Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
by James Booth
Published September, 2014
He bought cheap red wine, which he hated, despite the money that piled up (quarterly was it?) in his account. He went to London with the distinguished poet-historian Robert Conquest for pornography-buying expeditions, the possible exposure of which habit ruled out any possibility of accepting the laureateship after John Betjeman’s death in 1984. He wrote to his mother twice a week, even as her three-decade widowhood filled him with horror, even as he feared that he would die at 63, like his father (he died at 63). He hated the workload of being a head librarian, even as he could imagine nothing else to do with his time. He was deaf, fat and alcoholic, but sustained three affairs at once, putting his decades-long girlfriend Monica Jones through an extended torment, which ended with a two-decades long de facto widowhood living in the suburban house in Hull she inherited from him. Which of course, he hated. He … well, we could go on.
And we do. Year on year, the Philip Larkin industry turns out new material: ever more obscure verse, half-finished, quarter-finished, new letters, reminiscences, anthologies done in multiple versions, new biographies, new studies. The studies are welcome; all the rest much less so. We have long since reached the summit of good new Larkin and are coming down the other side to the land of diminishing returns. In Larkin’s lifetime, the austerity of his output and his exceedingly high standards for publication and collection created a sort of obsession about his ‘real’ character, which gave the poems an extra dimension of power and mystery. This could be sated once he was gone. It was, and it all but consumed his reputation in any number of circles.
Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the owlish provincial librarian-poet was ‘exposed’, first via a collection of letters edited by Anthony Thwaite and published in 1992. To the surprise of many, a surprise that was surprising to more acute observers, the letters revealed Philip Larkin the man to be gleefully racist, sexist and homophobic, yobbish of thought in correspondence with his yobbish mates – Kingsly Amis and all of them – from ‘The Movement’ of the 1950s. The little routines about ‘niggers’ and ‘queers’ were ‘playful’ in that dispiriting way typical of mid-century middle-class white resentment at a changing world. There was no suggestion that Larkin had behaved publicly in such a manner, but the material came as a shock to many who had slotted him in as an avuncular grumbler, a music-hall pessimist for a country accommodating itself to managed decline.
And the damage was done. The political left within the poetic-critical establishment, who had been looking for a way in to him, ever since Larkin had praised Margaret Thatcher in a published interview, had a show day, reading back into his work a defence of English imperial values and whiteness. It is a measure of how bad things were in the 1990s that such a construction of Larkin’s mordant, paradoxical work could be seen as a defence of anything at all, and the attacks on Larkin would eventually get a book-length reply from Hull academic John Osborne, Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence (2008), but for a while there it was dicey. Also ludicrous. Larkin had been, both in poetry and life, your average frustrated everyman, raging powerlessly from his provincial life at forces beyond his control. He was pilloried. The three great modernists who had preceded him had consisted of a murder-glorifying Stalinist-turned-coward and two publicly active anti-semites, one of whom materially aided the Axis war effort. They did real damage, but get a free pass for being flamboyant.
Something was going on here. It seemed pretty likely that the attacks on nasty Phil were less about his opinions and ideology, and a lot to do with the competition he represented. Auden, Eliot and Pound remain capable of transporting us to great heights, but what obsessed them (the latter two especially) – that sense of a world teetering on the edge of catastrophic loss – is less compelling to us because it is, well, lost. We live in the world they feared was coming to pass and, meh, it’s not too bad. But it has its moments of horror, and while Four Quartets doesn’t capture them, the direct lines of ‘Aubade’ seem to:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
However much one might come out the other side of a first encounter with Larkin concluding that he is a little too direct, if the poetry got you at all – and it doesn’t get everyone – it never really lets you go. You want to know more. But in Larkin’s lifetime and for a decade after, there wasn’t much more to go on. Three mature collections (one difficult to obtain), one Yeatsian pre-mature collection, a half-dozen uncollected poems bobbing up here and there, two novels of youth, a collection of jazz reviews and one of other occasional writing, and that was it. The last of these contained two interviews for the Paris Review, which filled out the biographical persona established by the collected weight of the poems with a persona no-less performed: that of the scrupulous professional librarian and wry unfussy Englishman, standing at a distance from the work’s thoroughgoing pessimism.
But who he was remained out of reach. Was he the meek sexless batchelor librarian he appeared to be? The man who not only didn’t get it, but didn’t get any? His appearance – a blinky, flabby Mr Toad – seemed to suggest so, which could not but impute certain meanings to some of the best known poems. An unloved man writing ‘what will survive of us is love’ has a sadness to it, which is somewhat undermined by the persona of the perpetually drunk backwoods three-timer he turned out to be.
It shouldn’t of course, but it does. And it will be decades before Larkin’s work re-emerges as poetry in its own right, rather than as the accompaniment to a life that has become, to use one of his preferred images, emblematic. In this respect, the damage done to him by his enemies is as nothing compared to the actions of his friends. You could say that it was inevitable that the letters would be published – although in the age of email, we could start to ask why it is necessary or desirable to circulate half-century-old detritus of half-sustained friendships, beyond scholarly access – but this had been accompanied by an extraordinary act in which his literary co-executor Thwaite issued a Collected Poems (1988) which broke apart the running order of the poems in the three mature collections – The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) – and sorted them by date of composition, with lesser uncollected works interleaved accordingly. The result was a disaster, since Larkin, more than any other modern poet, had seen the arrangement and selection of his books as part of the effect. The old jazz fan knew that getting the set order right was half the trick. Thwaites must surely have seen this too, but relied on a defence of scholarly practice – dated publication – for his actions. Yet this was no scholarly edition; it was the first time that all of Larkin’s mature verse had been collected in one place, and it was especially significant for the poems in his first mature volume, The Less Deceived, which had been published by the Marvell Press, a small Hull-based outfit, which for decades refused to sell the rights to Faber, but repeatedly let the volume go out of print.
Howls of protest followed. A decade or so later, a new edition was released, restoring Larkin’s ordering. What can explain Thwaite’s act? It is difficult not to believe that a degree of filial rebellion was at work. Both Thwaite and Andrew Motion, author of the rather prim and disapproving official Larkin biography, are poets working in the realist, anti-Romantic, post-Movement tradition – yet neither had Larkin’s ability, or inclination, to transcend those generic limits. Hysteria, even of a controlled type, is one response to the anxiety of influence.
Worse was to come, as, into the 2000s, Larkin’s biography began to eclipse his poetry. As it turned out, the hermit of the Hull mudflats was not so abstemious after all. Not only was there a lifelong girlfriend, Monica Jones, a racy bottle blonde who taught English at Leicester University, but, from the the mid 1960s on, a long parallel affair with a co-worker Maeve Brennan, and eventually a third one with his secretary Betty Mackereth – the last of these coinciding with the waning of Larkin’s poetic drive and a sudden collapse of morale in his mid-40s.
They started, they stopped, Larkin lied and double-bluffed, and lied again. Monica, denied the marriage with him she desired, got none of its comforts and all of its cruelties. She stuck with him. They all did. By the end, when he was in hospital with the cancer that shut it all down, the three of them were car-pooling to visit. Old Mr Disappointment who mocked the pursuit of desire, especially in the grand artistic manner (‘the shit in the shuttered chateau / who does his five hundred words / and parts out the rest of the day / between bathing and boozing and birds’) was revealed as a shag-rat extraordinaire.
This was just too good for the British culture machine to ignore. Additional and unnecessary biographies followed, as well as memoirs by those who knew him. The BBC, which dramatises the private lives of the nation’s culture heroes with the same sense of unquestioned urgency with which it entertained a desperate nation during World War II, produced a half-dozen television and radio documentaries and dramas on this aspect of his life. By the turn of the millennium, the poet’s love life had become the subject of a West End play, Larkin With Women (1999), which was inevitably reviewed by Maeve Brennan herself. For decades, the poems had been read against a background of post-war austerity and submission to limits. This was now flown away, revealing a circus behind.
But the laughter didn’t last. Having been judged for his private political opinions as if they were public ones in the 1990s, Larkin was publicly flayed for his private life in the 2000s and into the teens. Letters to Monica (2010), published after Jones’s death, did not help, to say the least. Though it threw up yet more humour – such as Larkin and Jones’s holiday hobby, continued over decades, of altering a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Flight From The Enchanter (1956) by writing in words like ‘bum’ or ‘cunt’ for every noun, until the entire novel was an annotated obscenity – it revealed Larkin to be about as selfish a shit as most men or women can be in longstanding affairs. Well actually, worse than most. Monica’s letters are missing from the collection, but they would have to be real mindfucks to match Larkin’s determination to tell his girlfriend of three decades how much he doesn’t love her, can’t spend time with her, but is at the same time so hysterically depressed (not his words) that he can’t lift himself off the bed on the weekends.
Letters to Monica is as unnecessary as it is addictive. Larkin’s roll-call of the crappy vicissitudes of modern humdrum existence goes far beyond the realism of novelists who had risen with him, such as Kingsley Amis and John Wain, wandering all the way into Sartrean / Camusian territory in its lo-fi explorations of the nausea and contingency of brute existence. Yet inevitably, much of the attention was turned to how he kept Monica on a string for years, wore down Maeve’s resistance to an affair, triple-timed the woman he was two-timing Monica with – and when the cancer had got him and he needed looking after, let Monica move in. In the world of public reading, the poems were hanging by a thread.
By now, however, a new generation of interpreters had come along, less caught up with the position wars of prior decades and, unlike his rival literary sons Thwaites and Motion, with something less of a personal and professional agenda. John Osborne followed up his attack on Larkin’s more simplistic critics with Radical Larkin (2014), a close reading of nine of the poems, meticulous explorations of the innovative complexity that Larkin deployed within standard forms. In 2005, James Booth had released Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight. Though more conventional than Osborne’s, Booth’s study was valuable as an extended reading of the whole body of work, mapping its myriad interconnections and commonalties – a corrective against something else that was happening to Larkin: his fame was shifting away from both the symbolic work of the 1950s and longer poems like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, and towards the punkier pieces, such as ‘High Windows’ and of course ‘This Be The Verse’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’), which can appear as no more than artless telegrams of despair.
Such a recovery effort is certainly worth mounting, and Booth’s instinct is sound – nothing short of a revisionist biography can return Larkin to the realm of the poetic. But I am less certain about whether Booth has got it right with Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. Larkin, the work, the life, arouses strong emotions in many who engage with it, and out of love and loyalty Booth may have given us a Larkin as oversimplified as the hate-figure who appeared briefly in the 1990s.
Booth’s point is simple enough: Larkin projected multiple personas in his life, many of which summoned up images of old Englishness, while at the same time getting on with being a modern person and an important poet. Some of this has been obvious for some time. Though he projected the approved Movement-style philistinism and Little-Englandism, the poems of The Less Deceived are the obvious product of someone steeped in French symbolism, pre-war surrealism, and the explosive effects – judiciously employed in Larkin’s case – of apocalyptics such as George Barker. Though he cursed daily work in ‘Toads’, he applied himself to every position he held as librarian, from the time he entered the profession in World War II, to his pioneering role as the first head librarian of a million-volume single-building university library in the UK. Well-known for championing the work of the utterly Anglo Barbara Pym, he also played a leading role in getting Vikram Seth into print. And so on, and so on.
Booth is keen to dispel many of the myths that have grown up around Larkin, either through sheer repetition, or through the absence of correction in earlier books and memoirs. This is something of a mixed success, since many of the myths turn out to have a great deal of truth to them. Larkin’s father, a local government administrator in Coventry and a Germanophile, did not have a large wind-up Hitler figurine on the mantelpiece which would give a Nazi salute; it was in fact much smaller than later anecdotes made it out to be. And he did have to have it gently suggested to him that he remove it, what with the Nazis bombing the city to rubble and all. (It had been acquired during a visit to Germany. Larkin pere, was a renowened urban administrator, who had gone to instruct the Nazis on modern urban management.)
Nor is it true that Larkin wrote unpublished lesbian schoolgirl spank fiction; he wrote published and well-worked-over lesbian schoolgirl spank fiction: two volumes of stories that appeared under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman. Here and elsewhere, Booth tries a little too hard to take some of the juice out of these stories, even when it is clear that they add up to Larkin being one unusual dude. Booth records numerous correctives, stressing the degree to which Larkin was more social and professionally outgoing than his performed persona made him out to be. But he leaves out much of the more recently published attestations to the fact that Philip Larkin was, in fact, a miserable sod. Letters to Monica has one item, for example, in which he recounts one of his weekend bicycling church visits, how he stopped for a pint, and then laments that it would all be more fun if he only had one friend to do it with. In dozens of such letters, there are moments that give a darker picture of the man than Booth is willing to admit: someone genuinely isolated, anguished, and slowly dying of it all.
What else has Booth omitted? The less-than-world expert can only judge by stray pieces of knowledge, but even this amateur Larkinian knows that stuff is missing that, as they say in court, goes to character. Thus Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (1983) includes a review of Sylvia Plath, published after her death, which concludes, a little harshly, that the borderline psychotic persona of her late verse was an act that got the better of her, but that what she turned out was still ‘remarkable’. Privately, he noted that he thought Plath’s poetry was mostly rubbish, but felt compelled to be as generous as he could manage. In the 1950s, he had co-sponsored the Marvell’s Press’s UK edition of Heart’s Needle by the proto-confessional poet W. D. Snodgrass, a volume which centres on a suite of poems about the separation from his small daughter by reason of divorce. Almost everyone finds ‘Heart’s Needle’ moving, if ultimately sentimental. Larkin? ‘I do not like Snodgrass, dopy kid-mad sod,’ he wrote to Monica, noting that he had only sponsored the volume as a favour to Marvell Press co-proprietor George Hartley, whom he now also hated.
Kid-mad idiot. The phrase is as life-denying and indicative as a remark of Larkin’s remembered by Kingsley Amis: ‘why should I spend five pounds taking a woman to dinner, when I can toss off in five minutes and have the evening to myself?’ ‘There is something very funny in that remark,’ Amis notes, ‘but also very sad.’ When Kingsley Amis thinks your attitude to life is a little warped, you’ve really got problems. Larkin was less of an ogre than his detractors made out, but more of a gimp than champions such as Booth are willing to admit.
Yes, Larkin did separate out the spheres of his life. The grouchy reactionary who would later suggest that all universities other than Oxbridge be closed down, had thrown out existing and modest designs for a new library when he got to Hull and championed an amibitious, Corbusieresque machine-for-books, throwing himself into questions of object flow, humidity control and the like. The result was a model for the new megalibraries that would be at the centre of university expansion in post-war Britain. Later, the increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-academic old bastard – by the end, his literary approval was reserved solely for the horseracing thrillers of Dick Francis (actually written by Mrs Francis) – was a prime mover in US-style manuscript and archive acquisition in the UK. All this is worth noting as a measure of the degree to which reactionary fogeyism was a masquerade with aesthetic and personal uses. However much he may have privately expressed hatred for the type of society Britain was becoming, in his public life he was helping it to get there.
But if you are going to take a biographical approach, you have to go in hard, with someone like Larkin more than anyone else, and say that it is bleeding obvious that there was a worm of death that hatched in him early and grew until it became the whole of him, at which point he died, of the same disease his father had had, and at the same age. Travelling there with him, it is difficult not to pass judgement on what sort of collateral damage was occurring, all the while knowing what a ludicrous exercise such things are, and how compulsive such a focus has become. The most fervent advice you give to someone who is just discovering Larkin, and is intrigued to know more about the man is, obviously: Don’t. But once you are in amongst it, you can’t help but do a lot of yelling at him. It is difficult not to conclude that he all but consumed Monica Jones’s life in his own long dying because he wouldn’t marry her, in 1950s Britain when everyone was, but also wouldn’t let her go; that he preferred to be laid catatonic with loneliness and depression rather than live in the same city with his girlfriend, much less the same house; and that all this was not merely neurotic incapability, but a product of his pursuit of what he called ‘art’ but which was really something else found within it.
It is here, I think, that Booth’s nerve falters. Larkin: Life, Love and Art mixes a biography of the poet with extended interpretations of the poems, often from a directly biographical perspective. Useful in some circumstances, this approach often degenerates into a spot-the-correlative in some of the later poems (à la which hospital is the Hospital in ‘The Hospital’) and it is seriously overstretched in an assessment of the more symbolic works of the 1950s.
Take the mysterious and darkly comic lyric ‘Whatever Happened?’, in which every possible holiday or adventure disaster is crowded together in a manner that makes impossible a realist re-assembly of a single event:
At once whatever happened starts receding
Panting and back on board, we line the rail
With trousers ripped, light wallets, and lips bleeding….
Unhooding our photometers and, snap!
… Later, it’s just a latitude. The map
Points out how unavoidable it was
‘Such coastal bedding always brings mishap’
The non-event quickly widens into a more general question of events themselves – what disaster involving coastal geography could leave you pickpocketed and with bleeding lips? What could possibly be being photographed? So the poem is at least partly a game about language and reference, gesturing in a direction that writers such as John Ashbery were beginning to take and that Larkin – perhaps thankfully, perhaps regrettably – did not. (Apparently Monica, an extreme English-language chauvinist, twitted him out of any sort of symbolic approach deriving from continental models.)
Booth not only tries to reassemble a real event from the poem – ‘it is implied that some sordid brawl has occurred during a shore visit from a cruise ship’ – but then attempts to read it through an event in Larkin’s life coincident with the poem’s composition: his affair with Patsy Strang, a racy and highly-strung bohemian and would-be poet in the classic mid-century style. She became pregnant by him, then miscarried. According to Booth, ‘The impact of Patsy’s emotional manipulativeness is reflected in the ripped trousers and bleeding lips.’ Sounds like quite a gal.
To make such a deliberately non-referential poem into a particular event is beyond arbitrary – it is effectively a category error about the nature of reference, an inherent psychologism whereby the work must be grounded in a defined mental entity, even one to which it has no resemblance to whatsoever. That is a bizarrely archaic approach, but it is of a piece with the approach taken to Larkin by detractors and supporters alike: a relentless drive to domesticate the work, whether by means political, ideological or personal. John Osborne’s Radical Larkin seeks to break out of this impasse to a degree, but even here the conception of radicalism is limited to a radical undermining within poetics.
What is odd is the manner in which the truly radical character of Larkin’s poetry all but hides in plain sight, relatively little observed. For it seems clear that what marks Larkin off from much, or virtually all, of the English tradition is its very continental ontological focus, its overwhelming attention not to surfaces, states of mind, moods, events, beliefs or thought systems per se, but to beings and Being, and the various ways in which Being discloses itself. Larkin’s pursuit, through all but the most occasional parts of his oeuvre, is to try and catch Being as itself, prior to any presence or appearance. That is impossible, of course, but the manner of failing to achieve this aim essentially manifests the particularity of Larkin’s work.
In his more symbolic poems of the 1950s, the approach is explicit, in poems such as the above-mentioned ‘Whatever Happened?’ or the placeless and all but substanceless ‘Absences’, describing the movement of the sea and wind (‘above the sea… / … wind trails lit-up galleries / they shift to giant ribbing, sift away … ), and even the relatively stagey early-mature poem ‘Going’ (‘There is an evening coming in across the fields …’).
By the time of The Whitsun Weddings, composed over the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, the symbolic style carrying ontological concerns has been reconciled with a more English realist tradition. Thus the panoramic sweep of the opening poem ‘Here’ quickly cuts loose from its attempt to survey the region from a pseudo-cinematic point-of-view – imitative perhaps of Auden’s newsreelish ‘Consider This And In Our Time’ – and is ultimately overwhelmed by the impossibility of being present to it, terminating in an existence ‘unfenced … out of reach’. Poems ostensibly about time and memory, appear focused on Being’s riddle. Even an ostensibly cosy work such as ‘At Grass’, about pastured race horses, appears to use them as a lure to stage the disappearance of the world that surrounded them:
Silks at the start : against the sky
Numbers and parasols : outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass : then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.
Do memories plague their ears like flies?
The answer of course being ‘no’. They’re animals, without Dasein; no world, no field of being exists for them, nor ever did. The speaker-observer seeks a way in which the past – being become nothing – might live within them. But they have ‘slipped their names’ – their identities as race-horses were only ever our projection of a quasi-human selfhood onto them. Now that is gone and
Only the grooms, and the grooms boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
And one evening they will be led off. It is this repeated and insistent play with Being, a repeated return to it, that marks Larkin off from just about all of his English contemporaries. Indeed, he is the most profound and philosophical of all post-war English poets. Those of his contemporaries who appear to be more focused on Das Big Stuff remained trapped in what Heidegger called the ‘ontic’, as opposed to the ontological: the concern with the particularity of beings – animals for Ted Hughes, history for Geoffrey Hill – without that initial focus flowing to attention on Being in general. The ontological drive is what gives even the most occasional piece by Larkin a more throughgoing power. Take, for example, ‘Sympathy in White Major’, a sort of a Möbius strip gag of a poem, the title of which alludes to Theophile Gautier’s impressionistic ‘Symphony in White Major’ (‘Symphonie en blanc majeur’). In Larkin’s poem, the fey delight of the French verse at all things white is superseded by the very English business of pouring a gin-and-tonic:
When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in private pledge:
He devoted his life to others.
Here’s to the whitest man I know!
Though white is not my favourite colour.
With the middle stanza being another of Larkin’s several reflections, self-mocking this time, on the choice of ‘art’ over ‘life’ as a selfless commitment, a first-order reading could take the poem as mocking the reputation Larkin had begun to acquire: that of a public poet. Poems such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ had been received gratefully by many as a first-rank poet turning his art to shared experiences, rather than private mental states (if Plath had used the same subject-matter, the wedding train would doubtless have been cattle-trucks en route to the Auschwitz of marriage by stanza four). Larkin twists the mockery by cross-referencing Gautier’s aestheticist poem with the old Victorian-imperial phrase of approval ‘You’re a white man!’ Here, the only really satisfying whiteness is the opaque foaming of a G-and-T, the ultimate satisfaction of the philistine Anglo-Saxon type. Being and non-being interact: the tonic becomes a void (beloved image of the Symbolists), the ice dissolves into the tonic, both disappearing into gaseous foam. The ballet of objects matches the speaker’s anxiety – he too is disappearing into whiteness, unwrittenness, the blank page. The material performance of the first stanza, its fascination with liquidity as a strange state of being, echoes the wild multiform sea of ‘Absences’, now not only miniaturised, but specifically culturalised.
‘Sympathy in White Major’ recalls a simpler poem, ‘Water’, in which the speaker suggests that, were he called on to create a religion, he would make use of water. The poem ends with:
And I should raise in the East
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly
Well, now he has. But it will soon be drunk. As will be the fast disappearing speaker. In ‘Sympathy in White Major’, subjective being, the observer, is taken to be of far less interest, than the strange and lingering existence of objects and elements – ice, water, gaseous foaming – all doing their thing with an utter indifference to us.
‘Sympathy’ is not the only poem in which Larkin is attempting to contemplate presence through absence. In ‘I Remember, I Remember’, the speaker looks out of a train window, only just noticing that they have pulled into Coventry, the town of his birth – after which he catalogues all the things, taken from the clichés of twentieth-century memoir and fiction – that did not happen:
By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
The ‘nothing’ is different to the ‘not’, converting a neat running joke, into an intimation of horror. The speaker has not become anything. Something didn’t happen. Earlier, he notes:
I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which.
This was not difficult in Coventry, since it was essentially two cities – the one Larkin had grown up in, and the one that had been rebuilt as the model of a modern English new town after it had been extensively bombed in World War II. The bombing damage was less extensive than had been made out: post-war planners were eager to have a model for urban reconstruction, so there was mass demolition to create a cityscape of austere modernism. Effectively, it is a double disappearance: subject and object, past and present – all annihilated.
When one begins to read Larkin with an eye towards Being, I would suggest he becomes a rather more powerful poet than is apparent on nodding acquaintance. Such an approach brings into focus the obsession with death, in particular. Larkin’s allegedly unflinching attention to death has been taken as the mark of his seriousness as a poet, even when it is clear that he teeters on the edge of Woody Allen-ish self-parody in such ruminations. ‘Aubade’, for example, is an overrated poem, compared to the strongest parts of his work. The programmatic roll-call of all the consoling arguments around death never really yields to a grand or terrifying image, or turn within the poem, such as Larkin is capable of at his best.
Yet even here he is capable of touching on the horror that lies beneath personal extinction, that of non-Being as a primary ungrounding:
Being dead is, among other things:
Nothing to think with
Nothing to love or link with
Non-being haunts Larkin’s oeuvre, and is his way into the world. Larkin is a nihilist, the cozy particularities hiding the intent towards destruktion. In his most winningly bleak moments, such as the end of ‘Dockery and Son’, he fuses the fear of personal extinction with the sense of a nameless, contentless force of the universe that drives against Being. That ending more or less annihilates backwards all the preceding lines of the poem with their particularities of life, the business of maturing and becoming, leading to an empty railway station at night, the poet mocked by the image as he
The platform to its end to see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong
Which leads to:
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
The presentlessness of such forces, their inability to be named as anything other than ‘something’, is what gives Larkin’s verse a character of enlivening terror. His nihilism is what lifts him absolutely out and above his contemporaries, not only because it drives him to stronger verse, but because it seems, in the end, to represent a sort of personal and aesthetic courage. The content derived is that of a journey into the world, conducted by systematically stripping away the ultimate consolation of the Romantic attitude – the prior givenness of the world, as manifested by the variability and unity of Nature. In so doing, classic form is enlivened in a manner that the Romantic attitude has no access to.
Perhaps it is this that makes Larkin important to so many of us, to a whole group of people who read poetry without being part of what has now become the cult of poetry, the hermetically sealed world in which hundreds of writers and readers still engage in bitter polemic over different approaches to language and the world. In post-war English language verse, in the small lyric, there seems nothing like Larkin, no poet capable of those sudden drops and transformations, of taking the world, and hence the reader, utterly by surprise.
Larkin once remarked, on looking at some contemporary verse: ‘well that’s a nice idea, but why didn’t you turn it into a poem?’ Courting the charge of philistinism, one can’t help but agree with him. In the wake of the great Modernist rise and fall, so much poetry now appears to aspire to no more than following a line of thought, or general musings, or a linguistic trick or riff. The readership of such poetry has shrunk largely to those who are practitioners or critics, and state funding has become routinised, a great poetry production machine. Of course, there are living poets worth reading, some of whose talents outstrip Larkin’s. But dipping back into the world of poetry from time to time can be a dispiriting experience. A bewildering one too, if you have ever spent any time working in commercial cultural production. ‘That’s all you’ve got for that whole poem?’ you think. ‘That half-formed thought? I needed four of those a day in the trenches of television / advertising / etc.’
Larkin, working in the modest genre of the small lyric – nothing that Larkin published or finished is longer than two pages – is not like that, and the assiduity with which he pursued finished versions of his mature work, up hill and down dale, across pages and pages of workbooks for months and years, was not unconnected to his orientation towards Being, to the stripping away of appearances and commonplaces. He is determined to grab existence by the lapels and interrogate it by way of his exceptional talents. He is doing it with no illusion that a God or great system will emerge to stand between persona and oblivion.
In his Paris Review interview, Larkin remarked self-parodically that ‘deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’. But deprivation is a state that invites nobility of purpose, either through renunciation or application of will. Larkin was really a poet of dissatisfaction, quite a different thing, and much closer to the surrounds of our daily lives. His subject is the shittiness of everyday existence: life in middle age, like a ‘bent-in visor’ on dark mornings, or the punk kick-off to ‘High Windows’ (‘When I see two kids / and guess he’s fucking her and she’s / taking pills or wearing a diaphragm …’); it is life’s squidgy, resistant, contingent quality; how it infantilises and bewilders us, while revealing within it a transcendent quality – which, it transpires, is often more appalling than the mess you were in in the first place. That appears to be the central conundrum that drives us back to the minutaie of Larkin’s life again and again, back to the everyday blah he ‘endured’, to the cat’s cradle of neuroses that kept him pursuing rampant ambition with unbridled desire but which also kept him close to the ground, to a dull provincial city where he had to go to Marks and Spencer’s and terrible work do’s with terrible red wine.
Booth has done good service by the poet that he loves, as part of a third-generational process by which the work is being normalised. But the most beguiling persona that Larkin deployed remains undisturbed by the English, because it is Englishness itself, or its idea of itself: empirical, anti-intellectual, unspiritual. This was that pose that allowed Larkin’s work its full effect. Now that we have committed to a thorough and complete archaeology around the monument he has become, the failure to investigate him as a European poet, more continental than the continentals, suggests either a failure of the critical imagination, or the ultimate wild success of Larkin’s.