(If you’ve read this intro bit already, in the post about this page, scroll down to the title where it all begins …)
For five and a half years, until his too early death in May 2018, I exchanged continual emails with poet Bill Bennett, an old friend rediscovered. We began with the poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and finished in mid thread with Housman, but covered an awful lot of other ground along the way, not all of it poetic.
One persistently recurring theme was Bill’s need to take apart Philip Larkin, whose current popularity presented itself to him as a problem demanding to be solved. “Like worrying at an old dry bone,” he said. Or “a scab that needs picking”. Bill was constantly puzzled by the tolerance, even fondness, offered to Larkin and his work by many normally sensible and decent people. He felt keenly the duty to denounce and resist the false consciousness, the erosion of common humanity, that he saw in Larkin, and the life-denying forces surviving in his writings. And not just in the letters: “I always thought it was perfectly clear from the poetry what an unpleasant bastard he was in so many ways.”
I urged him to string together his thoughtlets into something more considered. He announced a start on “an expanded and semi-coherent piece on The Explosion”, but I’m not sure that it ever really took shape.
So here instead is my compilation of some of his thoughts on PL, snipped from our emails and roughly parcelled into clumsy sections, in a loose sequence. As it’s a bit of a collage, at times linking remarks originally months or years apart, it lacks some flow, and a good few of these points will no doubt have been chewed over extensively by the critical machine already – I wouldn’t pretend to know. But Bill makes some important observations and judgements, and he makes them with his habitual insight, wisdom and wit.
Towards the end, Larkin’s morbid obsession with individual mortality took on an added resonance when Bill was forced to confront his own health issues; the final snippet here (which made me laugh aloud) tells of an unnerving coincidence in a hospital waiting room.
“I think Larkin was wrong …”: Bill Bennett on Philip Larkin
This was a conversation, but I’ve tried to let Bill speak, and to limit my side of it to a few places where brief excerpts maybe help the sense of things. My words are in italics, as are titles of poems and publications. The pics are my doing.
If you can’t recall the poems, Google will. Actually, there’s quite a lot of this. But you can always read it a bit at a time.
UKIP, post-imperialism, Whitsun Weddings
I still can’t really fathom the appeal of Larkin to the wider public, which is similar to my inability to fathom the attraction of UKIP. I suspect it is the helplessness of a post-imperial nation. Very akin to the aging process. One day I woke up and the map wasn’t pink any more and bits of my body didn’t work the way they used to do. A foreigner did it and ran away and I can’t run fast enough to catch him any more.
I almost feel that I need to solve the problem of Larkin’s popularity in the same way that Labour needs to solve the dribbling away of its potential voters to UKIP.
The really sad thing is realising that he is the foremost bard of the consensus of the Welfare State. His main poetry falls after the election of the Attlee government (his first general election, although I’m unclear if he even voted) and he dries up pretty much at the time Thatcher kicked the first large chunks out of it – and dies soon after the end of the Miners’ strike. It is hard to think of another poet who quite so encapsulates 1945-84, or there again another book of poetry quite so appalling as High Windows (although Crow comes quite close in its own way). If PL were obvious rubbish, of course, it wouldn’t matter, but he is competent and “serious” enough to be dangerous. It remains to be seen if the same is true of N Fromage.
Of course, Larkin was clearly a Farage follower before the fact. That dislike of foreigners (principally for not speaking English) and contempt for the grubbiness of the working class (which shimmers under so many Larkin poems, such as Whitsun Weddings etc). Incidentally, I couldn’t work out why Larkin moved the weddings to Whitsun. (Although Motion seemed to take the original journey being on Whit Saturday 1955 at face value, most other evidence seems to place it in August that year.) Is there some tradition of Whit weddings? I recall Whit walks, of course, when the churches seemed to dress up largely as bridesmaids and march behind brass bands, but I think that was a North West thing, and doubt it reached to Coventry.
Fear of invasion is now fear of pollution, perhaps. Our culture diluted by foreigners. Our language diluted by people who can speak it well enough to get by, and to work, but not well enough to read or write poetry. That was part of what scared Larkin, of course.
Ageing, normal unhappiness, An Arundel Tomb
It is terrible, how many people I know now where the first five minutes of any conversation are a medical review. In some cases, the only conversation. There is a chap I meet in the supermarket, who insists on updating me on his diuretics and another bloke who at least alternates between his heart condition (I think they gave him an electric shock to put him back in rhythm) and his next holiday in the Greek Islands. “Age”, as Larkin said, perhaps. At what point do we start defining ourselves by decay? Or answering when people ask you how you are.
As it happens, I was looking at Larkin again the other day, after coming across some of the notes I made when I was looking at last lines and then reading a Ricks essay on the subject. Particularly on An Arundel Tomb, which is one of Larkin’s least objectionable works. Ricks had picked on the same points as myself about personal pronouns and negative prefixes. It is worrying to share too many views with Ricks but rather more horrifying to find oneself sharing some of Larkin’s poetic tics. Was this why Larkin was terrified of aging, that he realised he was turning into himself?
He is an embodiment of Freud’s early statement about the ambition of analysis being to reduce neurotic misery to normal unhappiness. Except the word commonly translated as “unhappiness” is “Ungluck”, which is a quintessential Larkin word, with its double U sound. And really means something more like “bad luck”, so I reckon “everyday bad luck” may be a better translation than “normal unhappiness”. Perhaps what MacNeice meant by the “manhole under the hollyhocks”.
I was trying to compare Arundel Tomb with Canto 81 and seeing if the emphases help. Pound can make diffidence arrogant, which is fascinating. I suppose the whole modernist project was to try and make everything hang together in one whole. Larkin is so willing to settle for the smallest scale. Poetry as a modernised country cottage. He was writing Whitsun Weddings whilst Ginsberg was writing Howl…
Larkin seemed to be able to trace the genesis of most of his larger poems to some sort of “incident”, even if it was only watching a film (At Grass, Faith Healing). He had criticised poems that came out of other works of art (looking at paintings etc) but excused these poems of his because the films were documentaries. He had this peculiar theory of trying, through his poem, to recreate in his reader the same emotion that led him to write the poem in the first place. I think this must be nonsense, but it could be he actually believed this was what he was trying to do. Although he wanted his privacy, he also seems to have been desperate to know that others felt “the same way”.
Larkin always said he needed to be miserable to write, but I think that was just him. He wrote a poem like a mollusc creates a pearly thing. He smeared words around the irritant so that it didn’t hurt so much.
Death, wardrobes, Aubade
I suppose the dead lend wisdom by reminding us of our own mortality, which is the only specific truth Larkin acknowledges. I wouldn’t have thought he ever needed reminding, though. It was really his only major subject. But are you more likely to attain wisdom in a country churchyard, a war cemetery or at an ancient tumulus? Discuss, with illustrations from poems you have read …
I was reading Larkin’s Aubade the other day. A N Wilson claimed it was the only masterpiece written in his lifetime, or some such nonsense. It does contain the cringeworthy “Being brave Lets no-one off the grave”. Certainly it is towards the summit of Larkin’s obsessive terror of death; the last stanza makes the customary attempt on epiphany with some felicitous touches – “telephones crouch, getting ready to ring” and “intricate rented world” and my favourite line “It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know”. Which led me to attempt my own poem on death and furniture, which is called “Wardrobe Wardrobe”.
Yes, I like Aubade. Perhaps as a child he was frightened by the wardrobe? I suppose wardrobes can resemble huge coffins. People hang themselves in wardrobes too – David Carradine, Alexander McQueen.
I think I hate Aubade, although not as much as much Larkin (it doesn’t show contempt). A wardrobe can symbolise most things. I reread Ballard’s Billennium. I remember those wardrobes.
However, more interestingly, I have just read Betjeman’s poem on his teddy bear, which is included in Larkin at Sixty – “He has no mouth, but seems to say / ‘They’ll burn you on the Judgement Day'”. Clearly, they (PL and Sir John) share a profound concern about death, even if they disagree on the form of its harbingers. Bear or Wardrobe. Well, now they have found out, as one or the other might have said.
The wardrobe poem got too full and there is now prose running alongside, although separately. It occurred to me that I have never owned a wardrobe, but then there is a long list of things I have never owned. Maybe there should be a graphic novel as well, wardrobes being relatively easy to draw.
I think, on reflection, my recent interest in Larkin may be tied in with my realising late last year that I’d lived longer than he had.
In the absence of any apparent ability to get a poem to work, I found myself writing a piece of “criticism” with the working title “A Bead on a Wire: the shifting final caesura”, which has the working subtitle “Portentous Meaningless Bollocks”. The question I was trying to wrestle with was those poems which try and present themselves as ending in “proverbs” of resolution, which “proverbs” dissipate to the touch, but retain great popularity amongst the anthology wearing public. For example : An Irish Airman Foresees His Death [W B Yeats]; A Refusal to Mourn the Death … [Dylan Thomas]; long chunks of Larkin like An Arundel Tomb and Dockery and Son. They may all derive from Ode on a Grecian Urn [Keats], of course. Or possibly Catullus.
I am not sure I ever went that deeply into the “purpose” of a poem, even the political stuff. Never much liked story telling. The domestic miniature is certainly one type of “story”, which is part of the Movement repertoire. Glen Cavaliero on David Holbrook said “One species of contemporary verse might be designated Telling-you-all-about-it. It is written in the first person and in the present tense, and its preoccupations are architectural or domestic: the verse form is usually free, the tone is placid and the ending indeterminate”. Well, he suggests Holbrook as a prominent practitioner of the form … But the poem as chunk of autobiography requires a “moral”, I suppose, to justify writing it.
All similar to some Larkin, perhaps, but without the slip into the unearned epiphany of the “new proverb” at the end. I would say it is a typical Larkin template, this sideslip into portentousness. Other Movement poets don’t try quite the same reaching for Meaning. I would say Larkin got it from Yeats, but the classic Yeats ending is the rhetorical question, not the statement. I must have a look at D H Lawrence and see if he does it. I suspect he may start with the portentous bollox, rather than end with it.
In Larkin’s case I think it was a desire for universality. A cry of “Not just me!” Almost a wish for original sin, I suppose (“man hands on misery to man”). Perhaps the ancestor worship is part of the same thing. All this public joint mourning that goes on since the dead Di and Dodie.
I suppose if Larkin had written “They fucked me up, my mum and dad”, no-one would have been especially impressed. Even though that was probably the truth. Poetry is supposed to deal in universal bollocks, perhaps.
Hyphens, footnotes, lawnmowers
It had never really occurred to me quite how many hyphenated words Larkin uses. As if he were trying to make English more like German.
And I had never really been able to picture what he meant by “loaf-haired” (Toads Revisited) until I saw a rather lovely girl on the bus yesterday with a casual bun on top of her hair, just like a cottage loaf. I had always been thinking of different bread-forms, I guess.
Is it any wonder people struggle to interpret Shakespeare? So many things you were expected to recognise disappear. I haven’t seen a cottage loaf for ages (apparently they’re too hard to make commercially). Larkin would appreciate the fact that even his images were decaying so soon after his body.
I feel you may be developing an unhealthy preoccupation with him. Probably itself a sign of ageing, as are staring at young women on buses, and nostalgia for the lost loaves of our youth. Maybe there’s a need for footnotes to Larkin. Explaining to GCSE students what cycle clips were, etc.
You’re right about Larkin being unhealthy. As I say, the terrifying thing is realising I have his tics in my own writing. But not hyphenation (as yet). I think staring at young women on buses is rather healthy.
But there is no doubt that his poetry also acts as a remarkable social commentary to the post-war period. You would have to get [David] Kynaston to write the footnotes (there is a chunk about Whitsun Weddings in Family Britain). Let alone “cycle-clips”, the word “hatless” could command a chapter or two on its own – you have to remember that I come from the town of the Hat Museum [Stockport Hat Works]. Presumably also an homage to Betjeman.
I was reading Dame Kathleen [Raine] the other day and had some bizarre insight which I have now forgotten … Actually, thinking about Betjeman, it was something she said about the fact that it would be the attempts to make poetry contemporary and intelligible that would date it faster than any use of “poeticisms”. You can see what she means as you read Larkin fifty years on. The nuances of “sauce” and “gravy” need a half page footnote but if you speak of trees and birds then, for the next hundred years or so, people will still understand you. There are similarities in Betjeman. Was Betjeman the first poet to use brand names? Did Kipling?
How is anyone ever going to explain the class system to posterity?
I was looking at Larkin’s poem about the dead hedgehog. What seemed very odd is that they exhibited his lawnmower in some exhibition about poets and gardens, even though they knew it wasn’t the lawnmower in the poem. And apparently his correspondence with the manufacturer about another lawnmower is preserved somewhere. You can almost imagine him on his deathbed saying “Burn the diaries, but make sure you keep all those letters about the Qualcast”.
A sense of place
Perhaps there should be a Larkin Museum in Hull. Oh dear, there is, sort of – http://www.thelarkintrail.co.uk. Where it says that Peter Porter described Hull as “the most poetic city in England”.
Hull has something of a poetic tradition. Apart from A Marvell, it was also the only other city outside London to have a Poetry Bookshop, following Harold Monro’s initiative. His original plan was to have them throughout the country, but that was pre-war, of course.
But a Larkin Trail is very imaginative, given that Larkin is one of those poets who writes very little about “place” in any specific sense. His “Enger-land” always seems more similar to the sleek southern Englands of Edward Thomas et al, centring somewhere in the Cotswolds, than anything out Holderness or Yorkshire way. No wonder Hull won the City of Culture vote if they can squeeze that much out of PL. Much of it seems to be “these are places PL went to with various girlfriends because they didn’t want to be seen in Hull by anyone they knew”.
Larkin isn’t much good on place, as I said, but I have long thought that the “England” they all speak of is only really south of a line from the Severn to the Wash (and frankly I have doubts about East Anglia – maybe Shropshire should take its place). By that count Larkin is English only by reading, touring and attendance at Oxford, which is probably right.
Anglican atheism, Church Going, the Irish sixpence, Larkin as Ronnie Corbett, comic compromise, Westminster Abbey
I was discussing the whole question of Larkin as an Anglican atheist with someone the other day (based loosely around Church Going). It is that strange area where people feel protective of the C of E on aesthetic grounds. Orwell was one of course (there is a reference to Anglican atheists in A Clergyman’s Daughter). And Dawkins, Pullman, Stephen Fry and the like, will all line up now to defend the Anglican tradition, now that its real power has largely drained away. A bit like a post-imperial Britain is more likeable.
I was writing something called “Larkin’s Irish Sixpence” when I remembered that W B Yeats had been in charge of the Committee to design the new Free State currency. I was always rather fond of those Irish coins (I used to consult the I Ching with 3 fish florins, before I moved on to the marble method). They were attacked from all sides when they brought them in. Maud Gonne and the republicans slagged them off. The Catholic church resented the absence of any reference to God and referred to “beastmoney from Yorkshire”. The thin end of paganism’s wedge (probably what WBY was hoping for).
CS Lewis says somewhere that the default “religion” is a form of pantheism, which is what people tended to mean when they said they were “religious”. Like Larkin said everyone hoped the “happy ending” bit of Christianity might be true. But I think Church Going may have been written in Belfast. Paisley’s gods didn’t much go for happy endings.
The thing about an agnostic eschatology (such as Larkin’s) is that judgement has to precede death.
The “Irish sixpence” bit in Church Going is a real offence, isn’t it? The cynicism giving the lie to all the worthy and worrisome sentiment. Gratuitous, too. Why bother to put anything in the box at all? No one else is present. If it were during a service, it would be different. Or is he momentarily posing as skinflint-everyman, rather than as PL? But it doesn’t seem so. Or, if this was written in Belfast, would the Irish sixpence pass for currency?
There have been long debates over the Irish sixpence. Often from Irishmen: Heaney, Paulin etc. As far as I can gather, Irish coins were legal tender in the six counties, but not the rest of the UK. In my old days, they weighed the same and would go in slot machines and banking bags, but I think in PL’s time they may have been a little heavier, so may not have done. Assuming there were suitable slot machines in the ‘fifties – I don’t remember what the chocolate ones took. Would a sixpence have bought you ten fags in 1954? (Actually googling it, ten fags were closer to 1s/3d.)
My initial reaction was that it was just part of a real incident, but PL claimed the initial germ of the poem came from seeing an abandoned church in Northern Ireland … Like many of his poems (especially Whitsun Weddings) his “originating incident” may well have been a retrospective fiction, or a conglomeration of several incidents.
So perhaps PL chose the Irish sixpence as a symbol of something of some value (as distinct from a button or a fruit machine token – probably before tokens, I suppose), but not full legal tender, to demonstrate a physical form of “lip service”. Tokenism almost literally. Presumably he signed the book in his real name, not as M. Mouse or Victoria R. As you say, no-one was present, unless God was watching. (Would He be fooled by the gesture, given everything else He had to concentrate on?)
“The Irish 6d was meant as a comic compromise between GIVING NOTHING and giving REAL MONEY …” “Comic compromise”: I think Larkin tries to use “humour” to deflect most things, even if it’s not often funny, like the running gags and catch phrases in a mediocre sitcom. Larkin as Ronnie Corbett in “Sorry!” (can’t remember ever seeing that – I was effectively TV-less for most of the ‘eighties). As far as I can gather it’s about a middle-aged librarian trying to escape his mother, so the Larkin themes are in there, if somewhat reversed. And the father (called Sidney like Pop Larkin) isn’t dead. Maybe they imagined Lumsden as an “anti-Larkin”, Corbett being small and given an odd hairstyle.
I was wondering if Larkin could be lined up alongside Belloc as a man who wasn’t sure whether or not he really wanted to be a comic poet, but suddenly finds himself jerked into a religious response (in Larkin’s case, of course, a non-religious death terror masquerading as something spiritual), like that bit in the Ballade of Illegal Ornaments when having made a couple of jokes Belloc suddenly lurches into “Prince Jesus, in mine Agony, / Permit me, broken and defiled, / Through blurred and glazing eyes to see / A Female Figure with a Child,” or the end of Ballade of Hell and of Mrs Roebeck when he throws in “Prince, on their iron thrones they sit, / Impassible to our despair, / The dreadful Guardians of the Pit: / And Mrs Roebeck will be there.” But I drifted back to Larkin as an out of period Georgian.
Pity they kept to tradition with Larkin and put a new penny under the stone [at Westminster Abbey]. I did suggest to the Dean that it should be an Irish sixpence. Maybe if they were still producing them there would have been a chance (I think the coin’s date is supposed to be relevant – it’s a form of magic). Considering the debate about whether Hardy was enough of a Christian to get (partially) in, I would have thought there could have been a bit of a row about memorialising such a noted agnostic, but I imagine he was christened and certainly buried under the auspices of the Church so was probably still a member (even if behind a bit on his subs). He wouldn’t be pleased they chose a quote from An Arundel Tomb.
Larkin as folk singer, The Explosion
At times Larkin reminds me of a reclusive singer-songwriter, but it’s hard to know if he’s Leonard Cohen or Alanis Morissette. More probably Nick Drake stretched out very thin over thirty years, but a bit closer to the “folk” element than the “rock” element. There is something of the bootleg industry about the fragments of half poems and outtakes they dig out of his letters and papers. And as with Noel Coward: “extraordinary how potent cheap music is”.
Most recently, reading the Letters to Monica took me on a tour of versions of The Trimdon Grange Explosion (according to PL the source of The Explosion). I knew the Martin Carthy version, but PL probably heard the one by Louis Killen. I even came across an Alan Price version with heavy orchestration from 1969 which I must have missed at the time. And listened to Larkin on Desert Island Discs – odd that he took the collected plays of Shaw, but I think he was posing.
I suppose if Larkin had been born ten years later he might have hit the folk revival of the early ‘fifties. At least he would have avoided Amis but I’m not sure who was around Oxford in those days. Geoffrey Hill, I expect. Hmm.
I am not sure why Larkin moved the date and time of the explosion in his poem. Not formally, of course, but from letters he was clearly aware that the (actual) time of year was wrong for the nesting of larks (do you think it a stretch to equate baby larks with baby Larkins?). Then taking place at noon (rather than 2.30), with a darkening of the sun, and bunnies and eggs, there are overtones of Easter thrown in: “the earth did quake and the rocks rent / and the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints which slept arose”. Never did follow that bit – I assume it fulfils some old Jewish prophecy. Perhaps Larkin had more bible in his subconscious than you might think. Did Oxford still have compulsory chapel in the 40s?
I was looking at that Amnesty anthology the other day, Poems that make Grown Men Cry, bemused by the proliferation of Larkin and Auden – Hardy and Housman, I could fathom. Kermode choosing an unpublished Larkin I had only just come across. Not sure why he’d cry. I suppose it’s all context. Knowing the background. Clive James chose Canoe by Douglas. Which wouldn’t have the impact if Douglas had survived the war. And if Tichborne had been pardoned at the last minute? Poems about the dead, especially dead children. But is it ever the poem you’re crying at? Actually, poetry rarely makes me cry. Not unless you’re trying to read it at a funeral, say. Which is a trowel load of context. Songs, on the other hand…
Larkin wanted people to cry, of course. Proves he should have been a folk singer.
Combine harvesters, High Windows
I bought a Critical Quarterly from 1968, their tenth anniversary. I must have read it when it first came out. For some bizarre reason Stockport Library subscribed: its only lit crit subscription other than the TLS. This is the issue with Larkin’s High Windows (the poem). I vaguely remember reading it at the time and being surprised not by PL’s use of “fucking” but by the “outdated combine harvester”. It became my classic example of PL’s unearned epiphany. I wonder if the image came from the rebuilding of Hull’s university library.
My issue with High Windows (the poem) is that I don’t really get it, and then assume that I’m missing something. “Bonds and gestures” – I can see why bonds should be pushed to one side down the chute to paradise, but why gestures? And I’m with you on the combine harvester. Anyway, weren’t combine harvesters rather new fangled things? (Quick Google …) Well, new to Europe in the ‘fifties, it seems. But still quite advanced, surely? Were the hedgerows of 1968 really littered with useless, rusted older models cast aside? Is he perhaps thinking of something else? But what?
And what on earth is the last stanza about? The deep blue air that’s endless. Is this just an image of an imagined freedom beyond the churchy repressions already mentioned? If so, it’s a poor one.
I doubt you miss much in High Windows. I assume “bond and gestures” just refers back to PL’s obsession with the marriage trap and its romantic furbelows (the fact that the male does the fucking and the female is responsible for the contraception emphasises his suspicion that women were just setting out to trap you into marriage by getting pregnant so they could suck your wallet dry for ever after). I assume the combine is supposed to “shock” as well as imply some sort of humorous rethink of the loss of the rural peasant idyll. A sort of second loss. I remember my young cousin had a shiny toy Massey-Ferguson in the fifties, but he lived on a farm. You’re right about the timing. I think at that point (1957?) his father and his two farming brothers clubbed together and bought a combine between them and then hired it out to their neighbours. It was quite likely outdated by 1967, but I doubt they left it in the hedge to rust. Traded it in part-exchange for a new one perhaps.
But kids going down a slide I can cope with. It’s the free birds going down the slide that’s a problem. Are they frozen turkeys? No wonder he has to snap back into staring out into space and thinking of eternity. As I said, I imagine the high windows come from his new library, with the reference across to a church clerestory above the coloured glass. High windows are a library feature. They give light, don’t distract readers with a view and leave the walls clear for bookcases (or coloured pictures of holy folk). But, as you say, it is a dangling stanza which does not earn its sudden assault on sun, light and meaning. The fact PL named his book after the poem makes one assume he thought it important. Sad, really. That a poem should end with an image which despairs of words. I suppose he was already running out of things to say.
I read a piece by Stan Smith – a critic I often respect – which described High Windows (poem) as “magnificent”. How odd that people see different things in the same place.
Belief, Kenneth Williams
There is a very strange bit in the diaries of Kenneth Williams where he apparently rewrites a conversation he had with Mavis Nicholson about Larkin to represent Larkin as an aficionado of gay porn. According to a footnote, this is not the case. Larkin gave MN one mag of male nudes so she wouldn’t feel left out whilst he thumbed through his girlie mags. Or something like that.
Of course, KW would be an admirer of Larkin. As a misanthropic, depressive, literary Thatcherite snob tormented by sexual guilt, it’s only natural. But I was confused by the reference in Wikipedia to Williams abandoning Christianity following “discussions with Larkin”. The only source given for this seems to be a radio documentary. Made after they were both dead.
I somehow find these discussions hard to envisage and wonder whether they were spun out of KW’s imagination. Larkin might have thought Christianity “beautiful balls” but he wouldn’t have tried to argue anyone out of belief. His womenfolk seem to have been largely Christian believers of some description. Intellectual theories weren’t his thing: statement rather than argument is the Larkin hallmark.
In and Out
Re unpublished Larkin, I see the TLS had to disown their Larkin “discovery” which turned out to be by Frank Redpath. A heroic piece of wishful thinking – “And who but Larkin could create pathos from a dying fire … or give such moodily authoritative closure to these wary affirmations …?” Well, now we know who. Though it’s easy to sneer with hindsight, like those on Twitter who sarkily ascribed the authorship of “A finger of fudge” or “Do the shake and
vac” to PL. Though that made me laugh.
I quite like some bits of In and out – “beakily”, “wingnutted” etc. The Audenesque “reliable men”. But the poem needs a thoroughly good kicking into shape. One is now curious about Redpath, but his Collected is £23 on Amazon. I dare say they were giving them away before he trended with In and Out …
If you look at the “Larkin” poem closely, you can see how it is Larkinesque rather than Larkin. Although, it being passed off as immature or unsatisfactory Larkin gets you out of that. “School of Larkin” perhaps. Imagine a table surrounded by Redpaths churning out occasional lines (like a US script-writing team): maybe that was the way Larkin could have carried on writing after he dried up. Spending his sober hours in the morning pulling together those odd lines. There is a bit in Richard Murphy’s memoir where he says that Larkin explained to Douglas Dunn that he wrote poetry rather like knitting. You decide how many stitches in a row and the pattern you’re following and then you knit away. Murphy then points out that Sanskrit has a word that can mean both sewing and putting together poetry (although he admits that Larkin probably didn’t know that). So perhaps these days poems could be constructed overseas by teams of small Bengali children, just like footballs and football shirts.
Sentiment, Stoke, Mr Bleaney
I wonder if it is significant that Mr Bleaney was a car worker, who are apparently the archetype of the alienated worker, but assume Larkin gave it no thought, as always. The forms of alienation he suggests in Toads are wholly different.
I read an essay by Edna Longley that said “and Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke” was “the saddest line in English poetry”. One thousand years and that’s what we came up with? It has the same meter as “a Mr Wilkinson, a clergyman”, which was supposed to be the most boring line in English poetry. Perhaps all feeling in poetry has to be brought by the barrow-load from outside, and all the words do is provide signs for where the shit and sentiment should be dumped.
I think “sister” carries the burden of the sadness. For this to be your most significant female relation, perhaps. Yet he may have been Jolly Uncle Bleaney, with his annual antics a childhood highlight for his multitude of nieces and nephews. I suppose that, also, would carry a hint of sadness. “Stoke” is monosyllabic and singular, which is a rare attribute among English cities. “Hull” wasn’t really available. The Midlands connection is a bonus, of course. I think Larkin’s own sister lived in Leicester.
I have never been sure how Bleaney has become so much about loneliness. It is all freight that the reader brings, is almost instructed to bring. I think it is a poem that should never be taught in schools, except as an exercise in spotting the writer’s thumb on the scales. Yet Bleaney is a much more active, involved individual than the poet / narrator, who just has “thoughts”.
Yeats, The North Ship
G S Fraser’s 1953 Springtime anthology has young Larkin down as an “Irish poet”, going on about his “rootedness”; that has to be wrong, surely? … Is Larkin even an Irish name?
Yes, Larkin is an Irish name, or can be … Maybe all that Yeats influence fooled them as far as PL went.
Fraser goes on about Larkin’s “horses and meadows and creaking stable doors” being “more real to him than the physical furniture of London is to the abstracted metropolitan mind”. I bet PL was a bit miffed about being taken for a peasant …
I think Larkin would have relished being thought “provincial” (although perhaps not at that time in his career).
In the local second hand book shop (mostly paperbacks) I found a copy of Larkin’s The North Ship … It was tucked in between Mary Wilson’s Selected Poems (two copies) and the Pam Ayres. All very Yeatsy and well written in its way, but essentially pretty pointless stuff. New to me, and all rather odd.
Yes, Larkin disowned most of The North Ship once he’d established his “voice”. I read somewhere that the copy of W B Yeats Larkin spent time reading was an early Collected (stolen from her school library by Ruth Bowman), so didn’t have the Last Poems. So the Yeats he took in was especially weighted towards the Celtic Twilight end of the rhetoric.
Yes, North Ship lacks the wonderful off kilter toughness of the later Yeats. It’s all birds and branches and snow, hearts, meadows and mornings, though one poem does feature a unicorn. Which prompts PL to declare, as a closing flourish:
I pray it may for sanctuary
Descend at last to me
And put into my hand its golden horn.
Hmm indeed. Larkin as an unspotted virgin …
Tom Paulin puts a finger on one quote from Larkin, when PL says he finds it deeply humiliating to be a citizen of a country that spends more on education than on defence. It seems bizarre to think that such a view could be held even by a reactionary like Larkin, especially one who worked within education and had never heard a shot fired in anger (except perhaps anti-aircraft guns from a distance, which I admit may well give you a certain fondness for defence spending). Education spending now is almost twice defence spending and I imagine most people think that about right, except those who might like the defence budget to drop even further. Always assuming Larkin meant it.
I read a couple of Carol Ann Duffy poems, which is not something I have tended to do with any concentration. Her ‘nineties stuff I guess. I was surprised how pervasive the influence of Larkin was, especially in the more crafted and formal stuff. Maybe that was the way you wrote “post-religion” poetry … But for someone who spent much of her formative years living with Adrian Henri, it was surprising how little modernism had rubbed off (not that the Liverpool poets, even Henri, were “modernist” except in the sense of poetry and music and performance, which bears a touch of the Beats). Pop poetry, really. After all, Larkin liked them and I assume that was because of their affinities with light verse and their lack of demand on the intellect.
Still reading Letters to Monica I discover PL reading Wyndham Lewis in the ‘fifties. Larkin seems to have read widely, in his earlier days, but liked little of what he read (although retaining a soft spot for D H Lawrence). “I don’t think Wyndham Lewis is any good”. Although he compares Self-Condemned to Kangaroo (with Australia and politics left out). Hmm. I have the feeling I should be “taking notes” (especially since it’s a library book). Dreadful idea. Means finding paper plus inventing filing systems (or making something on line) plus remembering what it was, and looking up formats for references. I still can’t work out how Larkin got a first, although I suppose intellectual curiosity and respect for thinking were never qualities for which Oxford had much time. At least Leavis thought the few things he liked actually mattered. Not sure Larkin gave a toss.
An unnerving incident
But in the meantime there has been a flank attack on my health … I admit I had a horrible feeling about this winter. I was in a waiting room at Day Surgery last week, waiting for a scan, and someone came in and called out “Philip Larkin”. The chap who stood up didn’t look anything like him of course, but it was still slightly unnerving. Lines from The Old Fools kept recurring.
Of course, Larkin would have been in some posh BUPA wing. “Best-Selling Poet Dies in Private Hospital” as the Morning Star said …