Fresh from the gratis delights of Dylan Thomas, free as a bird on the Project Gutenberg Australia website, I was dragged down to the level of Philip Larkin. For, as one of the best British poetry Twitter feeds reminded me, “on this day in 1922, Phlip Larkin was born….” That little spelling error is as flip as any of the offhand, ironic, self-depreciating, other-depreciating, self-maiming throwaways that Larkin threw out in his long career as poet, novelist, professional librarian, curmudgeon, and possibly one of the most pernicious influences on British letters of his times. (If, that is, he influenced many actual writers, as opposed to the tastes and expectations of the wider British public, who still revere him.) And I mean that title exactly as it runs: If Larkin did believe that, what did he think of himself and his own work? If he didn’t, why did he let it stand as he did? Those are questions that cut to the quick of the man and his muse.
For anyone who doesn’t know the poem that the title is taken from, here it is:
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my coat and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.
Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
Is that the kind of man you would want left in charge of your library? (Though as it happens, he was a highly able librarian.) One who refused the Poet Laureate nomination in 1984? Was it tongue in cheek? Of course, but Larkin kept his pressed in there until it grew permanently stunted. The ironies pile up thick and fast around Larkin, but there is nothing remotely ironic, or pleasant, about the depth of his detestation of himself, his situation, literature and letters, ideas, foreigners, immigrants, people of color, the working classes, etc, etc.
God forbid that anyone should take him at his word. Unfortunately, Larkin had his private diaries destroyed by friends just after his death, so, like Byron (a weird comparison otherwise), no one will really know what all his words had to say about him, even with his now-familiar track record of porn addiction and fetishism. (Larkin is the kind of writer who could give even perversion a bad name.)
For a deeper and more extended analysis of the problem of Larkin as a personality, I can’t do better than refer to the immortal (alas, in words only) Christopher Hitchens, and his long critique, “Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man“. Here was a writer who hobnobbed with Orwell and Thomas as a student (“we took Dylan Thomas to the Randolph and George Orwell to the not-so-good hotel. I suppose it was my first essay in practical criticism”), only to remould himself as almost a caricature English blimp in an act of intellectual self-mutilation. As Hitchens writes, “Larkin’s insularity and loathing for ‘abroad’ were almost parodic,” awash in: “a tide of cloacal filth and petty bigotry that was at least somewhat self-generated … the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene, and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism.”
And Larkin’s poetry is not immune to all that, and does not rise above it – only occasionally finding a temporary side exit. This was Thomas Hardy with the same grasp of English social and material minutae, yet without the huge intellectual ambition; Alan Bennett without the range and easy converse with international ideas. Yes, his muse was rich in vulnerable pathos and tender humanity (although funnily enough, never embracing blacks or foreigners). Yes, he produced some of the most beautiful short (albeit conservative) lyrics written in Britain since the war. When all’s said and done, he remains the Poet Laureate of English intellectual poverty, the proper bard for a G7 nation that can only keep its Human Development Index on a level with Greece or the Czech Republic. “Books are a load of crap” is one of those lines that you wish could have dropped out of the national consciousness, but it seems here to stay – and you can see why.