April 6, 2011

Philip Larkin


This is not the only poem Philip Larkin ever wrote: 


 . . . although there was an era in my young wanting-to-be-a-rebel life when it seemed like it was, and that was fine.  Okay, and this one too:  


But that isn’t all he wrote.  He wrote this, for example: 


And this: 


And (ouch) this: 


He is not, I grant you, the jolliest of poets.  But I personally respond to the combination of what looks like the poetry you studied in school—or I studied in school, which did not include Larkin—and the slang, the rude language, the sex and bodily functions.  It brings the poetic stuff closer, and gives it an edge that makes you bleed.  I have always approached Larkin slightly warily—and the periodic reminders of or revelations about his personal life don’t help at all, especially as I am someone who thinks that the life does matter.  If you were an emotional two-year-old who liked pulling wings off flies, it undermines your work, I don’t care how gigantic your talent was.*  And while I suspect the women in Larkin’s life brought their own issues to their relationships with Larkin, still, I don’t think I’d’ve wanted to go there, and I don’t think Larkin is blameless.  And yes, I think there is a colossal misogynistic streak in his work which is insufficiently explained by the era he lived and worked in.  Reminds me of my youth—I came to sexual maturity not so very much after the infamous 1963**—and not in a good way.  I’ve told you before, I think, that my slightly-late-to-the-party impression of the so-called sexual revolution is that us girls were still expected to make the coffee, we were just supposed to be permanently sexually available too, and if we weren’t, we were frigid—this is a paraphrase of someone who was in the thick of it a lot more than I was, but I’ve forgotten who it was, I just remember shouting YES! when I discovered the quote.  Anyway.   I’ve fallen into the habit of thinking of Larkin as, well, mean-spirited.

            And then The Paris Review, whom I follow on Twitter, posted this a few days ago:

First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God. – Philip Larkin http://tpr.ly/ihMVWa 

I loved the interview and while I don’t think Larkin missed anything by not having met me (ahem) I recognise, perhaps sometimes a trifle ruefully, a lot of fellow curmudgeonliness,*** and could imagine, because I’m an overimaginative sort of git, another world and another century where he and I would have found a good deal to talk about, probably down t’pub.  Most of this interview, in fact, inspired a running (muttered) commentary from me, starting with Larkin’s declining to be interviewed in person and insisting on doing it by post, and the huffing and puffing from PR about this and other things. I’ve excerpted a few of my favourite bits with complementary bits of muttery commentary here—now please click on all the links I’ve diligently and industriously supplied.  It’s National Poetry Month, you know. 

LARKIN:  I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone: what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, “I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson.” Tennyson replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.” That’s about all that can happen.

Yep.  I’m there.    For most of the process of writing, the story is the only authority I do or can afford to listen to.  Anyone else putting their oar in would or will provoke the response, Do shut up!  I’m trying to hear the story!  —I would also like to think this is a story of Tennyson manifesting a sense of humour, but I think I’m fantasizing again.

LARKIN . . . The short answer is that you write because you have to. If you rationalize it, it seems as if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people. The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it.

Yes.  I don’t know how ingenuous he’s deliberately being here—my impression is that he’s tweaking the interviewer when he can while trying to maintain apparent perfect po-facedness.  Part of the force of a lot of Larkin’s poems is their apparent naked intimacy—not always about sex—but I also completely believe that they’re not straightforward self-expression.  You don’t get anything as sharp and sinewy as Larkin’s poetry under the bulgy banner of self-expression.† 

INTERVIEWER:  Is Jorge Luis Borges the only other contemporary poet of note who is also a librarian, by the way? Are you aware of any others?

LARKIN:  Who is Jorge Luis Borges?

LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE.  Again, I wish I knew if this were true or tweaking.  Larkin does keep saying he’s not very interested in the wider world;  maybe he really didn’t know Borges.  I grew up half admiring Borges and half resenting the requirement to go all awestruck about him.   He’s fascinating, yes, but I have also found him a trifle fey and self absorbed.  You may pelt me with squishy rotten fruit now.

[Larkin continues] The writer-librarian I like is Archibald MacLeish. You know, he was made Librarian of Congress in 1939, and on his first day they brought him some papers to sign, and he wouldn’t sign them until he understood what they were all about. When he did understand, he started making objections and countersuggestions. The upshot was that he reorganized the whole Library of Congress in five years simply by saying, I don’t understand and I don’t agree, and in wartime, too. Splendid man.

Yes.   (Including that Larkin knows how to tell a story.) 

[Larkin:] . . . Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience . . . When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him.

I love this too.  Vindication.  I am not a huge fan of listening to poetry read aloud, for all that (again) this was what my schooling taught me:  that you really MUST hear poetry read aloud.  Well.  Um.  But the reader does drag you along at their pace, and force you to take in their interpretation because you haven’t got time and space to create your own.  Hearing poetry read aloud can be a great enhancement, especially to a poem you already know well, but if I’m choosing, I’ll take the words on the page every time. 

LARKIN:  Sometimes I think, Everything I’ve written has been done after a day’s work, in the evening: what would it have been like if I’d written it in the morning, after a night’s sleep? Was I wrong? Some time ago a writer said to me—and he was a full-time writer, and a good one—“I wish I had your life. Dealing with people, having colleagues. Being a writer is so lonely.”

Yes.  You’re always wondering about the other guy.  Although I find one of the problems of being able to organise my own day is trying to figure out when the sweet spot might be.  Straight out of bed in the morning is not it.  But I think mine moves around.  I think possibly it lives in another dimension . . . not accessible from this one.  So I’m always writing at some wrong time or other.  Sigh.  Although I can’t say I’ve spent much time feeling lonely.  Whoever said that should have learnt to ring bells.  Being forced to get up early at least one day a week is also good for your character.

[Larkin:] . . .  having a job hasn’t been a hard price to pay for economic security. . . .it’s worked for me. The only thing that does strike me as odd, looking back, is that what society has been willing to pay me for is being a librarian. You get medals and prizes and honorary-this-and-thats—and flattering interviews—but if you turned round and said, Right, if I’m so good, give me an index-linked permanent income equal to what I can get for being an undistinguished university administrator—well, reason would remount its throne pretty quickly.

And some things never change.

LARKIN:  Are you suggesting there’s no sense of class in America? That’s not the impression I get from the works of Mr. John O’Hara.

INTERVIEWER:  O’Hara overstated.

::Hysterics::  Larkin wins that round.  DING.

INTERVIEWER:  You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy as early influences in your introduction to the second edition of The North Ship. What in particular did you learn from your study of these four?

LARKIN:  Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like scaffolding that’s been taken down. 

Or Tolkien, Kipling, Heyer, Nesbit.  Or . . .

* * *

* Thus the self-righteous cry of the genre writer who gets up every Sunday morning to ring bells.  Eh.  You do what you can.  I think it’s important to do what you can. 

** I say nothing about any other kind of maturity. 

*** I am also reminded of his reputation as a witty and skilful letter writer. 

† And my heroines aren’t me, either, as I keep saying.  We share certain traits in common.  I’m in love with Ebon too, for example.


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