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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

1.

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 book, High Windows, had a large audience.

But has that fate been contradicted or confirmed? If his large readership consists mostly of average persons leading average lives, this is not because Larkin pitched his tone to accommodate them, the way that other popular poets, like Kipling, Frost, Betjeman, or Stevie Smith, did. His life, on the surface, was not exemplary. There was nothing to be envied in it. Partly it is patriotism that makes Larkin popular. Not a jingoistic bitterness lamenting the loss of England’s power, not even his mockery of that power, but something gentle and piercingly sweet that tells the sad truths of ordinariness, as the poems of one of his models, Edward Thomas, do. An unread predecessor often opens the way to popularity for his apprentice. So Larkin’s popularity is not only his, but owes much to Thomas. This is Thomas’s “Aspens”:

All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

And here is early Larkin:

On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west
Blown across each sunk head and settled feather,
Huddling round the warm stack suits them best.
(“Pigeons”)

There is in Larkin, in poems like “The Whitsun Weddings,” a Georgian decency that is aware of England’s smallness, and keeps the poem no wider than the rail-lines of the meter in his many poems of departure. But departure for what? Never abroad, always England, an England that is quietly loved, just as it is in Thomas, and in a way beyond the architectural nostalgia of Betjeman:

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number-plates
Spring down the platform to famil- iar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”

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. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed…?
(“I Remember, I Remember”)

This empty street, this sky to bland- ness scoured,
This air, a little indistinct with autumn
Like a reflection, constitute the present—
A time traditionally soured,
A time unrecommended by event.
(“Triple Time”)

Or, without abashment, the hymnal meter of:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
(“Going, Going”)

Larkin is like a retractable Kipling, whose empire is reduced to the diurnal familiarity of “canals with floatings of industrial froth,” of

The large cool store selling cheap clothes
Set out in simple sizes plainly,
(Knitwear, Summer Casuals, Hose,
In browns and greys, maroon and navy)

And:

…a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to sol- itude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud.
(“Here”)

I have no idea how many times I have read the poems in The Whitsun Weddings, High Windows, and, although not as often, The Less Deceived. On my small bookshelf my fingers scuttle past Frost, Eliot, Pound, Yeats to pluck the thin Larkin volumes almost hidden among them. One has to prepare one’s intellect for the great moderns. Often reading Yeats first thing in the morning is like being awakened to the boom of a reverberating gong. Reading Stevens is like having chocolate for breakfast. With Larkin, the tone is matutinal or crepuscular as with most poems, but it is also the tone of ordinary day. His first lines are immediate, and intimate, as if they were resuming an interrupted conversation:

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off.
(“Poetry of Departures”)

Why should I let the toad work
   Squat on my life?
(“Toads”)

No, I have never found
The place where I could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay.
(“Places, Loved Ones”)

This was Mr. Bleaney’s room…
(“Mr. Bleaney”)

About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
(“Wild Oats”)

When I see a couple of kids
And I guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a dia- phragm…
(“High Windows”)

Groping back to bed after a piss.
(“Sad Steps”)

This is not only poetry, it is exchange. No other poet I know of makes the reader an intimate listener as well as Larkin does. The poems are not confessional, they are shared with the reader, with the joke always turning on Larkin. He would never write:

I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.

The Eliot line is too heraldically plangent. Larkin would describe the spoon. When he eats “an awful pie” at a railway station, the pie is not a symbol—a tacky epiphany. He will continue to eat more pies. “I have measured out my life in awful pies” would be closer to his experience. The railway platforms go on; the awful pies are eaten. The poet does not separate himself from the others in the cheap restaurant. Often the poet, for Larkin, is

the shit in the shuttered château
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and
birds…
(“The Life With a Hole in It”)

And yet he can startle with this, from “Aubade,” the way Marvell suddenly darkens:

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.

And, of death:

Most things may never happen: this one will.
(“Aubade”)

In verse, tone is one thing, but in pitch lies the seismographic accuracy of the individual voice, the shadings as personal as a thumb-print. Larkin’s voice, in the late books The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, was accurately set not only in its middle-class timbre, but, even more finely, by the use of cliché and aside, and a vocabulary frayed by repetition, perfectly in its milieu, the chat of a librarian or a don, of someone who “also writes verse.” The muted pitch is that of a man in a suit, after work, having an ale and a sandwich in a better-than-average pub, as well as that of a guest at an upper-middle-class party, holding a bell-glass of tolerable sherry, nearly dazed with boredom but making small talk. The references in “Naturally The Foundation will Bear Your Expenses” are as swift and compact as shoptalk, and must be difficult not only for some American readers, but even for those English readers who may not get the cynical, slightly self-lacerating business of cashing in on the lecture and highbrow radio racket:

Hurrying to catch my Comet One dark November day,
Which soon would snatch me from it To the sunshine of Bombay,
I pondered pages Berkeley Not three weeks since had heard,
Perceiving Chatto darkly Through the mirror of the Third.

Crowds, colourless and careworn, Had made my taxi late,
Yet not till I was airborne Did I recall the date—
That day when Queen and Minister And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.

It used to make me throw up, These mawkish nursery games:
O when will England grow up?—But I outsoar the Thames,
And dwindle off down Auster To greet Professor Lal
(He once met Morgan Forster), My contact and my pal.

The poem’s humor lies in its being written, tonally, in dialect, that is in the argot of chaps who write things, brilliantly mediocre chaps of course, with the conceited casualness of talking only to their peers or compatriots, regardless of whether those outside the circle get the references or not. The poem is set in self-parodic stanzas, again like something from Kipling or a hymn book, making a personal anthem with literature as its subject. And how shockingly accurate it is, precisely because of its pitch! Even a deliberately forced and desperate rhyme like Auster/Forster (simultaneously mocking itself and saying to those outside the circle: “Christ, you know who Auster is, it’s the North Wind for God’s sake”) pins and immolates the character, an academic ponce.

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