Dangerous to Know: On Philip Larkin’s Complete Poems
By Ben HamiltonJuly 20, 2012
The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin
AT LEAST TWICE IN JULIAN Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s humdrum narrator Tony Webster makes passing reference to “the poet.” “And as the poet pointed out,” Webster remarks at one point, “there is a difference between addition and increase,” and, at another, “there were certain implicit trade-offs, some based on whim, others on promise and commitment — up to what the poet called ‘a wrangle for a ring.’”
Who is this anonymous, authoritative “poet” that Barnes invokes? Novelists of old would have reserved the non-specific title for Shakespeare, Milton, or Homer. But we (if we’re English, anyway) would be likely to know who Barnes means immediately, and not just because we recognise the words. This being a 21st century English novel, it can only be Philip Larkin.
That Larkin would become part of the nation’s literary heritage was by no means inevitable, or even predictable. Not long after his death in 1985, Larkin began to have a posthumous public relations crisis. This peaked nearly twenty years ago, around the time of Andrew Motion’s biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, when it seemed as if Larkin’s legacy was about to be derailed by charges of racism, sexism, and general disturbance of the peace. The biography, the selected letters, and the first collected poems edited by Anthony Thwaite — where Larkin’s poems were arranged chronologically, previously unseen verse rubbing shoulders with the canonical works — showed a man who was quick to arrive at his wit’s end, possessed of social and political views based almost entirely on private anger and resentment. (And those are the ones we know about; in what may have been a close call for his reputation, Larkin’s diaries were destroyed after his death.) The charming first stanza of “How to Win the Next Election,” a poem sent privately to friends through letters, goes like this:
Prison for Strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?
Distaste and contempt from the press and the literary establishment duly followed. It became de rigueur to patronise and dismiss the man who, the year before he died, would have been named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom if he hadn’t turned the role down. Commentators and critics leapt to pour scorn on the once-beloved bard of Hull. While it couldn’t be said that they were dishonest in their criticism of the verse — we can’t all like it — righteous outrage over his political opinions encouraged Larkin’s new enemies to put some additional force into their walloping haymakers. Under ordinary circumstances you’d have to set fire to A.N. Wilson’s shirt to provoke him, but even that regal mainstay of the English book pages took to calling Larkin “a petty-bourgeois fascist” and “the old friend I never liked.”
Martin Amis has claimed that Larkin was simply the victim of political correctness — a man with the wrong ideas at the wrong place at the wrong time — but it is possible the poet was due for a temporary dip in his stock. After famous writers die, there’s often a powerful urge to dismiss them for a while; we stash their reputations away for safekeeping, leaving them to age and, hopefully, mature. When our writers are freshly dead, in other words, we want them deader, if only so that we can, decades later, resurrect them with that much greater glory.
And yet even the “news” that he could be a flawed, bitter, and bigoted man off as well as on the page could not stifle the English public’s love for Larkin’s poetry. His words have never been easy to forget, if only because, as set texts in school for many English students, they were so firmly arrowed into our skulls. A great many of us learn “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” before “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” (which, come to think of it, is the better arrangement). It is this cluster of postwar generations that votes for Larkin in specious polls of the U.K.’s Best Loved Poet, and that erects giant fibreglass toads around Hull in the poet’s honour, as happened on the 25th anniversary of his death. Even those of us who have a more ambivalent relationship with his work find ourselves helplessly influenced, struggling to avoid quoting him incessantly.
The Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett, is an effort to pull Larkin’s poetry away from Popularity and towards Significance. It is unfriendly in its size and frightening in its detail. Burnett’s dry introduction features sentences like: “A ‘completion date’ of 12 October 1944 is given for Night-Music (poem XI in TNS) in both editions of Collected Poems and in Tolley’s edition of Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005), and one of the drafts in Workbook I does indeed bear the date ‘12. x. 44’.” Even though almost all the poems have been published before, it sets the reader at ease to know that Burnett has worked like a maniac to ensure we are seeing them in their most correct and definitive condition.
The book includes the entirety of the four main collections published in Larkin’s lifetime — The Night Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, High Windows — with three more sections comprising uncollected, posthumous, and undated or approximately dated poems. To give a sense of proportion: the four collections take up fewer than a hundred pages of the volume, with the other odds and ends filling twice as many. The poems are packed together rather than being given individual pages of their own, presumably because this would nudge the already monstrous volume to well over a thousand pages. For the pleasure-seeking non-scholar, it is unlikely to replace Thwaite — especially his slimmer second edition, which returned the poems to their place in the intended collections — but, as a thorough investigation into the genesis and development of Larkin’s poetic method, Burnett’s Complete Poems seems likely to remain the standard for some time.
The dust jacket promises an edition that establishes Larkin “as a more complex and more literary poet than many readers have suspected.” This is a noble attempt to justify the book’s existence, but there are really no major revelations here on either of these scores. Larkin got a lot of mileage out of his supposed literary ignorance — he frequently suggested that his only poetic influences were Thomas Hardy and W.B. Yeats, and in his Paris Review interview claims not to know who Jorge Luis Borges is — but I never really believed that his word-hoard could have come from Hardy and Yeats alone. Burnett’s notes propose plausible links to James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Paul Valéry, and there are poems that reference Franz Kafka and Walt Whitman directly. Larkin may have ended up as a writer who limited himself to rereading thrillers and the odd Trollope novel, but it’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that he went through the same vacillations of taste as the rest of us.
Complexity, on the other hand, is a slippery word. Larkin’s poetry sometimes attains perfect music, and perfect music is endless in its unravelling. A drabber way of seeing complexity in Larkin’s work, favored by Burnett, is by looking at the long gestation periods of his poems and the obsessive rewrites, and this is probably what the writer of the dust jacket means by the word. We certainly get a sense of a poet who thought hard about his verse. But this, again, is unsurprising, and easy to grasp for anyone who knows that poetry like this does not arrive fully formed at the poet’s doorstep.
Larkin did not find his voice straight away. The early poems show a young poet with a Romantic slant, more playful and less morbid than he would later become. There are lines imitating Blake (“If the flower forgets the earth/And the eldest son his birth”) as well as many more poems in the style of those in his first major collection, The North Ship. These poems often, as John Updike has put it, “strike poses in a humourless vacuum,” which would perhaps be easier to swallow if Larkin wasn’t already being so funny in his correspondence.
In fact it is Larkin’s commentary on his poems that makes the second half of the book worth visiting for the casual reader. His acerbic self-assessments run from the pithy “awful” and “fucked” to “I am no good, all washed up, can’t even write a bad poem, let alone a good one.” There are also long riffs from his letters, where an exaggerated coarseness becomes his greatest comedic weapon, such as this grumble to Kingsley Amis about his new summer job as a clerk:
Work consists of reducing a fucking great pile of Fuel Rationing forms… into a great fucking pile of Fuel Rationing forms in alphabetical order of streets and numbers according to the Rate Book, whose numbering goes NOT 1-2-3-4-5-6 but 2-4-6-5-3-1. WHY? Because, once upon a time, a rate collector used to walk up the street and down the other side. Consequently, you have to sort 60 forms out of 5,000 of one street, say, divide them into odd and even numbers, and then fit them together in the manner described, pausing to look up in the rate book to find where a house occurs when some son of a shit-bespattered cock chooses to call his hovel “Oakdene” instead of “27.”
Later we get lines written in imitation of himself: “Beer, whiskey, schnapps and gin. / What can we drink but booze?” and previously unpublished Valentine’s ditties “My love is not like snow: / It will not go”. Many of the uncollected poems come from letters and other jottings; shorn of context, they usually don’t stand as anything more than curiosities.
The poems published in Larkin’s lifetime are always worth rereading, of course, even if they can sometimes feel more claustrophobic and despairing with every lap of the circuit. His poetry is always pulling off the trick of not quite alienating its audience. Admirers and apologists have trained themselves to spot the moments of joy and affirmation amid the bleakness: “What will survive of us is love,” the line that ends the final poem in The Whitsun Weddings, “An Arundel Tomb,” is regularly quoted as if the rather cynical lines preceding and characterizing it had never been written:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
By the time of 1974’s High Windows, Larkin’s unrelenting gloom was becoming overfamiliar, almost parodic. While a poem like “Aubade,” one of the last poems published in his lifetime, is powerful in isolation, when read alongside “Ambulances” and “The Old Fools” and “Sad Steps” it becomes just another blue note on the same tired piano. “Life is slow dying.” “It’s only oblivion, true:/We had it before, but then it was going to end.” “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.” “Life is first boredom, then fear.” The despair starts to ring hollow when the lines take on the quality of a catchphrase.
T.S. Eliot once said, rather famously, that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” and it is true that Larkin is often at his best when he is retreating from his own worst impulses: when he is unexpectedly open, sympathetic, somewhat detached, and forgiving of other people and places. “For Sidney Bechet” honours the great American jazz musician by imagining various reactions to his sound, the “appropriate falsehood” conjured in the ears of listeners. For some Bechet’s music is a “legendary Quarter / Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles”, but the poet proclaims a special connection:
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood
And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.
Vividness and generosity — a vividness carried by generosity — are also abundant in the longer poems. Larkin was a poet who miraculously became tauter and more interesting as his stanzas swelled and mounted, with a voice that is, to quote Updike again, “seemingly unconscious of itself as poetic.” “Church Going,” one of his masterpieces, begins with a characteristically detached line: “Once I am sure there’s nothing going on / I step inside.” Only abandonment and solitude allow the poet to “step inside,” just as in “Reasons for Attendance” the activity within a club or bar — the “trumpet’s voice”, the dancers — draws him to the “lighted glass” but no further. And yet, in “Church Going,” Larkin is able to expand, beginning in solipsism but ending in a contemplation of the church as a symbol of unity, albeit a frail unity of desire and weakness:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Look for a moment at the beautiful control on display in those last five lines. Few modern poets have achieved that kind of clarity. Burnett’s notes for the poem take up many pages and contain some curious revelations, such as the fact that its original publisher, the weekly current affairs magazine The Spectator, procrastinated for a year before publishing it. Predictably, though, it is Larkin’s own comments on the poem that prove most enlightening: “I think one has to dramatize oneself a little. I don’t arse about in churches when I’m alone. Not much, anyway. I still don’t know what rood-lofts are.”
The most important thing Burnett’s edition reveals can be gleaned simply by knowing of the book’s existence, without even reading it: the unending hunger for Larkinania. In September a new selection of his poetry, edited by Martin Amis, was published in the U.K., and not long before that there was Letters to Monica, a collection of correspondence with his long-time companion Monica Jones. Ask yourself if there are any other poets of recent times who work up such a hunger in the public that a collection of their letters to a little-known love interest is perceived as a relatively major publishing event.
A.N. Wilson — the same one who thought the poet a fascist — has accused Larkin of being tendentious and pedantic in his poetry, of telling us what to think. This is inaccurate, and the reading public would have sniffed it out if it were the case. He does not tell us what to think, but tells us that what we already think — whether or not we are proud of thinking it — is universal. Larkin is not a difficult or a visionary writer; he paints his pictures in muted colours that we all recognise. That he managed to do this without seeming bland or whimsical is the real marvel, and nothing that can be discovered through muckraking gossip or cross-eyed scholarship will overwhelm this fact.
Ben Hamilton is a freelance book critic from England. He has written for numerous online and print publications, including The Millions, Bookslut, the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times and The Spectator.
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