Just an Ordinary Muse|
Philip Larkin: Collected Poems; Philip Larkin: Collected Letters both edited by Anthony Thwaite. Faber & Faber œ20 (Collected Poems is also available in p.b. for œ10)
IN VIEWPOINTS Philip Larkin once said, "I don't want to transcend the commonplace, I love the commonplace. Everyday things are lovely to me." The commonplace indeed is the essence of his poetry and the secret of his success as a poet. He writes of ordinary things as an ordinary person. The recent publication of his letters by Faber, edited by Anthony Thwaite (an established poet in his own right and a friend of Larkin) at the unfortunately not-so-ordinary price of œ20, reminds us of this, just as its publication only eight years after Larkin's death reminds us how popular the "ordinary" Larkin has become. In one sense of course, Philip Larkin was not an ordinary poet at all: he was a very good poet. Critics concur in praising the poet whatever their reservations about the man (his politics are no more fashionable today than they were at the time of his death in 1985). Anthony Thwaite has now edited Larkin's Collected Poems and Collected Letters. If there are Scorpion readers with a taste for poetry on the lookout for a modern poet who shared our distrust of the the "way things are going" to use his ordinary language, then Larkin is their man. In his writing he is cynical and sensitive, colloquial and intelligent, modern and anti- modernist, patriotic but free of cant.
Philip Larkin's life was not a happy one, neither according to his critics, his biographers, nor to the poet himself. There is a famous poem by Heinrich Heine which begins Das Glck ist eine leichte Dirne ("Happiness is an easy girl to have") and describes how the unfaithful "happiness" leaves us with a laugh and "unhappiness" sits herself down on our bed and starts to knit! From what we know this cynical metaphor of Heine's fits Larkin's experiences of life to a T.
"And I, whose childhood/ Is a forgotten boredom,"
The optimistic side of Larkin tends to be overlooked however; after all, the poem continues,
"Feel like a child/ Who comes on a scene of adult reconciling,/ And can understand nothing/"
Larkin once wrote that nothing worth recording happened to him in his childhood at all. A determination not to be sentimental pervades his poetry. His melancholia is partly a matter of private disappointments and grudges. "they f... you up, your mum and dad" is predictably perhaps, one of Larkin's most oft cited lines, although the critic David Timms for one (Philip Larkin, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh Modern Writers Series) argues that Larkin often distances himself critically from the I character in his own poems and does so here. Larkin's regrets are also for the sorry tale of progress in his beloved England under what he mischievously calls "Wilson's squallid crew". For his publisher Charles Monteith he sent these words for Lilli Burlero:
"Prison for strikers, /Bring back the cat,/ Kick out the niggers,/ What about that?"
In a snide review of Selected Letters in the Winter 1992 edition of Poetry Review Peter Forbes calls Larkin a "clinical case", the real reason being presumably what Forbes calls the poet's "racist effusions", which obviously embarrass the champions of pluralisism. The co-editors of New Poetry, the anti-Faber, anti-Penguin anthology recently published by Bloodaxe, are such champions; at a poetry reading to launch the Bloodaxe anthology in Cologne, co-editor Michael Hulse assured his listeners that the new anthology, whatever else, was "not right-wing". When pressed by this reviewer to explain himself Mr. Hulse was able to give no satisfactory definition of "right-wing", nor explain why and how his anthology was not whatever "right-wing" is. The truth, as Mrs. Anne Stevenson rightly noted, is that Britain's most recent anthology of modern verse "is being jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Conscience and the Hate England Society" (Poetry Review Summer 1993). One suspects that the editors are grateful that Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, even John Betjamin, were all born before 1940 and therefore too early to qualify for inclusion in New Poetry. Of those poets one can certainly say they are "not left-wing", and if Mr. Hulse wants me to explain what I mean by that I shall be happy to do so.
Popular upsurge in interest in modern poetry in England probably owes much to Philip Larkin's influence. T.S. Eliot once remarked that very good poets often have a very bad influence on poets who come after them, giving Milton as an example. The same can be said of Eliot himself. Like Eliot and Pound, Larkin was cynical about the sentimentality and vacuousness of much romanticism, (it was fashionable after the Great War for critics as we well as poets to be so: witness F.R. Leavis' famous hatchet job on Shelley's Ode to a Skylark); but T.E. Hulme's definition of the "classical in verse", as the "blend of irony and wonder" would be a more apt description of Larkin's poetry than Eliot's or Pound's. It is the wonder of simple things which Larkin maintains. One is reminded of D.H. Lawrence here and Larkin has often been compared to him. Larkin was much less talented a poet than either Pound or Eliot but his influence on younger poets has produced happier results (both in terms of poetic quality and literally in mood).
Larkin was sceptical of classical and religious illusions in modern poetry, which in his opinion "don't amount to much". A good examples of classical allusion being dragged in without religious sensibility to justify it can be found in much of David Constantine's poetry (reviewed below): I suspect that Joe Soap would heartily agree that the latter's Lazarus to Christ "doesn't amount to much". Many of Pound's Cantos are literally unreadable (how just many people do you know who can can read Chinese and Ancient Greek?) and as for James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake makes Paradise Lost a light read for the beach by comparison.
Larkin is a "people's poet", much more so in fact than the Marxist writers who first coined the term ever were. He speaks directly: "look" says Larkin and we look, "listen" and we listen. Larkin explained his attitude about this in an article on W.H. Auden for the Spectator published in July 1960. He claimed that Auden's later poetry was not written under the pressure of artistic necessity but of professional obligation, that is to say it was written without strong feeling. "One should... write poetry when one wants to and has to." ("Has to" refers here to inner, not to outer compulsion.) There was nothing of the vocation of the poet about Larkin, no conniving for honours, in fact he earned his living as a librarian for most of his life. So far as I am aware, Larkin did not use the word "important" about poets; in fact he wrote that he had no belief in the kind of "tradition" which is engaged in assessing the "importance" of a poet. What can "importance" mean in poetry or any other art form? Does it not presuppose that there is some "end" to which all art is progressing? So Larkin did not wish his readers to find him "important"; it was enough that they wanted to read him. What higher reward can a poet have than knowing that people want to read the poems because they enjoy them? In a healthy society that should be a statement of the obvious. But today there are many poets and few readers of poetry. The existence of a body like the Arts Council to subsidise poets and poetry magazines has encouraged a tendency latent in even many good artists, to become indifferent to popularity. Poetry in England today, when we consider the general decline of interest in reading in general and in literature in particular, is holding its own astonishingly well. There are some 400 poetry magazines in print in any year and competitions and readings the length and breadth of the country. Established publishing houses are prepared to take on relatively unknown poets. Compared to other Western countries, the interest in modern poetry in England is remarkable. I suspect this state of affairs owes not a little to the influence of Philip Larkin, who derided "the shits in shuttered chateaux" who did not need to do an ordinary job and wrote their few hundred lines in comfortable surroundings abroad for magazines subsidised by the taxpayer. One of Larkin's sharpest regrets was not to have belonged to one woman or to one piece of earth. This regret makes him very much a modern poet. He was too honest to pretend, as so many conservative minded persons will do, that he has found peace of mind, because to have done so would mean that if not with the world, at least within him, order has been established.
"No, I have never found/ The place where I could say/This is my proper ground,/Here I shall stay;/Not met that special one/Who has an instant claim/On everything I own/Down to my name;" (Places, Loved Ones)
This is the voice of the alienated modern, the majority of us who feel disoriented by too rapid change; likewise, in Larkin's wry comment on the end of Empire:
"Next year we are to bring the soldiers home/For lack of money, and it is all right....Our children will not know it's a different country./All we can hope to leave them now is money." (Homage to a Government).
Here we have the resigned "oh well that's life" attitude of so many people in the face of drastic change. The poem goes deeper than that however: now that Empire has gone all we can hope to inherit from our forefathers is money. There is a political radical in Larkin which unfortunately never broke through the surface resignation, that reluctance to philosophise which is typically English, a reluctance which at its best produces common sense, at its worst a stubburn refusal to look into the causes of things. Perhaps for this reason Larkin was only a good poet. Noone could be tempted to say he was a great one. Larkin could be as cynical as Pound when he wanted to be, arguably to greater effect, because he did feel the need, as Pound always did, to illustrate a point with archaic or recondite references. In Posterity Larkin imagines his future biographer as an ambitious Jew who has been landed with the unwelcome task of writing a PHD on him:
" ...this old fart at least a year;/I wanted to teach school in Tel Aviv,/But Myra's folks-he makes the money sign-Insisted I got tenure...I'll get a couple of semesters leave to work on Protest Theater. They both rise,/Make for the Coke dispenser..."
The Jew dismisses Larkin as "one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys". Larkin is a natural poet, not a nature poet in the Romantic sense, not a city writer either in the sense that Dostoyevsky or Baudelaire clearly were. Nature is present in his work without dominating it, but Larkin was aware of how fleeting that presence could be. Like John Betjeman he was sceptical of the virtues of progress, but whereas Betjeman can be (and often is) shrugged off as quaint or sentimental, Larkin cannot, for he is factual, cooly analytical:
"I thought it would last my time-/The sense that, beyond the town,/There would always be fields and farms...The crowd/Is young in the MI cafe;/Their kids are screaming for more-/More houses more parking allowed...spectacled grins approve/Some takeover bid that entails/Five per cent profit (and ten/Percent more in the estuaries)/Despite all the land left free/For the first time I feel somehow/That it isn't going to last,...all that remains/For us will be concrete and tyres."
The American seventies "pop" singer Cat Stevens put it in the same way:
"you build your roads over fresh green grass/ Lorry loads pumping petrol gas.. and you keep on building higher and higher...I know we've come a long way... but tell me where do the children play?"
But Larkin's own pessimism never turns to despair. The cynicism in a poem like Coming: "childhood /a forgotten boredom", may not be so cynical after all, may be seen as a ray of hope. A modern childhood must be stiflingly boring for the sensitive, so to be able to look back on such an experience as a "forgotten boredom" would be a blessing, an indication that the world can change for the better, that this over- crowded modern world of concrete and tyres could be made to make way for a New World. After all, the same poem continues,
"A thrush sings,/Laurel surrounded in the deep bare garden, It's fresh peeled voice astonishing the brickwork. It will be spring soon, It will be spring soon."