Sunday, 4 September 2011

Martin Amis and Philip Larkin

Are his poems on the Richter Scale?
The August 20-21 weekend issue of the FT had an article by Martin Amis, on the poems of Philip Larkin, excerpted from his forthcoming Selected for Faber.  I am not sure why Larkin needs a Selected.  All his work is now available, and all is worth reading; nor is there so much of it to wade through, and he is the most readable of modern poets.  That being said, Amis, because of his father's close association with Larkin, is an intriguing choice of editor for such a book.  Amis makes the argument that Larkin is not so much a poet's poet, as a novelist's poet, because of his pithy lines, and his impressive imagery - though in fact effective image and metaphor, and memorable lines, have always been poetic gifts to the reader, and were only later borrowed by novelists.

Amis is I think correct to cite Larkin as the great English poet of the second half of the 20th century.  Indeed, after Hardy, and Auden, he seems undeniably major (I mean English, not British, here); no other poet has lodged whole poems in the imagination of readers in the same way, up to and including Hughes or Heaney.   Amis opens his essay with an interesting claim about literary criticism and evaluation.  He writes that "evaluative criticism is rhetorical criticism: it adds nothing to knowledge; it simply adds to the history of taste."

Well, the history of taste is a knowledge - a vital one - knowing what and why people have preferred some things to others; and Bourdieu and Foucault and Barthes have written well about it.  But what is most striking is that Amis proceeds to make claims about Larkin's work that are unexamined and cliched, as if he had forgotten his own opinion of taste and fact.  No editor can make a bad selection of Larkin's poems, because any selection would be worthwhile - but Amis has made a catastrophic error.  As he writes: "In quality, Larkin's four volumes of verse are logarithmic, like the Richter scale: they get stronger and stronger by a factor of 10."  This is nonsense, as is his choice of only one poem from The North Ship.  As my doctoral research revealed to me, Larkin's poetry did not so much improve or develop over time, as return endlessly to certain themes, tropes, and manners.  I find it also meaningless to argue that The Less Deceived is only 1/300th as good as High Windows, or even half as good.

But, the main point is, given that Amis knows, or claims to know, that evaluative claims are rhetorical, what did he think he was doing by selecting the poems with such an imbalance - rather than celebrating and recovering the many brilliant early poems - repeating the tedious claims for late flowering, that, given Larkin's sad personal history of emotional decline, do not add up to scrutiny.  While it is true that several of the very last poems are scandalously brilliant, so too are many early poems.  The truth is, Larkin is too great to be manhandled by any novelist, and this selection should have been put together by a poet-critic, with a more subtle and complex understanding of poetry.
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