October 22, 2017
Larkin as Monument and Sewer
On this day in 1922 Philip Larkin was born in Coventry, England. By mid-century he was a librarian at the University of Hull and well on his way to becoming one of the preeminent poets of his generation; this reputation is based on poems such as "I Remember, I Remember," in which a man returning to northern England by train barely glances at the city of his birth:
"Was that," my friend smiled, "where you 'have your roots'?"
Larkin's mordant tone and accessible verse became so popular that he was offered the Poet Laureateship shortly before his death in 1985 -- a position which he characteristically declined. Since then, with the publication over the next decade of Collected Poems, Selected Letters, and a biography by Andrew Motion, Larkin has come under fire. Finding racism, sexism, ageism and just routine trenchcoat perversion, some critics now beheld "the sewer under the national monument Larkin became," or "a sporadically excellent minor poet who has been raised to an undeserved monumentality." Many readers were charmed by the idea of the bespectacled bachelor-librarian deflating the right balloons (romantic love, the good old days, other people's egotism), and they could accept his use of the right four-letter word, as in the popular, "This Be the Verse":
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started.
By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest....
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
But with the biography and the letters, many were disconcerting to discover late, previously unpublished poems with the wrong four-letter word, and this sort of despair:
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he's taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow....
Still, Larkin remains popular -- that poem gives the title to the recent movie Love Again -- and he still has defenders as formidable as Martin Amis. Kingsley Amis and Larkin were Oxford chums and lifelong friends, so Martin learned to at least accept that Larkin, like his father, could be an immovable old fogey who had "addicted himself to the endorsement of unattractive opinions." Amis quotes his favorite lines from the Letters: "My mother, not content with being motionless, deaf and speechless, is now going blind" and "[Your life] is the harder course, I can see. On the other hand, mine is happening to me." He also reminds us of the other sides of Larkin -- the "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh" spirit in "The Trees," for example, notwithstanding that Larkin wrote "Bloody awful tripe" at the bottom of his manuscript page. And he reminds us that the great poems -- "The Whitsun Weddings," for example, or the moving, death-lament, "Aubade" -- stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Except, we find in Kingsley Amis's Memoirs, that of his best friend:
And on first reading "Aubade" I should have found a way of telling you that depression among the middle-aged and elderly is common in the early morning and activity disperses it, as you tell us in your last stanza, so if you feel as you say then fucking get up, or if it's too early or something then put the light on and read Dick Francis.
Richard Bradford's recent biography First Boredom, Then Fear (2005) argues against the Larkin-bashing. Pointing out that "virtually all indications that Larkin was a misogynistic, intolerant racist occur in his letters to Colin Gunner and Kingsley Amis," Bradford asks two questions:
Can we claim to know the real Philip Larkin? He played different roles for different people. The personae selected for particular scrutiny and condemnation are, post-1992, the ones which accord with the image of him as a loathsome archetype of Englishness. There are many others, and all are curious combinations of candour, exaggeration and self-parody. Just as significantly, why should we assume that our appreciation of his poems will be tarnished by our knowledge of Larkin as alien from our, in Martin Amis's words, "newer, cleaner, braver, saner world."