Required Reading

Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin; drawing by David Levine

Philip Larkin, poet, critic, novelist, jazz buff, though scarcely “visible” in the past, has become the Cham of the contemporary British literary scene. With the exceptions of his best-known line of verse, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” his scathing essay on Auden, and the unmentionable anthology,1 the ascent was accomplished quietly: “I have never read any poems in public, never lectured on poetry, never taught anyone how to write it.” The “required” in the title of the new book means, first of all, “produced on request,” and Larkin makes a point of never having proposed an article or review to an editor, and of merely developing “someone else’s idea” (“He liked to have his mind made up for him,” Larkin writes of his hero Louis Armstrong). In view of his reputation as the most sought-after reviewer on the current labor market, his output is small, and the miscellaneous articles are neither numerous nor long. But whatever the occasion, they are pieces to be read and reread.

For someone so intensely private (“I don’t like plays. They happen in public”; “I find the idea of other people reading my favorite books rather annoying”; “I find it very sensible not to let people know what you’re like”), Larkin, in interviews and in asides, throughout the writings, is remarkably forthright about his life and background. When told that “not getting married” is one of his themes, he responds that “the idea of always being in company” oppresses him, and he quotes from his poem “Love”:

The difficult part of love
Is being selfish enough
Is having the blind persistence
To upset someone’s existence
Just for your own sake—
What cheek it must take.

Then take the unselfish side—
Who can be satisfied
Putting someone else first,
So that you come off worst?
My life is for me:
As well deny gravity.

Oh lucky the never-to-be-born next generation of Larkins! “Children are very horrible…Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes,” says the won’t-be-papa, who attributes the early “waning of my Christian sympathies” to the sentiment about small hominids being inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the remark, ” ‘Personal relations’ were not, in the last analysis, as important to him as doing what he wanted and thought was right,” one suspects that Larkin is speaking as much for himself as for Rupert Brooke.

Home is Hull—“the hermit of Hull” a London Times profile (February 16, 1984) calls the new “cult figure”—and Larkin likes living there because it is “so far from everywhere else,” and because he wants to be “on the periphery of things.” He is a stay-at-home, too, and has been outside Britain only two or three times (“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”). He does not believe in enduring happiness (because you grow old and are pushed to the…

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