Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central concern of “Reasons for Attendance” is the choice between competing ways of life—a life of human connection and sexuality, and the detached, isolated life of the artist/misanthrope. In this poem (as in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”), the decision-making process itself is dramatized for the reader. In Larkin’s poem, the reader sees what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “dialogic imagination” at work as separate “voices”—the “trumpet’s voice” and the “rough-tongued bell”—struggle to present their competing claims.

After noting how he answers the trumpet call of the dance hall, the detached poet becomes more and more engaged by the movements of the “flushed face” dancers until he can actually “sense” the “smoke and sweat” beyond the glass. Finally seduced by thoughts of the “wonderful feel of girls,” he is forced to ask himself, “Why be out here?” At this moment, the voice of individuality is compelled to counter with “But then, why be in there? Sex, yes, but what/ Is sex?”

Triggered by the mention of sex, Larkin the individualist plunges ahead to proclaim his judgment of the notion that supreme happiness is possible only through sexuality: “Surely, to think the lion’s share/ Of happiness is found by couples—sheer/ Inaccuracy, as far as I’m concerned.” Forced by the break in stanzas after the word “sheer” to wait to hear the poet’s final assessment, the reader...

(The entire section is 581 words.)