August 9 marks the centenary of Philip Larkin, one of the most admired poets of the twentieth century. When Larkin died of esophageal cancer in 1985 at 63, he was England’s most beloved living poet. He would also have been the United Kingdom’s poet laureate, except that he had declined the role the year before, the last in a series of personal and professional renunciations.
An American reading Larkin can sometimes feel like an eavesdropper among the English. Raised in the West Midlands, Larkin graduated from Oxford but lived most of his adult life far from smart London, in the remote northeast industrial city of Hull. He wrote from and for his country’s provincial middle class (“The fathers with broad belts under their suits/And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat”), for whom life had been mostly a series of trials: the Blitz; postwar austerity; loss of empire. Larkin’s poetry, with its pointed rejection of literary modernism, was their sort of poetry: plain, direct, unassuming. His vision could be bleak, but he was never obscure.
Larkin never crossed the Atlantic and seemed genuinely indifferent to his reputation in the United States, which swiftly became the center of the English-speaking world after the war. He wrote good criticism on American jazz but had no feeling for the largely black culture that produced it. He was hostile to America, not with the motivated hatred of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh but simply because it was not England. So why should we care for a poet who did not care for us?
In fact, there is almost no end to the ways in which Larkin’s poetry is inimical to American culture. Resignation is the dominant motif of his work, just as renunciation was its aesthetic key. He started out wanting to be a novelist and gave it up; he started out imitating Yeats and Auden and gave them up, too. Larkin, for whom life was tightly circumscribed by history, geography, and temperament, could not have been an American poet any more than Walt Whitman could have been an English one.
Larkin’s reactionary politics shadow his reputation. After his death, personal letters and audiotapes featuring crude racist remarks came to light. In England, Larkin was strongly attacked, and then strongly defended, but though his reputation has suffered, his enemies failed to shove him out of the canon. The English take literature seriously as an autonomous field of endeavor, whereas we increasingly regard it as politics by other means. In truth, Larkin had no real politics. He was reactionary by temperament, and because his father had been reactionary, and because he enjoyed making his friends laugh with his jocose intolerance. Crucially, his poetry was free of these sentiments.
Larkin’s fear of death was, even from an early age, almost a paralyzing obsession: “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now.” His compensatory strategy was to refuse most forms of experience, guarding from them some light-sensitive private self, the one that wrote the poems. This translated to a life of routine, punctuated by drinking. (“I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.”)
Larkin made his living as a university librarian, and the Larkinesque virtues are the small virtues: patient observation; measured intellect; paying one’s own way. Turtlish and balding, he described himself as “not a very highly sexed person,” and made a poetic career of not getting the girl. (“I believe I met beautiful twice/She was trying/Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.”) This turned out to be an artistic pose, at least in part. He had a number of girlfriends and was an avid collector of pornography. Even so, our exhibitionist sexual culture would have terrified him.
So again—why should Americans read Larkin? An instrumental answer might be that he used our common language so beautifully. The English-speaking world is a kind of community, after all. Larkin sought to rescue English poetry from the habit of expressing, through convention, things unfelt and half-meant. He wanted to tether poetic language to everyday speech. He was a tremendously deliberate writer, for whom a poem’s gestation might take a decade; his patterning was complex but made to seem simple. As John Updike observed, “Larkin’s development, unusually, combined a more elaborate metrical formality with a more relaxed, plainer voice.”
Larkin’s poetry always sought to reach beyond the page. Consider how much collective experience is compressed into the final stanza of “MCMXIV” (1914), his imagining of the mass induction scenes in British cities at the start of World War I:
Never such innocence,
Before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little longer:
Never such innocence again.
The relative squalor of post-World War II England figures greatly in Larkin’s work, what Christopher Hitchens called “the world of . . . tasteless food and watery drinks . . . and dismal, rain-lashed holidays.” Physical discomfort for Larkin was one of life’s petty embarrassments. His poetry speaks to the burdens of civilization and its ethical confusions—as with his predecessor, T. S. Eliot, a case of too much water under London Bridge.
Even as English life was contracting materially and imaginatively, the United States was expanding into superabundance. What are contemporary Americans, addled by ceaseless sensation, to make of Larkin’s world of calcified custom, of quietism and self-denial? His England is a villanelle to America’s free verse. “The total impression,” wrote Clive James, “is of despair made beautiful.”
For Americans who regret their nation’s exuberant shallowness, Larkin’s poetry may be a welcome counterpoint. Without ever addressing us, he neatly supplied what is missing in our perpetual boomtown life: a sense of the past; the dignity of the unheroic; responsible language; a continuity of manners and values. If America were quiet and orderly, it would not be America. Each of us must carve out that place of repose within ourselves. That is what Larkin is for on this side of the Atlantic.
It’s dispiriting to think what little pleasure or satisfaction Larkin’s poetic achievements brought him. The final decade of his life was squalid and largely unproductive. The belongingness that he induced in his readers he could not bring about in himself. Larkin’s modest gift to us was that, by lashing himself to the mast of despair and writing out of his own private terror, he made the world a marginally less lonely place. He was in some respects an unlovely man, but I prefer to judge him as we all implicitly ask to be judged: by his warmer human impulses, and with due respect for his suffering.
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