Analysis of “Sunny Prestatyn” by Philip Larkin.
I will try to limit myself to original, nonobvious observations. I know that the following is highly speculative, and I risk making a complete fool of myself by revealing my personal analysis of this Larkin poem. Larkin’s poems are very easy to misinterpret, as I have found to my cost. Irony hides in the least expected places in Larkin’s poetry. But I figure, what the hell. Here goes. Let me know in the comments which of the following thoughts you like or dislike.
The title may allude to “sonny pressed it in”, meaning both that a young man pressed his penis in, as well as a young man pressed “a knife of something into “the moustached lips of her smile”.
In fact, if you look it up, you can see that “Prestatyn” is correctly pronounced not “pressed it in” but “press TAT in”, but that’s not problem for my theory. Larkin rhymes it with “white satin” in the poem.
“Tautened white satin” suggests innocence because white, but also white underwear and hence the idea that the image is borderline pornography — Larkin is said to have been very keen on pornography, at least in private.
“Behind her a hunk of coast” suggests a delectable piece of paradise, as well as the word “behind” reminding us that she has a behind that is a hunk of paradise to some young man.
“A hotel with palms” confirms the image of a slice or hunk of paradise, calling to mind the south of France, or even a “tropical paradise”, but one that one can access without leaving the UK.
“Spread breast-lifting arms” may allude to “Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas (published in 1954, one year after his death), which starts:
“ To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”
Thomas was Welsh, and Prestatyn is in Wales. So Larkin may have wished to subtly salute Dylan Thomas and thus Wales, perhaps as a way to indicate that he regarded the poster as a wholesome work of art. The link is the alliteration of “spread” and “breast”, which recalls the alliteration of the Thomas quote, especially that of “slow” and “crow”. The rhythm is somewhat similar, too.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.
Another unforgettable and super-famous line from Under Milk Wood is “The only sea I saw was the seesaw sea with you riding on it. Lie down, lie easy. Let me shipwreck in your thighs.” Besides mentioning both thighs and the sea, and riding (alluded to by “set her fairly astride”), it also has a repetition of sounds that calls to mind Larkin’s “Spread breast-lifting” with its vocalic alliteration.
Larkin may have liked Thomas a lot. Thomas was a very heavy drinker, and was said to have died of drinking (by some). Larkin was also a very heavy drinker and heavy drinkers tend to like each other. Larkin may have died of drinking (he died of cancer of the esophagus (in 1985), which may well have been have caused by drinking — alcohol is strongly carcinogenic).
“Scored well in” may allude to a possible notion of “sonny pressed it in”, being a plausible mispronunciation of “Sunny Prestatyn”, perhaps by a young man.
“[…]the space between her legs held scrawls that set her fairly astride a tuberous cock and balls autographed Titch Thomas” seems to allude to Thomas’s “The only sea I saw was the seesaw sea with you riding on it. Lie down, lie easy. Let me shipwreck in your thighs.”
“She was too good for this life.” might allude to the idea that Thomas had been too good for this life — he died aged only thirty-nine.
It may or may not be a coincidence that “Fight Cancer” has five letters, a space, and then six more letters, just like “Titch Thomas”.
There may be an allusion to anti-Welsh sentiment on the part of the English in Larkin’s poem. Maybe some or all of the vandalism (some would call it “art”) of the poster is in Larkin’s mind motivated by anti-Welsh sentiment. Though very near Liverpool, Prestatyn is on the Welsh side of the border.
Larkin may have been expressing the idea that he loved Thomas, and Wales, or at least didn’t like anti-Welsh sentiment.
“Now Fight Cancer is there.” seems to allude to the stupidity of the British government or whichever Brits created the poster. The reason the poster is stupid and (presumably unintentionally) obnoxious is that it can be read as a curse, meaning “Get sick with cancer”, or “I hope you have to fight cancer”. There really was such a poster by the way. In fact their have been many. Just Google “Fight Cancer poster”.
In much the same way, “KEEP YOUR TEETH CLEAN” could be read as an insult.
Larkin may have been thinking that the English are stupid to hate the Welsh, and stupid to make stupid, annoying, depressing posters, and stupid to deface attractive posters that cheer one up, and perhaps stupid not to like Dylan Thomas as much as he did.