The ‘pre-eminent poet of common experience’ deserves a memorial among Britain’s greatest literary figures
The poetry of Philip Larkin is an endless delight. His words possess, in Martin Amis’s phrase “frictionless memorability”. His tones range from the sulkiness of Toads (Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?) and the acid rhymes of Money (I am all you never had of goods and sex. / You could get them still by writing a few cheques) to the sublime nirvana of Absences (Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!) and the yearning of Love Songs in Age (The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love, / Broke out, to show / Its bright incipience sailing above, / Still promising to solve, and satisfy, / And set unchangeably in order).
He combines words together with an originality which teases the imagination: retired horses are safe in “unmolesting meadows”; Hull is a “fishy-smelling pastoral”; our “almost-instinct” that “what will survive of us is love”, is “almost true”. He makes familiar words sound precious and strange. Casual phrases resonate with existential gravity: “what morning woke to”, “all we are”, “what is left to come”, “the only end of age”, “nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”
He is the pre-eminent poet of common experience: “Everyday things are lovely to me”. In one of his workbooks, he pasted a photograph of Thomas Hardy with the quotation: “The ultimate aim of a poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own.” This ingenuous intimacy between poet and reader is the key to Larkin’s appeal. He is not a “difficult” poet. As he said in an interview: “I suppose the kind of response I am seeking from the reader is, ‘Yes, I know what you mean, life is like that’; and for readers to say it not only now but in the future, and not only in England but anywhere in the world.”
His reputation as a lugubrious Eeyore is overplayed, though he did act up to the role with gusto: “Life is first boredom, then fear”; “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”. But he is equally moving when celebrating the million-petalled flower / Of being here, and the “enormous yes” of Sidney Bechet’s clarinet. On hearing a thrush repeating “It will be spring soon”, he feels like a child who comes on a scene / Of adult reconciling, / And can understand nothing / But the unusual laughter, / And starts to be happy.
Many of us, pulling into London in the frail travelling coincidence of a train, will have in our ears the last lines of Larkin’s great celebration of marriage, The Whitsun Weddings: And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
For all his intimate familiarity you can never quite pin Larkin down. He is full of contradictions. We start with delight when we read his line”Get stewed: Books are a load of crap”. Moralists will hastily reassure us that, of course, Larkin doesn’t really mean it, and point out that the speaker of A Study of Reading Habits is a dramatised persona. The “real” Larkin was a distinguished university librarian who secured the archives of the National Council for Civil Liberties for the library at Hull, and who initiated the Arts Council Manuscripts Committee. Well, yes. But this misses the joke. The speaker is indeed a persona but one with whose disillusion Larkin empathises. Books delude us with dreams; ultimately they are a con.
We are told that Larkin’s memorial will be a tablet set in the floor, close to that dedicated to Ted Hughes in 2011. In December 1984 Larkin was offered the Laureateship. Already ill (he would die less than a year later) he declined.Aware that the honour would go to Hughes, he wrote to Kingsley Amis: “The thought of being the cause of Ted’s being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with. There is regret. Always, there is regret.”
So, by one of life’s little ironies, the poetic rivals will share their scrap of literary history together. Larkin would no doubt be philosophical about this unmeant stone fidelity. The organicism and hyperbole of Hughes’s poems were not to his taste but he found his younger contemporary a pleasant enough companion over a pint. “He’s all right when he’s not reading!”
Some will make objections, particularly to Larkin’s memorialisation in an Anglican church. What about Larkin’s lack of faith? This argument was lost long ago with the admission into Poets’ Corner of Shelley and Housman. What about Larkin’s “misogyny”? The man who wrote Love Songs in Age and Afternoons was no misogynist. What, then, about his two-timing of his lovers? One wonders with whom these critics are comparing Larkin: those models of domestic decorum Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes, perhaps? Larkin’s empathy with women, and his tendency to put himself in the wrong, contrasts strongly with the attitudes of other male writers of his generation. Is the problem perhaps that he would not marry, unwilling to promise to “stand on one leg for the rest of his life”? At least he cannot be accused of adultery.
And finally, what about Larkin’s alleged racism? Larkin sympathised unguardedly in private letters with the prejudices of two or three of his correspondents. But he had no ideological convictions about race or culture. T S Eliot believed in theories of racial degeneration, superiority and inferiority. Larkin felt that Louis Armstrong was a more important cultural figure than Picasso, “an artist of world stature, an American Negro slum child who spoke to the heart of Greenlander and Japanese alike”.
Larkin the man, that unique blend of families and fashions, is lost in endless extinction. But as the Very Reverend John Hall, Dean of Westminster, said in his announcement: “Larkin’s work and memory will live on as long as the English language continues to be understood.” In the end it is the poems that matter.
The paperback edition of James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury) will be out later this year