Skip to main content

Larkin About

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 fa├žade.  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.



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

DANGER, MAN

Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…

AMERICA PSYCHO

According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…

SEXTON SHORTLIST!

Announcing the Shortlist for the 2016 Sexton PrizeSeptember 13, 2016 / By Kelly Davio
Eyewear Publishing is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2016 Sexton Prize. The finalists are, in no particular order, as follows:


THE BARBAROUS CENTURY, Leah Umansky
HISTORY OF GONE, Lynn Schmeidler
SEVERE CLEAR, Maya Catherine Popa
GIMME THAT. DON’T SMITE ME, Steve Kronen
SCHEHERAZADE AND OTHER REDEPLOYMENTS, David McAleavey
AN AMERICAN PURGATORY, Rebecca Gayle Howell
SIT IN THE DARK WITH ME, Jesse Lee Kercheval

The shortlist was selected by Eyewear’s Director Todd Swift with Senior Editor Kelly Davio. Don Share of Poetry Magazine will select the winning manuscript, which will be released at the 2017 AWP conference in Washington, D.C. The winner will be announced in October. 
Congratulations to our finalists!