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Tag: Philip Larkin

Writers On Writers

“To read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud.”
Nicholas Shakespeare

“The whole of English Lit at the moment is being written by Anthony Burgess. He reviews all new books except those by himself, and these latter include such jeux d’esprit as A Shorter Finnegan’s Wake and so on….He must be a kind of Batman of contemporary letters. I hope he doesn’t take to poetry.”
Philip Larkin

“James’ repressions and evasions are many, varied and exhausting.”
Camille Paglia

“By saying Simone Weil’s life was both comic and terrible I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint, which I don’t believe she was.”
Flannery O’Connor

“I had always had grave doubts about Eliot’s taste and, indeed, intelligence.”
Anthony Burgess

“Céline’s personal and artistic honesty are of a piece. If he made mistakes, grievous mistakes, in his life, as a novelist he remained true to himself and to his art.”
John Banville

“Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.”
Neil Gaiman

“No one, it seems to me, can hope to equal Augustine. Who, nowadays, could hope to equal one who, in my judgment, was the greatest in an age fertile in great minds.”
Petrarch

“In regard to absurdism, Samuel Beckett is sometimes considered to be the epitome of the postmodern artist … In fact, he is the aesthetic reductio ad absurdum of absurdism: no longer whistling in the dark, after waiting for Godot, he is trying to be radically silent, wordless in the dark.”
William Desmond

“If the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors; and Brendan Behan … sends language out on a swaggering spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight.”
Kenneth Tynan

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Wikiquote

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Writers On Writers

“We cannot help but see Socrates as the turning-point, the vortex of world history.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Mayakovsky impregnated poetry in such a way that almost all the poetry has continued being Mayakovskian.”
Pablo Neruda

“I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.”
Angus Wilson

“Vladimir Nabokov, and I languidly English the name, takes up a good five feet of my library. “
Martin Amis

“Flann O’Brien is unquestionably a major author.”
Anthony Burgess

“Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe—he seemed to me a great genius then, and still does, though I can’t read a line of it now.”
Truman Capote

“As far as I’m consciously aware, I forget everything I read at once, including my own stuff. But I have a tremendous admiration for Céline.”
Henry Green

“It may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Kingsley Amis and I used to exchange unpublished poems, largely because we never thought they could be published, I suppose.”
Philip Larkin

“Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.”
Vladimir Nabokov

Sources: Wikipedia, Brainy Quote, The Paris Review  

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.

W.H Auden: His “gift survived it all” and made intelligible “every human love”

Rummaging through my modest library I was surprised to find a beautiful Faber and Faber edition of W.H. Auden’s works. It was given to me at Christmas last year and has remained untouched ever since. Spellbound by the magnificent hardback I sought to rectify this at once and turned the virginal pages to a poem called Musée des Beaux Arts which opens with the following lines: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The Old Masters were hardly ever wrong about anything, not least about the art of suffering.

I was quite young and still at school when I was introduced to Auden’s work. Funeral Blues was on the Curriculum and thus we were expected to learn it and fathom something that, at the time, was beyond us. It took me about a week to memorise it, and funnily enough I can still recite it to this day. I didn’t realise then and up to until quite recently that the poem was originally written as an ironic pastiche of an elegy to a fallen political figure, but even that does not detract from the fact that it must be one of the most eloquent exclamations of grief ever penned.

I have read Auden intermittently throughout my life, occasionally chancing upon his poems in a public library or more often a private one of some friend or acquaintance, and I have always admired his ability to mesh poetic vigour with intellectual gasconade and technical virtuosity. Above all I have always associated Auden with some of the most memorable and most quoted lines in the English language: “Stop all the clocks cut off the telephone/ Prevent a dog from barking with a juicy bone,” or “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet/And the river jumps over the mountain/And the salmon sing in the street” or “Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm”, or more controversially, the line from September 1, 1939, “We must love one another or die”—which Auden had removed from his own catalogue.

Flicking through the slender selection I was also reminded of his lesser known works such as If I Could Tell You (Time will say nothing but I told you so/Time only knows the price we have to pay/If I could tell you I would let you know), Walks (I choose the road from here to there/When I’ve a scandalous tale to bear/Tools to return and books to lend/To someone at the other end) and In Memory of W. B. Yeats (You were silly like us: your gift survived it all/The parish of rich women, physical decay/Yourself: Mad Ireland hurt you in to poetry) all of which display an overwhelming variety of subjects and ideas that pay homage to Auden’s questing intellect. It would be facetious to say that all the poems in the selection are good, because Auden, like any poet, fluctuated from the superb to the obtuse. But even “bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and what distinguished Auden from his contemporaries is the emotional tone; its resonance and potency.

Auden decided on a career as a poet in his early teens having abandoned hope of becoming a mining engineer. Speaking about his early years, he once confessed: “I was going to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent many hours of my time constructing a highly elaborate private world of my own based on, first of all, a landscape, the limestone moors of the Pennines; and second, an industry—lead mining… Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written. Then, my final decision, which seemed to be fairly fortuitous at the time, took place in 1922, in March when I was walking across a field with a friend of mine from school who later became a painter. He asked me, “Do you ever write poetry?” and I said, “No”—I’d never thought of doing so. He said: “Why don’t you?”—and at that point I decided that’s what I would do. Looking back, I conceived how the ground had been prepared.”

Poetry quickly became a vocation which Auden believed aligned itself with Freud’s philosophy that art often manifests out of one’s struggle with personal unhappiness. In Auden’s case this often sprung from feelings of guilt over his homosexuality, documented as early as his adolescent verse. Auden was always very prolific, never wrote when drunk, lived by his watch and travelled extensively throughout his life to Belgium, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Portugal, France, Spain and even Hong Kong, which for a while complied with his desire to “live deliberately without roots”. Eventually, though, he settled in New York where he did some of his best and worst work. He became more contrary, more philosophical, more formally traditionalist and more openly gay; transforming into a boozy, wizened, loquacious Auden who wrote more journalism and composed the four poems that remain at the heart of his canon: For the Time Being, New Year Letter, The Age of Anxiety and The Sea and the Mirror. Auden’s work has always been described as somewhat ambiguous; Edith Sitwell once noted that “the meaning of Mr Auden’s poetry is frequently so obscure, that it defies detection, and it is this obscurity, I imagine, which has frightened certain critics into this excessive admiration.” This lamentation was soon seconded by Philip Larkin who referred to Auden’s later poetry as “rambling intellectual stew”.

But even Auden’s own attitude to his craft, as to his sexuality, was often a mixture of high and low – which is precisely why his work is difficult to sum up – but, as he himself once noted, understanding poetry is “not a logical process” but rather a miraculous one. For me personally Auden will always remain a true contrarian whose demiurgic vision sidestepped the norm, and more importantly a poet who understood and made intelligible “every human love” to a girl who spent hours in the school library reading his work.

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