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Poet as Pessimist

From a desolate life comes transcendent work.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JOHN SIMON
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Philip Larkin

The Poems

by Nicholas Marsh

Palgrave, 224 pp., $22.95

In his valuable collection of essays and reviews, Required Writing, Philip Larkin wondered--in a piece about Sir John Betjeman--"Can it be that, as Eliot dominated the first half of the twentieth century, the second half will derive from Betjeman?" Larkin and Betjeman were friends, and I see the remark as a friendly tribute. To me, the characteristic poet of that period was Philip Larkin. And this new, extremely useful book, Philip Larkin: The Poems, by Nicholas Marsh, should make this abundantly clear without making the claim in so many words.

Larkin was the homme moyen sensuel (an oft-quoted phrase, by the way, whose origin remains obscure) par excellence. Average he was in his, in many ways, very English provincialism; sensual, in his seemingly unrequited libido, despite some sexual relationships. But special, too, with his two fine novels and his major poetry.

In the same piece about Betjeman, Larkin wrote, "It was Eliot who gave the modernist poetic movement its charter in the sentence 'Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,'" which Larkin felt Betjeman disproved. But that nimble versifier was hardly the poet of our complex age, who had to confront his own unimportance in an industrial-capitalist society. The glibly bourgeois Betjeman did not feel himself an outsider, as the true poet of the age cannot help being.

What makes Larkin's poems especially interesting is that they can be read as autobiography, which most other poets' cannot. Martin Amis, son of Kingsley, who knew Larkin well, writes: "Life was happening to Larkin, but he had no talent for that, remaining to the end, single, childless and site-tenacious. .??.??. He hugged melancholy to him in the poems--for the poems, it might even have been. .??.??. Unhappiness is ordinary and everyday and in abundant supply." So the poems serve as therapy, as Amis sees it, alleviating life. Alleviating also, I would add, a reader's unhappiness, finding a companion in misery.

Grossly oversimplified, Larkin was the poet of social and sexual fumbling, of maladjustment and insecurity, atheism and the fear of death, who consoled himself as best he could with satire of the world and mockery of himself. What follows owes a good deal to Marsh's book which, though primarily intended as a textbook for a Larkin seminar, makes equally good reading for the non-seminarian.

Larkin was born in 1922 in Coventry, where his father was borough treasurer. Sydney Larkin was an autocrat and Hitler admirer who treated his wife, Eva, as a house servant. Not a happy family situation, even though Sydney, though strict, was often helpful to his son.

On a scholarship to Oxford, Philip--an awkward, gangly youth with thick glasses and a stammer--was not popular, though he made a few lasting friendships, notably with Kingsley Amis. Failing in other directions, Philip settled on librarianship as a career, and slowly worked his way up as assistant librarian in Wellington, Leicester, and Belfast, becoming full librarian at the University of Hull until his death in 1985. Wherever he was, he greatly improved the library and, on the whole, enjoyed his work until the 1970s and '80s, when funds diminished and computers, which he disliked, came in.

It can be argued that the lion's--or at least lioness's--share of his troubles stemmed from misfortune with women. He tells it variously in several poems; for example, in "Letter to a Friend about Girls," the friend being Kingsley Amis. It reads in part:

I see how I've been losing: all the while

I met a different gauge of girls from yours.

Grant that, and all the rest makes sense as well .

Everything proves we play in separate leagues .

haven't you noticed mine?

They have their world, not much compared with yours,

But where they work, and age, and put off men

By being unattractive or too shy,

Or having morals--anyhow none give in .

There were only five documented sexual relationships in Larkin's life. Widowed, Eva became dependent on her son, often living with him and cramping his style. On the other hand, as he was mortally afraid of marriage and fatherhood, caring for her became, for many years, a handy excuse for not committing to any woman.

The first girlfriend was the novelist Patsy Avis, later Strang, who, though married, had a miscarriage by Larkin and incorporated him in a novel. To Ruth Bowman, whom he met when she was 16, he became briefly engaged, but the spotty affair (rarely consummated because of her Catholicism) dragged on for seven years.

His truly lasting relationship, for a while overlapping with Ruth, was with Monica Jones, a strong-minded university lecturer in English. They became lovers in 1950, but didn't live together until, sick, she moved into his house for his last two years. Concurrently, he carried on with Maeve Brennan, a fellow librarian at Hull, in a naive and escapist relationship. She represented Larkin's need for parallel involvements to prevent full commitment to either lover.

Brennan's theory was that the "dichotomous" Larkin distinguished between love, an illusion, and sex, a reality; when an affair turned into reality, it came to eventual grief.

The last, very easygoing affair (no talk of dreaded marriage) was with Philip's secretary, Betty Mackereth, begun the very year when the affair with Brennan was finally consummated.

As Clive James reminds us in an essay cleverly entitled "Don Juan in Hull," Larkin published only one collection of poems per decade. This betokens neither indolence nor infertility, only painstaking revisions, often stretching, with interruptions, across the years. This is well documented in Anthony Thwaite's presumably definitive edition of the Collected Poems, which includes some worthwhile unfinished efforts as well as less interesting juvenilia, written in the shadow of Yeats, Hardy, and Auden.

The four collections are The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). Some poems did not make it into these collections, and a small handful was written after them. Still, when you consider how much Auden, Hardy, and Yeats produced, this was a rather modest output. (But then, think of Eliot, Housman, and Ransom.) Yet, as Marsh demonstrates, what mastery was here in rhyme and off-rhyme, meter and stanza, enjambment and imagery--forms a consistency that made up for in frequency.

Though not among the good many critics quoted by Marsh, Clive James has come up with some poignant and pertinent formulations. For him, Larkin is the poet of despair made beautiful, with "not a trace of posturing." Like Leopardi, Larkin is "disconsolate yet doomed to being beautiful." This results in "purity--a hopeless affirmation of the only kind we want to hear when we feel, as sooner or later everybody must, that life is a trap." To this I would add another dichotomy in Larkin, one well defined by the great Spanish Jesuit writer Baltasar Gracián 370 years ago: O life, you should never have begun,/ But since you did, you should never end!

Time now to look at a typical Larkin poem, "High Windows."

When I see a couple of kids

And guess he's f--g her and she's

Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side

Like an outdated combine harvester

And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if

Anyone looked at me, forty years back,

And thought, That'll be the life;

No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide

What you think of the priest. He

And his lot will all go down the long slide

Like free bloody birds. And immediately,

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Four stanzas of the accessible, conversational Larkin, turning in the fifth into the highly imaged, elliptic, elitist, ambiguous Larkin--obscure, as James would have it, "out of over-refinement."

Are these the high windows of a church or of a high-rise? Either way, they capture the sun of ostensible clarity and hopefulness, but beyond it is the infinite empty sky: nothingness, beautifully conveyed through the fatalistic triple thump of the closing line.

To go from metaphysical fiasco to the more personal one, consider "Annus Mirabilis," starting with:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me)--

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles' first LP.

The family is no help, and neither is history, as we learn from "This Be the Verse":

They f--k you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f--d up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another's throats.

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.

Do society, socializing with others, help? Not so, as "Vers de Société" tells us:

I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,

Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted

Over to catch the drivels of some bitch

Who's read nothing but Which ...

Similarly, in "Reasons for Attendance," the speaker stands outside the lighted glass / To watch the dancers inside, interested but unjoining. In "The Whitsun Weddings" he is on a train to London, mounted at various stops by wedding couples seen off by ridiculous wedding parties: fathers had never known / Success so huge and wholly farcical. To Larkin, these weddings are "a religious wounding." Even so, seclusion may not be the solution either, as sitting by a lamp more often brings / Not peace, but other things.

And religion? In "Church Going," we find the bicycling atheist nevertheless drawn to an empty church: Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence. He observes that superstition, like belief, must die, / And what remains when disbelief has gone? He concludes that the church is "a serious house,"

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

But religion is not the answer to the fear of death, as "Aubade" states:

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die.

It is no cure for

the total emptiness we travel to

And shall be lost in always

Courage is no good:

It means not scaring others. Being brave

Lets no one off the grave.

Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Work is no solution, either. It is, as "Toads" says, something that squats on the poet's life: Six days of the
week it soils / With its sickening poison-- / Just for paying a few bills! / That's out of proportion! "The Building," which awaits all of us, is a terrifying poem about a hospital waiting room. "Wild Oats" is really about Ruth, whom he meets in the company of "a bosomy English rose," whom he dare not accost, but settles instead for seven years with "her friend in specs I could talk to." But that, too, ends because I was too selfish, withdrawn,/ And easily bored to love.

"I Remember, I Remember" reminds us that we cannot blame things on our particular geographical constrictions: "Nothing, like something, happens everywhere." And, to return to "Reasons for Attendance," as some opt for sociability and some for withdrawal, both are satisfied, / If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied. Gloom and doom everywhere.

As Marsh puts it, "Larkin's subject matter is the neurotic post-war male, and nobody does him better."

Larkin was the unofficial head of The Movement, an influential group of poets who strove to bring poetry down from the clouds of romantic rhetoric. They included Kingsley Amis, John Wain, D.J. Enright, Elizabeth Jennings, and Robert Conquest. He was also a great but selective enthusiast of jazz, about which he published a volume of essays, championing the music of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Bix Beiderbecke, against the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and such. A radical, if you will, in his espousal of jazz, but a conservative radical, as in most things. So, too, in his editing of The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, where many of his selections were highly conservative for such an innovator.

Here some of Marsh's pertinent observations are called for. Thus, Marsh argues that

There is a sense in which Larkin's whole oeuvre can be said to be about writing, since so much is devoted to exploring interactions between a lone, isolated speaker and the world he observes; and to constructing a permanent uncertainty about what he feels, what he thinks, and what he wants and why he wants it.

He goes on: "Despite [Larkin's] assiduous self-characterization as an indecisive, misanthropic, irritable and irritating man, the poems remain entertaining, pleasing, and fascinating. Why?" Marsh offers 15 compelling reasons well worth pondering. Chief among them, for me, is that "balanced structures are pleasing ... [they] constitute the 'shape' of a Larkin poem: this is its aesthetic appeal, its 'beauty.' Each poem is a closed system, made up of contrary energies held in equilibrium."

Marsh also addresses the grim revelations about Larkin's character, disturbingly emerging from his biography and letters, posthumously published in the early 1990s. For many, the problem arose from what Lisa Jardine described as "a steady stream of casual obscenity, throwaway derogatory remarks about women, and arrogant disdain for those of different skin colour or nationality"--"rotten with class-consciousness," Germaine Greer weighed in.

Alan Bennett, a big fan, wrote, "I could not see how [the poems] would emerge unscathed. But I have read them again, and they do." I would agree with David Lodge, whose take was, "Revelations about a writer's life should not affect our independently formed critical assessment. They may, however, confirm or explain reservations about it."

In life, Larkin may not have been as pessimistic as in his poetry. In a letter of January 13, 1985, he wrote a friend that he was happily able to replace his favorite Parker pen, which developed a leak, with its exact replica. Though no longer made, parts, as a salesman assured Larkin, would be available for 10 years. "That'll see me out," Larkin concluded.

Ten years? By December 2, he was dead. I wonder who inherited the pen.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.