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.
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