We read this poem in my class last week while we were doing a snippet of Longfellow's Hiawatha, because, somewhat remarkably, Larkin uses the same stanza in this poem. This is especially so in the first half of the poem.
Basically, I was just trying to throw something out there that they might like, or find relevant, or interesting, or anything, all while trying to have an awareness of meter. Failure on all counts mostly. As you'll recall, here's a bit from the Longfellow:
Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing-line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, King of Fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha.
Through the clear, transparent water
He could see the fishes swimming
Far down in the depths below him;
See the yellow perch, the Sahwa,
Like a sunbeam in the water,
See the Shawgashee, the craw-fish,
Like a spider on the bottom,
On the white and sandy bottom.
Anyway, here's the Larkin.
On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
Larkin conceived of the poem after seeing a mine explosion reported on TV, sometime in the late 1960s. I don't really know why he choose to write it in the oft-parodied Hiawatha meter, or even if it was a conscious choice. Perhaps its only a visual matter, but not one of pacing. It seems like a poem meant to be read slowly.