Philip Larkin: A great poet and a bloody good bum
Philip Larkin’s professional life was twofold as that of a poet and that of an ordinary librarian; only nothing about Larkin was ever really ordinary. This may be, at least in part, due to, as he once confessed to his friend Norman Iles, the fact that he saw himself as an “outsider” while others supposed him to be “very establishment and convention”. It was Larkin’s quintessentially English humour, his farouche temper, wry wit and scholastic intellect that came auspiciously together making him into one of the most eminent English writers of the post war period. Larkin’s poetry is characterised by his personal idiosyncrasies, major existential concerns and an acerbic fusion of lyricism and discontent. Speaking about poetry, Larkin once said that his intention had always been to write in a mode defined by “plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion, humour, abandonment of dithyrambic ideal – and…a fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day.” The quotidian, its banality as well as its wonder, is indeed a running theme in Larkin’s work much of which is quietly heretical due to Larkin’s outright rejection of both tradition and new literary movements, especially modernism which he thought an “aberration” that “blighted all the arts.”
In trying to explain the fundamental purpose of poetry, Larkin once said that “to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely producing it in whoever read the poem”. This I would say is perhaps one of the most precise definitions and one that invariably applies to Larkin’s own body of work, which resonates and remains with the reader because it is candid without being indiscreet, ironic without being satirical and illuminating without being haughty or condescending. And, everything Larkin wrote contains the human element; confessional admissions and admonitions set out on the page. In the course of his writing career, which began in the 1930s and lasted until the 1970s, Larking produced four slender volumes of poetry – The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974) – with prolonged periods of stasis in between. A meagre offering from someone who had laboured in the profession for over 40 years; only Larking had written more than initially thought and in 1988, three years after his death, Larkin’s friend and literary co-executor, Anthony Thwait, brought out Collected Poems which contained a cache of 22 juvenilia poems and 61 mature verses Larking had withheld from public view. It is impossible to speculate about his motives behind the decision, but to merely say that Larkin always was and still remains an enigma. A complex and a contradictory man at odds with his public persona, selfish yet altruistic, loving yet self-allegedly unable to love, a reluctant philanderer, predatory yet timorous, devoted yet disloyal, gracious yet impudent, funny but lugubrious. A complicated man. And a private one, who saw life “as an affair of solitude diversified by company” rather than “an affair of company diversified by solitude.” And yet, Larkin enjoyed both his friends and his women despite cultivating a persona of a miserabilist eremite, who refused to live the literary life rejecting fame and all it demanded. He did, however, have a small demimonde, corresponded obsessively by epistolary means and presided over a small dragoon of staff at the Hull University Library where he worked for over 30 years.
Interestingly, Larkin seems to have thought of himself primarily as a librarian with a side-line in poetry rather than the other way around. In a rare interview with The Paris Review, speaking about his professional life he explained: “My job as University librarian is a full-time one, five days a week, 45 weeks a year. When I came to Hull, I had 11 staff; now there are over a hundred of one sort and another. We built one new library in 1960 and another in 1970, so that my first 15 years were busy.” And later when asked about writing, Larkin said: “Anything I say about writing poems is bound to be retrospective, because in fact I’ve written very little since High Windows, or since 1974, whichever way you like to put it. But when I did write them, well, it was in the evenings, after work, after washing up…It was a routine like any other.” It seems as though Larkin always downplayed his achievements preferring to think of himself as a failure, preferring failure in general, which also happens to be a common theme within his work. Not only that, a characteristically glum atmosphere pervades his poems, a vast majority of which revolve around loneliness and dejection, disappointments, loss and the terrifying yet inevitable rowing towards death. Larkin thus gives the impression that the reality of life as it presents itself to him falls short of what he expected. This disillusionment is particularly prominent when it comes to an assessment of what he has, or rather has not, achieved. Frequently, Larkin indicates feeling as if life is merely passing him by. In Aubade he says: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night/Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare/In time the curtain-edges will grow light/Till then I see what’s really always there/ Unresting death, a whole day nearer now/Making all thought impossible but how/And where and when I shall myself die.” He feels similarly in Continuing to Live, which opens on a rather sombre note: “Continuing to live – that is, repeat/A habit formed to get necessaries/Is nearly always losing, or going without/ It varies.” And in The View, when in the last stanza Larkin asks rhetorically: “Where has it gone, the lifetime?/ Search me. What’s left is drear/Unchilded and unwifed/ I’m Able to view that clear/So final. And so near.” Larkin’s confrontation of these themes head-on is quite admirable, his ability to do so with flair and a sense of humour makes it enviable. Even in Continuing To Live when talking about “loss of interest, hair and enterprise” Larkin is still fully aware of the seriousness of the situation which he surmise in Dockery And Son by saying: “Life is first boredom, then fear/Whether or not we use it, it goes.”
But of course not all of Larkin’s work is defined by this downhearted and pessimistic tone of voice. A great many of his poems are more upbeat albeit all uniformly with cynical connotations. A lot of these are sententious and document Larkin’s difficulties with women and the notion of love. Larkin’s amatory hardships were fairly well known, so much so that it formed the basis for one of Lawrence Durrell’s most famous one liners, when Durrell declared: “It’s unthinkable not to love – you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.” As wise as Durrell was I think in this particular instance, however, he was sacrificing the man for the sake of a witticism because albeit Larkin struggled with love and declared himself “too selfish” for it he did love and do so very generously. In Monika Jones’ case, who Larkin met in 1947 while working together at Leicester University, that love last for over 30 years. In one of his most demonstrative expressions of affection, Larking dedicated The Less Deceived to her. The collection contains several of Larkin’s best known poems including Church Going (“A serious house on serious earth it is/In whose blent air all our compulsions meet/Are recognized, and robed as destinies”), Deceptions (“Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare/Console you if I could. What can be said/Except that suffering is exact, but where/Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?/For you would hardly care/That you were less deceived, out on that bed/Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair/To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic”) and An Arundel Tomb, which most clearly represents Larkin’s romantic side even if it is despoiled by sceptic preoccupations of a logician. The concluding line of An Arundel Tomb (“What will survive of us is love”) is one of the most conspicuously affirmative in Larkin’s canon. And yet upon closer inspection the poem’s conclusion about the endurance of love, so uplifting in itself, is introduced as a very faint presentiment an “almost-instinct” that is not quite reliable because it is only “almost true”. The “stone fidelity” of the couple sculpted on the tomb is finally dismissed as something “they hardly meant” and the confident first impression is thus renounced as some sort of misunderstanding, or indeed a lie, when Larkin determines that “time has transfigured them into untruth”.
Larkin’s preoccupation with adverse themes is less abstract when considered with the fact that he started out his professional life as a fledgling writer, with two novels behind him by the age of 25, but later abandoned his aspirations comprehensively discouraged by Kingsley Amis’ success with Lucky Jim (1954), which took some of its inspiration from their friendship. In 1982 he told The Paris Review: “I wanted to ‘be a novelist’ in a way I never wanted to ‘be a poet,’ yes. Novels seem to me to be richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems.” It seems that from the very start the act of writing poetry was for Larkin tinctured with failure, which makes his poetic success all the more extraordinary. Talking about the subject most prevalent in his work, Larkin once said: “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” A bloody good thing too as it seems to have made him into the poet he was. And no other could talk of death so intensely yet tentatively as Larkin does in Next, Please when in the closing stanza he says: “Only one ship is seeking us, a black/Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back/ A huge and bridles silence. In her wake/ No waters breed or break.” No other could capture the essence of intimacy more strikinglythan he did in Talking In Bed: “Talking in bed ought to be easiest/Lying together there goes back so far/An emblem of two people being honest… It becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind/Or not untrue and not unkind.” No other could be at once more funny and morose, “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.” (Annus Mirabilis). No other could be more flippant: “They fuck 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.” (This Be The Verse). Or more heart-wrenching than Larking is in Home is so Sad when he says: “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left/Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/As if to win them back. Instead, bereft/Of anyone to please, it withers so/Having no heart to put aside the theft/And turn again to what it started as,/A joyous shot at how things ought to be,/Long fallen wide. You can see how it was/Look at the pictures and the cutlery/The music in the piano stool. That vase.” In short, no one could be Philip Larkin except Philip Larkin who was a great poet and a bloody good bum.