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Homage to Philip Larkin

Collected Poems (2003)

by Philip Larkin, edited and with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 218 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Collected Poems (1988)

by Philip Larkin, edited and with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 330 pp. (out of print)

T.S. Eliot observed toward the end of his life that he could not be called a great poet because he had not written an epic. This was a sly piece of false modesty on the part of Old Possum, implying as it did that had he turned his pen to the epic form he would of course have been up there with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. His stricture also served, backhandedly, to withhold greatness from other poets of what he thought of as his culturally debased time, such as Yeats and Wallace Stevens. In the Age of Prose, Eliot was saying, even the finest poet can be expected to manage no more than the small thing. To all this Philip Larkin would likely have answered with his accustomed epistolary expletive: bum.1

Larkin had the reputation of being the most costive of artists. In his writing lifetime—from the late 1930s until the middle of the 1970s, when the muse left him, returning only for brief and infrequent trysts—he published five short volumes of verse, with long intervals of silence between each appearance. Of these volumes he considered The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974) to contain the totality of his mature work. In those three and a half decades, however, he also produced two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, as well as a large body of essays, reviews, and occasional pieces which were collected as All What Jazz (1970), Required Writing (1983), and the posthumous Further Requirements (2001).

He also edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), which he labored on happily for some seven years—he really did love libraries, and was probably most at ease within their tranquil confines—which was a great success with the reading public, and which brought its editor considerable royalties. Then, in 1988, three years after the poet’s death, his friend and literary coexecutor, Anthony Thwaite, brought out the Collected Poems. Although Thwaite was widely criticized for printing the poems in chronological order, which some regarded as no order at all, the volume was a revelation. Who would have thought the man had so much poetry in him?

And it was not merely that Thwaite had uncovered a cache of inspired juvenilia, although there was a lot of that—the editor put a “substantial selection” of this work, including the contents of Larkin’s first published collection, The North Ship, in a separate section, “Early Poems 1938–45,” at the back of the volume2—but that there were so many poems Larkin had left unpublished—sixty-one in the section of mature poems and twenty-two in that of early work. From this material Larkin might have assembled a further, fat, volume, one which a poet who was less a perfectionist than he would have been proud of. Indeed, in the case of a handful of these poems it is hard to know the reason for their suppression; the fact that they were withheld is in itself an indication of Larkin’s confidence and scrupulousness as a poet.3

Thwaite must have anticipated criticism of the Collected Poems of 1988, for in his introduction to that volume he writes:

To have added so many unpublished poems, from the flood at the beginning to the trickle towards the end, together with many others which he published in his lifetime but chose not to collect, is something I do not take lightly. Philip Larkin’s own precise wishes in his will, drawn up during his illness in July 1985 [he was to die at the beginning of December that year], were not at first entirely clear; yet he certainly gave his literary executors, of whom I am one, discretion over the publication of his unpublished manuscripts.

Before he died Larkin had instructed his lover Monica Jones that his diaries should be destroyed. Monica called on another of Larkin’s lovers, his former secretary Betty Mackereth, to perform the task. Betty took the thirty-odd volumes into Larkin’s office in the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University and fed them page by page into a paper shredder—the task took all afternoon. With characteristic loyalty and discretion, she did not attempt to read the diaries before destroying them, “but I couldn’t help seeing little bits and pieces. They were very unhappy. Desperate, really.”

Larkin had told his future biographer Andrew Motion, “When I see the Grim Reaper coming up the path to my front door I’m going to the bottom of the garden, like Thomas Hardy, and I’ll have a bonfire of all the things I don’t want anyone to see”; however, the bonfire was never built, and according to Motion, the diaries, “eight manuscript books in which he drafted his poems, and the large mass of his unpublished papers and letters lay undisturbed in his house when he was carried out of it for the last time.”

Larkin’s directions on what was to be done with these surviving papers were hard to interpret, and the clauses in his will dealing with the matter were ambiguous. Andrew Motion—he was another of the poet’s three literary executors, the third being Monica Jones—tells us that a lawyer was consulted about how Larkin’s wishes in regard to posthumous publication should be interpreted. The lawyer declared the will “repugnant,” that is, contradictory. This finding cleared the way for the executors to authorize publication of what among the papers they considered valuable, citing what Larkin himself had said in a talk on preserving contemporary manuscripts, delivered in his role as head of a major university library: “Unpublished work, unfinished work, even notes towards unwritten work, all contribute to our knowledge of a writer’s intentions.”4 It is appropriate that we have Larkin’s chronic indecisiveness allied with his diligence as a librarian to thank for the preservation of so many superb unpublished poems, and his marvelous but controversial letters, a hefty selection of which, again edited by Anthony Thwaite, was published in 1992.

Thwaite obviously was stung by the criticism, mainly from academics and scholars, of the Collected Poems of 1988, and in 2003 brought out another version, dropping many of the unpublished poems and the juvenilia, and eschewing the chronological method. In his introduction to the later volume he writes that its predecessor “showed the growth of a major poet, testing, filtering, rejecting, modulating, achieving”:

This new edition of Philip Larkin’s poems is partly a considered response to suggestions that what was needed, too, was a book that followed Larkin’s own deliberate ordering of his poems in each successive book (“I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls”)….

The 2003 Collected Poems, then, is not intended as a corrective or a replacement of the earlier book, but as a sort of companion volume. This is an odd arrangement, and one wonders what Larkin the librarian would have made of it. Would he have been flattered, amused, reprehending? One can imagine a tag line in a letter to his pal and confidant Kingsley Amis: “Two Collected Poems bum.”

Just as he encouraged the misconception that he had produced a meager body of work, so too did Larkin seek to present himself before the public in the disguise of a bluff, no-nonsense Englishman who just happened to produce now and then, by happy accident, as it were, an exquisite small volume of poetry.5 He refused to live the literary life of readings and lectures and college residencies—“I don’t want to go around pretending to be me”6—and professed to be embarrassed by the fame which came to him in his middle years. This was not entirely a pose, although despite his image in the press he was no recluse, and at Brynmor Jones Library at Hull ran a large staff with skill and authority.7 He was, however, an insecure and deeply troubled man, selfish, calculating, essentially solitary—“I see life more as an affair of solitude diversified by company than an affair of company diversified by solitude”—and a womanizer who was at once predatory and timorous. He was also loving, gracious, loyal in his fashion, and hilariously funny.

It is possible to venture these character assessments on the evidence Larkin left behind in his copious correspondence. In some quarters that evidence is regarded as evidence for the prosecution. Certainly much of what he wrote in the letters was incriminatory, as is commonly the case, if the letter writer has been honest. Larkin’s views on politics, race, and class, as expressed in the correspondence, especially in his later years, are frequently hair-raising in their violence and virulence. They are also in many instances extremely funny, if appallingly so. Larkin’s latest biographer, Richard Bradford, gives a representative sample of the kind of things with which Larkin the letter-writer sought to amuse his friends:

He complained to [Kingsley] Amis in 1943…that “all women are stupid beings” and remarked in 1983 that he’d recently accompanied Monica [Jones] to a hospital “staffed ENTIRELY by wogs, cheerful and incompetent.” …His views on politics and class seemed to be pithily captured in a ditty he shared again with Amis. “I want to see them starving,/The so-called working class,/Their wages yearly halving,/Their women stewing grass…” For recreation he apparently found time for pornography, preferably with a hint of sado-masochism: “…I mean like WATCHING SCHOOLGIRLS SUCK EACH OTHER OFF WHILE YOU WHIP THEM.”8

Although it is not much of a defense, one might say of Larkin that he was the victim of what our teacher-priests used to call “bad companions.” Richard Bradford points out that “virtually all indications that Larkin was a misogynistic, intolerant racist occur in his letters to Colin Gunner and Kingsley Amis.” Amis, who was as funny as Larkin, early on abandoned his youthful socialist convictions in favor of a kind of radical low Toryism which swelled with the years to caricature proportions; Gunner, whom Larkin had not seen since their schooldays together, renewed contact with him in 1971, and the two embarked on a correspondence in which each shored up the other’s baleful right-wing leanings. “Gunner,” Bradford writes, “was the kind of eccentric Englishman one might expect to find in fiction but who frequently survives outside it: lower middle class, quixotic and reactionary, and almost endearingly self-destructive.”

2.

When Anthony Thwaite’s fat volume of Larkin’s letters appeared in 1992 it opened the door for “a rush of dunces,” as the critic Clive James has observed.9 Literary London was particularly agitated. Bradford quotes the poet and academic Tom Paulin writing in the TLS that he found the letters to be “a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.” Lisa Jardine, a professor in the English department at the University of London, wrote, Bradford tells us, that while she “would not go quite so far as to ban the study of Larkin his poems would be removed from the core curriculum and dealt with only to disclose ‘the [parochial] beliefs which lie behind them.’…”

  1. 1

    British slang for buttocks. Asked in an interview if he had ever attempted a truly long poem, Larkin answered: “A long poem for me would be a novel. In that sense, [his novel] A Girl in Winter is a poem.”

  2. 2

    The early efforts are much as one would expect of a fledgling poet, with many “o’er’s” and “twas’s” and the inevitable inversions—”footsteps cold,” “the night/Impenetrable”—but here and there the voice speaks out in sudden authority, as in the closing line of this fragment from the very first poem in the section, “Winter Nocturne,” written when Larkin was sixteen:

  3. 3

    For example, two poems on the same subject, “Autumn,” from October 1953, and “And now the leaves suddenly lose strength,” November 1961; “Ape Experiment Room,” February 1965; the beautiful “Morning at last: there in the snow,” February 1976; “Long lion days,” July 1982, as good in its way as the published “Days” or “Solar”; and this spirited jeu d’esprit, as Anthony Thwaite dubs it:

    ADMINISTRATION

    Day by day your estimation clocks up

    Who deserves a smile and who a frown,

    And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up

    Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.

  4. 4

    In a “Statement” published in Poets of the 1950s, edited by D.J. Enright, Larkin had written: “…I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.”

  5. 5

    In an interview with the London Observer he did confess, with typically subversive humor, to being pleased when he managed to finish a poem, “as if I’ve laid an egg, and even more pleased when I see it published.”

  6. 6

    This was in the Observer interview, where he also gave his famous answer to a question about foreign travel: “I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.”

  7. 7

    My job as University Librarian is a full-time one, five days a week, forty-five weeks a year. When I came to Hull, I had eleven staff; now there are over a hundred of one sort and another. We built one new library in 1960 and another in 1970, so that my first fifteen years were busy” (Paris Review interview, 1982).

  8. 8

    In fact, he did not “apparently” find time for pornography, but was an unabashed enthusiast for the stuff, and kept a hoard of hard-core magazines, some of them meant for a homosexual readership, in a file drawer in his office and also, it seems, under his bed at home.

  9. 9

    Clive James, The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001–2005 (Picador, 2005).

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