Wounded by Un-Shrapnel

It is often casually said of Larkin’s poetry that it expresses common experience, that it has its origin in the commonplace, or even—I have seen this in newspapers—that the famous catchphrases that have been drawn from it (“What will survive of us is love,” “Books are a load of crap,” “Life is first boredom, then fear,” “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) express a common point of view. But what strikes us most about Larkin is not the commonness but the singularity of the point of view.

It is true perhaps that the last of these quotes may command common assent. Parents do fill children with the faults they had—or so we may often feel. But the whole poem (often parodied and for many years commonly known by heart without having been consciously committed to memory) derives its notoriety from the fact that it goes much further than common consent can bear: die young, it commands, and stay childless. We wouldn’t go as far as that. Just as we wouldn’t go so far as to say that life really is first boredom, then fear. As for “Books are a load of crap,” this is what a certain character in a poem (“A Study of Reading Habits”) concludes when he finds himself unwillingly identifying with the failures in the fiction he reads. It was never remotely intended as expressing a common truth, while the beautiful “What will survive of us is love” is not a view to which Larkin assents, but an untruth identified as such—something which our almost-instinct is tempted to find almost true.

And just as the lines that have stuck in people’s heads tend not to be truths but untruths, so the “common” experiences out of which the poems grow seem on closer examination to be highly specialized. How many people do you really think allow their earnings to pile up, while reproaching themselves with a mysterious inability to spend more on themselves? Yet this is the point of departure for the poem “Money”:

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
“Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.”

This attitude is surprising coming from Larkin’s provincial middle-class background, where timidity about spending money (particularly “eating into capital”) might be common, but where few (at least in my experience) would imagine that the kind of sex they wanted could be had simply by paying for it. I know that there is an aggressive intention behind the flatness of the rhythms and the banality of the sex/cheques rhyme. Larkin’s poems do sometimes start off aggressively ugly and then pull a beautiful stunt, as this one is going to do. But it seems crass of the poet to suggest (if he is talking about himself) that if he’d only spent more on, as it were, fast cars …

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