The Magazine

Poet as Pessimist

From a desolate life comes transcendent work.

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