Poetry criticism - that is, writing concerned with poetry, poems, poets and poetics (theory) - seems to have been sent back to the Age of Arnold at the start of the new biography of Philip Larkin, by James Booth, his long-time colleague, and apologist.
Larkin is, I feel, one of the major British poets - and in this I am not alone. He has influenced, for better and worse, my poetry: his inimitable but seductive diction, syntax and themes tempted my originality. So I am not attacking Larkin here. But seriously, some of what is written in these first few pages (all I have read, so far) is balderdash.
Booth states that Larkin is the most popular and greatest English poet of the last century - which may be the case, but this is not easily established by merely saying it. Kipling, Auden and Ted Hughes, let alone Stevie Smith, Betjeman, Hardy and Housman, are all serious contenders, in terms of sales, popular appeal, influence, and critical study. Booth claims - a la Arnold's touchstones - that Larkin has the most memorable lines and phrases - and it is certainly true he has three or four lines that are infamous - but Auden and Stevie Smith, at least, are close, and poets are finally great for whole poems, not snippets that journalists prefer.
Then again, it is suggested that, on the subjects of Love, Death, Age, and even Nature, Larkin has not been since bettered, and, may never be - he has almost shut down future discussion, as it were. It is true that Larkin's poems on Death and Ageing, especially, are among the greatest in the English canon - but it is hardly sure they are definitive statements. Poetry is inexhaustible. Love, and Death, come in many varieties, shapes and sizes, and there are always new ways (one hopes) of thinking and writing about them. Otherwise, might we say Bach completed music? Or The Beatles the pop song?
Booth also makes an odd suggestion that Larkin was less nihilistic than Graham Greene, the author, and was less despairing. Larkin was an atheist or agnostic - Greene a Catholic. It is true Greene played Russian Roulette when young - or claimed to; and tried opium, and had affairs. But being a sinner does not make one a nihilist or a suicide. It makes one a complex person.
On the subject of Larkin's apparent dislike of Black people (he famously used the N-word in letters), we are reminded that he also listened to Jazz played by African-Americans, and loved it. This may be the case, but there are many racists who approve of Black athletes and musicians and actors who still wouldn't want them around for tea.
Larkin's use of pornography is softened up by suggesting the images (aside from some light bondage) are mostly of pretty girl-next-door types, and somehow reflect a wholesomeness of desire. It may be, but it is true he still looked at these sort of images, and they inflected his way of looking at women in his poems.
We are reminded - correctly - that Larkin wanted to be a woman at some stage early on - and it may be he hid a desire to dress like one too - he certainly enjoyed writing in their voices (young women's voices) in stories and poems, often while they faced rape, or deflowering, loss of status, or some other peril, and he had complicated sexual ideas and emotions - nothing wrong there, but why airbrush it?
We are even consoled with the claim he was successful, mostly happy, and very friendly, to women, children, animals - it sounds like an apology for Hitler (who his father incidentally adored).
Apparently, Larkin's grumpy bachelor persona was a façade. He was fun, hard-working, dated numerous ladies, and genuinely content with life, and his variously crude and angry letters were just a sort of game with pens.
I am looking forward to reading on, but something tells me this is not a hard-hitting analysis that will cut very deep. It seems mostly a rear-guard attack, meant to re-establish a canonical, pleasant Larkin, a genuine and generous man, a sort of English Heaney - healthy, life-affirming, helpful - but he wasn't, really. He was, and this is what makes his work astonishing and impressive, a narrow personality, whose focused, neurotic poems startle with their high, narrow effects.
A great poet, but about as healthy as Baudelaire.
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