Blindingly Undiminished: The Greatness of Philip Larkin

Review by Dana Gioia of Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth (Bloomsbury Press, 2014)

Philip Larkin by James Booth
Philip Larkin by James Booth

During his lifetime the poet Philip Larkin tried to manage his affairs, both personal and literary, mostly by saying no. A bachelor librarian who died at 63, Larkin deliberately cultivated an existence with minimal obligations—no wife, no kids, no property, not even a pet. “My life,” he remarked, “is as simple as I can make it.” Notably parsimonious, he rode a bike until he was forty-one when he reluctantly bought his first car. (“Oh, dear, “ he wrote his long-suffering girlfriend Monica Jones, “Isn’t it all untypical?”) He would never have owned a house had he not been evicted from a “temporary” new faculty flat in which he had squatted for 18 years. The move proved so unsettling that he stopped writing.

Larkin’s literary career was equally narrow and controlled. In his prime he published an average of only four poems a year. Later he defended his creative collapse, “Silence is preferable to publishing rubbish and far better for one’s reputation.” He never gave readings or lectures. (He had an embarrassing stammer.) He avoided London literary life. His secretary kept a file of “Refusal Letters,” composed in differing levels of politeness, ready for every possible request—autographs, advice, interviews, biographical information. When the influential South Bank Show paid him to film a television documentary, he refused to appear on camera. The director had to shoot over the poet’s shoulder. Larkin even declined the Poet Laureateship. “I dream of becoming laureate,” he remarked, “and wake up screaming.”

“I have no enemies, “he once joked, “but my friends don’t like me.”If Larkin, who died in 1985, woke up today, he would have good reason to scream. The three decades following his death have savaged his reputation. “I have no enemies, “he once joked, “but my friends don’t like me.” Posterity proved the second part of that statement correct. The first biography, written by his young friend, Andrew Motion (one of the poet’s literary executors) voluminously catalogued Larkin’s faults and vices. Without denying the poet’s genius, Motion painted Larkin as a porn-addicted, alcoholic, sexist, racist reactionary full of simmering rage. The book also documented—to general astonishment—that Larkin, who presented himself as a hopeless bungler in romance, had for years simultaneously bedded three women.

The biography’s reception also made it clear that Larkin indeed had enemies, and not just on the left. Critics of all persuasions poured abuse on the poet and his befouled legacy. They had no difficulty in finding ammunition for their attacks. The poet’s newly published correspondence (edited by another friend, Anthony Thwaite) bristled with outrageously vulgar, sexist, and racist language. That the letters, so full of gross obscenity and invective, were also pithy and entertaining, only made matters worse. The great bard suddenly became the great bastard.

Into this debate comes James Booth’s new biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. This meticulously researched volume offers the first balanced account of this singularly odd poet’s quiet but complicated life. Booth does not gloss over Larkin’s many faults. Some he condemns even more vigorously than did Motion, especially the poet’s dishonesty with his lovers. Booth also unsparingly depicts Larkin’s physical decline in his mid-fifties into an almost deaf, grossly overweight, and impotent alcoholic. Booth, however, presents these problems in clarifying perspective. His biography is not an indictment but a careful investigation by a scholar who has spent decades studying the evidence.

The new biography also deals with Larkin’s poetry, the main reason that this author’s conspicuously uneventful life matters. Booth carefully chronicles the creation of each significant poem in the context of the private events surrounding it. Such autobiographical interpretations of poetry can be reductive, and there are instances where Booth seems too literal, but his running commentary is consistently interesting and sometimes revelatory. For the first time, one sees the slow and uncertain development of Larkin’s early poetry, its sudden maturation in his late twenties, and then its equally sudden disappearance in the author’s early fifties. Booth’s parallel narratives of the man and his writing also demonstrate the great personal price Larkin paid for his poetry.

Philip Larkin was born in 1922 in Coventry. His father was City Treasurer; his mother, a former schoolteacher. He had only one sibling, an older sister. The Larkins were all “rather awkward people,” the poet later remarked, “and not very good at being happy.” Although his childhood was comfortable and affectionate, his strongest emotional memories were fear and boredom. He resolved at an early age never to marry. Family life was something he “mustn’t, under any circumstances, risk encountering again.”

In 1940, Larkin entered wartime Oxford. It was an austere and depopulated place, far removed from the aesthete’s paradise of Brideshead Revisited. The older faculty, however, remained intact. Larkin attended lectures by J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other notables. More important, he encountered his fellow undergraduate Kingsley Amis—“quite the funniest writer I had ever met.” They became mutually admiring lifelong friends. With Larkin, however, even deep friendship had its downside. Amis’s subsequent success as a novelist, literary celebrity, and ladies’ man would always remind Larkin that he would never get “the fame and the girl and the money.”

Graduating in 1943, the near-sighted Larkin was, to his great relief, rejected for military service. He applied without success for Civil Service jobs. Worried that the Ministry of Labour would draft him into mining or farming, the twenty-one-year-old took the first job he could find—as a provincial librarian. By accident, he had stumbled into a profession. For the rest of his life he worked full-time in libraries with only evenings free for writing.

Poetry was not Larkin’s ambition. He wanted to be a novelist. “Novels seem to me richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems,” he remarked in an interview. At first, it seemed he would prosper in fiction. By twenty-four he had published two fine novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), both finished while singlehandedly running a small town library. As critic Cyril Connolly once observed, however, “whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” Larkin spent the next five years agonizing over an abortive third novel. In the meantime he helped Amis revise his debut novel, Lucky Jim. When Amis’s book appeared in 1954 to immense critical and commercial success, Larkin gave up fiction. “It was,” he confessed, “a great grief to me.”

Failure and regret, however, were mother’s milk to the young librarian. As his dreams of being a great novelist expired, Larkin poured his full talent into poetry. He discarded his lofty, early models, Yeats and Auden, and studied instead the homely genius of Thomas Hardy (another novelist turned poet). Larkin then brought a novelistic sensibility into his verse. Emphasizing the prosaic virtues of plot, setting, character, and narrative voice—the building blocks of fiction—he crafted a new sort of lyric poem, one firmly placed in the everyday world and yet charged with evocative power. His new poems also had personality; they were simultaneously savage and yet compassionate, very depressing and very funny. His language grew commonplace without losing its musicality, and he displayed a gift for using complicated verse forms in ways that sounded utterly conversational, as in the opening lines of his “Annus Mirabilis”:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The change happened during his years in Belfast (1950-1955). Always a good poet, Larkin suddenly became a great one, producing a series of works in quick succession that were destined for the anthologies—“Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” I Remember, I Remember,” “For Sidney Bechet,” “Poetry of Departures,” “Toads,” and “Church Going.” Although these poems would become signature pieces of contemporary British literature, Larkin initially couldn’t find a publisher. After repeated rejections, the despairing poet sent his breakthrough volume, The Less Deceived, to George Hartley, a friend in Hull, who wanted to start a press. Larkin would regret the decision, but the small, unpublicized collection proved an immediate success with great reviews and steady sales. Larkin soon found himself named the central figure of “The Movement,” a celebrated group of young writers. To his own astonishment, he was famous.

His reputation grew slowly but ineluctably because his best poems stuck in the memory and wouldn’t go away. Larkin was an unlikely candidate to emerge as the best British poet of his generation. To his early critics, he often seemed like a skillful minor talent perversely writing against literary fashion. He was not the most overtly ambitious, innovative, prolific, or influential poet of his time (though he possessed those virtues in less obvious ways). His work exhibited few of the qualities that the tastemakers expected from a late twentieth century poet. He distrusted Modernism, abhorred progressive politics, avoided high culture, and disliked almost all foreign art except American jazz and continental pornography. His reputation grew slowly but ineluctably because his best poems stuck in the memory and wouldn’t go away. By the age of fifty he simply had written more powerful and moving poems than anyone else. Those poems also spoke to a wide audience, and they addressed in a recognizably personal voice the great themes of love, nature, time, freedom, and death.

Larkin’s poetic achievement is unusual in that his reputation rests almost entirely on three thin volumes published at the rate of one per decade—The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). He had published one early volume of verse, which he considered inferior. The three mature books contain only 85 poems, most quite short. If one adds a few late uncollected works, most notably the chilling death ode, “Aubade,” Larkin’s core legacy consists of about 90 meticulously crafted poems. The astonishing thing is both how consistently superb they are and how diverse—in style, form, tone, and subject.

Larkin tried not to publish the same sort of poem twice. When he explored certain obsessive themes and subjects, he consciously cast the new poem in a different style or form. (His weaker work he refused to publish.) Booth goes so far as to claim that Larkin strived to use certain key words only once in his core oeuvre. This is an intriguing but unconvincing theory, especially since Booth illustrates it mostly with obscenities Larkin used late in his career during more permissive times and even then sometimes in unpublished poems.

For legal reasons Larkin never gathered his three perfect books together into a selected volume. George Hartley would not cede control of The Less Deceived, his bankrupt press’s only best-seller. Since Larkin’s death his editors have expanded his canon in ways that would surely elicit another post-mortem scream from the poet. Thwaite added 87 works to the Collected Poems (1988) and scrambled Larkin’s careful arrangements with verses the author had chosen not to publish. A few years later A. T. Tolley offered piles of uncompelling juvenilia. Finally, in the Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett raised the count to over 500. These additions include fragments, drafts, occasional verses, and a considerable number of obscene invectives, which will provide fodder for countless articles and dissertations. With very few exceptions, however, they add little to Larkin’s artistic stature. What they reveal is that he was a nearly perfect judge of his own work.

One of the pleasures of Booth’s biography is its careful attention to Larkin’s poetry. He offers the interesting hypothesis, for instance, that Larkin’s development can be measured in ten “great extended elegies” that span the poet’s mature career—works such as “Church Going,” “An Arundel Tomb,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” and “Aubade.” (No, “This Be the Verse” with its unforgettable opening lines, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to but they do…” doesn’t make Booth’s short list.) These major poems, Booth claims, explore enduring themes with a force and originality that guarantee Larkin a permanent place in the canon of English-language poetry. It is, of course, a pleasing fiction to enumerate precisely ten poems for special status, but the arbitrary grouping proves useful in Booth’s hands. It allows him to linger over certain poems in ways that illuminate both the work and their relation to Larkin’s life. It’s easy to complain that Booth misses this or that in his analyses, but for persons who read literary biographies but generally avoid criticism, his comments will provide new ways of approaching the poems.

Much of the commentary on the new biography will surely concern Larkin’s politics and prejudices. Booth labors intelligently, though at times too doggedly, to redeem the fallen poet’s image. Larkin was indeed a reactionary, no worse than many people of his generation, but still a curmudgeon burdened by old and dishonorable prejudices. Booth, however, points out something Motion and others have mostly missed—namely that many of Larkin’s outrageous remarks were jokes.

Larkin reveled in pretending among his friends to be far more reactionary and misanthropic than he really was. (In public he was unfailingly considerate and polite.) Readers today may find his private antics offensive and unfunny, but it is naïve to take them at face value. When the young librarian wrote his parents, “Children I would willingly bayonet by the score,” he was not planning a serial killing. The man who told a reporter, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth” was a habitual performer and ironist. All his life Larkin remained in some sense a goofy adolescent desperately trying to impress his friends by saying outrageous things—not just about sex, women, and minorities but about religion, art, marriage, friends, family, America, and especially his fellow poets. One need not exonerate him, but one should at least try to understand him.

Booth is likewise good on Larkin’s politics. Essentially, the poet had no coherent ideology, and he knew it. As a young man, Larkin realized that “an enormous amount of research was needed to form an opinion on anything,” and he gave up expertise, except on jazz and occasionally poetry. He was instinctively right-wing, but he avoided talking about politics, even with his friends. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading Larkin for political insight, though clearly some critics insist that people not read him for that reason.

The reason to read Larkin is that his work, like all great poetry, transcends the virtues and vices of its creator and lives as a special form of language that invites and rewards a special kind of attention. A better man would probably not have written so well. His poems are delightful, observant, and memorable, but those are merely the outward signs of his achievement. The special power of Larkin’s poetry is that it earn its joy, humor, and compassion by working through equal measures of pain, depression, and resentment. The reader always feels the price—and therefore the value—of its hard-won clarities.

In “Reference Back,” Larkin remembers a visit home spent holed up in his room listening to jazz records ignoring his disappointed mother. Thirty years later he can’t listen to King Oliver’s “Riverside Blues” without recalling his unkindness in wasting that irrecoverable time together:

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

Toward the end, Larkin complained to Motion that having stopped writing, all the poet had was “a fucked up life.” Reading the sadder chapters of his biographies, one is inclined to agree–until one turns back to the poetry.

Review of Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

First published in Commentary (January, 2015)