The Master of the Ordinary

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems

edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/ The Marvell Press, 330 pp., $22.50

The average face, the average voice, the average life—that is, the life most of us lead, apart from film stars and dictators—had never been defined so precisely in English poetry until Philip Larkin. He invented a muse: her name was Mediocrity. She was the muse of the diurnal, of habit, of repetition. She lived in life itself, not as a figure beyond it, a phantom of yearning, but as the plain, transparent companion of a confirmed benedict.

Benedict” seems better than “bachelor” when we think of Larkin because of the word’s monkish associations, suggesting his medieval patience in waiting for the right phrase to come, as well as what seemed to his readers to be a willful self-immolation as a librarian in Hull—since nothing sounds more ordinary, more mediocre than that. Increasingly silent as his last years passed, he seemed pleased to encourage this image of himself—Larkin the librarian, a bookworm smothering itself in a silken silence. Obviously, if Hull was all there was to life, if work was a cold toad that squatted on his heart, and if excitement and enthusiasm were dismissed as suspicious spasms, we were not to expect anything more radiant than this poem, as brief and frighteningly funny in its Keystone Cop ending as its topic:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in.

They are to be happy in.” God as a nanny, God as a schoolmaster, a parson, a constable:

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
(“Days”)

And this:

For nations vague as weed,
For nomads among stones,
Small-statured cross-faced tribes
And cobble-close families
In mill-towns on dark mornings
Life is slow dying.
(“Nothing To Be Said”)

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.
(“Dockery and Son”)

A shudder and a nod from the reader. Is this catharsis? Spiritual redemption? You mean that’s it?

If so, then what is it in Larkin that has made his collected poems a best seller in Great Britain? Thirty-five thousand copies two months after publication last autumn. As the shade of a popular hermit, Larkin might say, bemused by the irony that nothing sells writing better than the writer’s death, that there is a small fortune to be made in conspicuous isolation, that books may be “a load of crap,” but they keep being read, borrowed, stolen, indexed, and bought. The fate he seemed to prefer, that of being remaindered and neglected because for him there was “nothing to be said,” has been resoundingly contradicted by the size of his following, which numerically must be the equivalent of an audience at a rock concert. Even The Whitsun Weddings and the last short …

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Letters

Reading Larkin September 28, 1989