the most ambiguous nouns in the language. I once discovered a small rural cemetery in upstate New York, a plot of perhaps four-hundred square feet surrounded by a low wall of field stones. The four or five markers were submerged in a sea of blooming phlox.
“Modesties” appeared in Philip Larkin’s self-published XX Poems in 1951. His biographer, James Booth, calls it a “concise manifesto for a poetry of reticence and sincerity,” but he may be over-broidering.