The 100th anniversary of the poet Philip Larkin’s birth took place earlier this week. Larkin is an important poet for me, personally, yet I still somehow manage to underestimate the hold he has on the imagination of the British public. For better or worse, if you mention poetry in this country to someone who doesn’t read much of it (which, though it doesn’t need repeating, is most people) they might still mention Larkin back. They might even quote him.
The recent furore over the GCSE syllabus must have helped generate coverage, but BBC Radio have also commissioned a good number of features (from actual poets, which is nice). More than anything and more than anyone, the Philip Larkin Society and Larkin100 teams have been incredibly busy, without – it has to be said – much help from more established arts organisations.
It helps that Larkin himself makes such good material. He is present, tangible, in a way many writers aren’t. A lot of this is his own doing. When we think about Larkin’s character we usually mean his attitudes, but the novelistic observations he’s rightly praised for in the poems – a ring of water on a sheet of music or ‘an uncle shouting smut’ – are also deployed to paint memorable mini self-portraits: think of the famous bicycle clips in ‘Church Going’ or the narrator in ‘Dockery and Sons’ who eats ‘an awful pie’ as they change trains.
Then there’s the technology: for a famously reclusive man we have a fair amount of footage and audio. Larkin was probably the first generation for which making primetime features about poets was an option (possibly the last).
Another reason – perhaps the main reason – why Larkin feels ‘present’ today is the conversation that’s grown up around his actual character. As a result of, among other things, the casual racism revealed by Andrew Motion’s biography and the private letters, as well as the sexism that can be read into some of poems, even the most appreciative discussions of Larkin’s poetry now begin with a kind of ritual throat clearing – the point at which the author indicates that, obviously, they don’t share Larkin’s opinions. I understand. I do it myself.
The urge to disassociate the man from the poems leads to some strange places. Every now and then I read one of Larkin’s advocates arguing for a clear division between the man and the work: the man was a rotter, but the work expresses (in the words of one TLS writer) ‘universal truths’. Or you have the late Clive James, Larkin’s loudest cheerleader, who spoke of the poet going ‘narrow to go deep’ – avoiding social issues to plumb the depths of human nature.
This isn’t my Larkin. For me, the poetry has always contained a sustained, consistent criticism of post-war society – its obsession with youth and beauty, its endless consumerism, its failed promises of freedom – all of which is contrasted with the realities of aging and increasing social isolation. There is a kind of willful turning away from so much else that was going on in the published poems and a grim reactionariness to the man, especially in later in life (there’s the throat clearing again). This is where critics who see Larkin as a poet of post-imperial self-pity have a point. But to cast Larkin’s poetry as fuzzy nostalgia or defend it on the grounds of its unique insight into universal ‘human nature’ is to miss the point: Larkin wrote about limits – and his approach to limits clearly had something to do with who he was and the times he lived in.
Personally, that sensibility has never felt like something from a bygone age, despite the period fittings. I’m clearly not alone: in the first episode of ‘Larkin Revisited‘, a series of a series of short clips in which Simon Armitage takes Larkin’s poems ‘for a spin’ to see how they bear up now, Armitage reads the poem ‘Born Yesterday’ with a group of dance students in Liverpool. Written for Sally Amis, daughter of Larkin’s friend Kingsley, ‘Born Yesterday’ declines to wish the baby the normal platitudes: that it will be ‘beautiful’ or ‘a spring of innoncence and love’. Instead, Larkin wishes ‘what none of the others would’:
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called
Implicitly, the students we hear from in the documentary recognise this as a response to their own world of socially conditioned, unreal expectations. If you read Larkin’s poems, and especially the letters, you see how deeply he felt this pressure himself – instead of the calm, collected resistance of a poem like this there is an obsession with failure, of looking back on opportunities not taken, of believing he should be living some other kind of life than the one he is. The titles of some of the uncollected poems tell their own story: ‘Failure’, ‘Success Story’, ‘At thirty-one, when some are rich’…
‘Born Yesterday’ is, to use a cliché – ‘hard won’. It is a form of resistance.
One thing I liked about ‘Larkin Revisted’ is that Armitage doesn’t avoid Larkin’s less contemporary attitudes – the ones right there in the text. One of the students picks up on a phrase used earlier in the poem:
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.
Armitage discusses that phrase, ‘lucky girl’, with the poet Sinéad Morrissey, whose poem ‘On Balance’ is a riposte to Larkin’s (though as others have pointed out it takes some poetic license with the original). Morrissey suggests that Larkin would not have written the same poem about a boy. I think this is true. Larkin, Morrissey’s poem argues, rarely mentions women, and when he does it is only to comment on what they look like or what they can’t do. It’s true, too, that this is how women often feature – although I’d question ‘rarely’. If I had to guess I would say there are more women in Larkin’s poems than men, and I think this is one of the more interesting things about them: not being able to do things that you want, for Larkin, is the human condition.
What makes Larkin’s poetry so well-loved is that alongside the neat stanzas, memorable phrases and occasional flight into mystic vision, it is rooted in life as it was lived. Not just what it looked like, but what it felt like. For Morrissey, by addressing itself to a baby girl ‘Born Yesterday’ imposes limits on its subject and by implication on women generally. For Armitage, for me and for many of the students, the poem’s value lies in the way it embraces limitation as a defence against a culture whose promises are neither true nor kind and often flat-out manipulation. These are not timeless universal, timeless questions. They are about how we live now.
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