A glass case in a room called “The English Tradition” is where some people, Americans especially, think that Philip Larkin’s poetry belongs: they imagine he is a kind of old-fashioned taxidermist who fluffs up the wings of dead ducks, like the iambic pentameter and the rhymed quatrain, for a public devoted to almost extinct birds. His admirers, mostly British, feel that he writes with more precision than any other living poet about real people in real places; they can quote him, because his mastery of rhyme and meter enables him to write memorably; and they count among their favorite books of the century The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.
Both books have long been out of print in the United States, where a generation of poets and readers of poetry has grown up not knowing many of the best poems written in our language in their lifetime. Once a decade, when a new Larkin volume appears in Britain, twenty thousand people buy it. There the trouble is that he is too well established, accoladed with honorary doctorates and a Queen’s Gold Medal. A large number of children, preparing for exams in British schools, have to write essays contrasting his “gentility,” say, with the “toughness” of Ted Hughes. The twist that time has given to his pronouncement nineteen years ago, that “poetry should keep the child from its television set and the old man from his pub,” is quite Larkinesque in its irony. He meant, not by giving them subjects for homework, but by entertaining them better than cowboys or beer.
What he does in High Windows is the most difficult thing of all, and it only looks easy because he does it so well: he makes poetry out of common situations in ordinary lives. The popular seaside resort, old age, a welfare hospital, an invitation to a party, money, mixing a cocktail, catching a glimpse of the moon while you’re “groping back to bed after a piss,” hearing about a mine disaster, considering the new sexual freedom: these are typical starting points for poems about living and dying in a farcical, sad, and constricted world, in which he finds less to celebrate now than ten or twenty years ago. Metaphysical despair consoled by an earthy sense of humor pervades his poetry. Time, fertility, and death remain his underlying themes, and oblivion is nearer than ever. But he still enters each poem empirically through actual experience, “letting the door thud shut,” keeping all his wits alert for what’s going on inside.
He avoids speaking as a “poet,” preferring to sound like a man of common sense, or some familiar recognizable type. He seems to be saying with unaffected modesty, “These thoughts go in verse because that’s the way they feel right to me”; and he leaves it to us to decide if we wish to treat what he’s written as poetry. His language is plain conversational English, not mandarin, not literary. Many …