Required Writing, by Philip Larkin
Critic vs. Poet
Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982.
by Philip Larkin.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 328 pp. $17.95.
Since 1945, the English poet Philip Larkin has published a single volume of poetry nearly every ten years. Now, in 1984, amid rumors that he has ceased writing poetry entirely—and also amid rumors that he may soon be appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate—the sixty-two-year-old Larkin has issued this collection of articles, reviews, introductions, talks, and interviews done between 1955 and 1982 for (mostly) British periodicals. Larkin’s wide range covers major literary figures and their work, the art of writing and reading poetry, and a few popular novelists; he has included as well some scattered jazz reviews and one or two pieces related to his long career as a librarian at the University of Hull.
These writings are “required” in two senses. As Larkin explains in the foreword, almost all were originally undertaken at someone else’s (that is, an editor’s) insistence. But they are “required,” too, in a sense Larkin does not mention, for a fuller understanding of one of the most significant poetic careers of our time. If, sadly, that career may well be complete, Required Writing becomes just as important as one of Larkin’s rare and solitary books of verse.
Just how important is difficult to judge without a general sense of Larkin’s poetry. Writing in the line of Wordsworth, John Clare, and Thomas Hardy, Larkin is now considered the most “English” of all his contemporaries (and hence, many feel, the natural choice for the position of Poet Laureate). It was not always so: Larkin began his poetic career in apprenticeship to Yeats, the “foreign” Irishman whose visionary and metaphysical impulses placed him, for all his greatness and mastery, outside the main English line. But this early “infatuation with [Yeats's] music,” as Larkin put it in the introduction to a 1966 reissue of his first and most distinctly Yeatsian book, The North Ship (1945), was abruptly abandoned. The real English line lay elsewhere—in a land of discursive statement, gloomy materialism, and narrow human limits. The king of this land was Thomas Hardy.
Larkin’s well-documented shift of allegiance from Yeats to Hardy was initiated in his second book, The Less Deceived (1955), the poems of which were, precisely, testaments of a poet less deceived by the fuzzy transcendentalism espoused by Yeats. The new attitude reached its peak in Larkin’s third volume, The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and can be seen plainly in a poem like “A Study of Reading Habits”:
When getting my nose in a book
Cured of most things short of
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 cloak 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
Seem far too familiar. Get
Books are a load of crap.
A reliance on simple, discursive statement rather than linguistic or “musical” configurations of words is Larkin’s new forte. Above all, the poem communicates an opinion or a belief rather than representing an emotion or an experience.
Larkin adopted this same stance in one of his best-known poems, “This Be The Verse,” in which once again a belief is expressed in a vernacular and “unmusical” style:
They fuck you up, your mum
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults
And add some extra, just for
But they were fucked up in their
By fools in old-style hats and
Who half the time were soppy-
And half at one another’s
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
This is human limitation and Hardyesque materialism with a vengeance. What is more, the statement being made almost entirely obscures any sensation we derive from the poem as an artistic artifact.
Actually, however, “This Be The Verse” is not entirely typical of the poems in the collection in which it appears. High Windows (1974) is Larkin’s latest and most mature collection of verse. It is also the most remarkable in that it reveals the poet less in thrall to Hardy, his professed master, than ever before, with the exception of his youthful first book. In a poem such as “Solar,” there is much that derives from the symbolist and visionary impulses of Yeats:
Suspended lion face
Spilling at the center
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.
The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Heat is the echo of your
Coined there among
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.
This is an epiphany, a piece of “pure being” (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase), rather than simple discourse. The poem is an act, not a statement about an act, and in it beliefs are replaced with a presentation of emotion.
High Windows is thus a divided book, and the division is nowhere better captured than in its title poem:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and
Taking pills or wearing a
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all
Bonds and gestures pushed to
Like an outdated combine
And everyone young going down
the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I
Anyone looked at me, forty years
And thought, That’ll be the
No God any more, or sweating
in the dark
About hell and that, or having
What you think of the priest.
And his lot will all go down the
Like free bloody birds. And
Rather than words comes the
thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air,
Nothing, and is nowhere, and
The first line of the final stanza jolts us from one level of reality to another: from the despairing, “unfoolable” (Heaney again) English mind to the contemplative Yeatsian vision of something beyond. So the quarrel between Hardy and Yeats, at least on the evidence of this last book, has never been fully resolved by Larkin.
Required Writing is, in many respects, the prose equivalent of poems like “This Be The Verse” and “A Study of Reading Habits.” The literary tastes of the hard-headed, reactionary empiricist are well documented here. Larkin has a famous distaste for modernist art, rivaled only by his hatred of children and things foreign (“Who is Jorge Luis Borges?” he responded when asked by a Paris Review interviewer if he’d heard of the Argentinian writer.) The major lights in Larkin’s literary pantheon are Barbara Pym, John Betjeman, William Barnes, W.H. Davies, Wilfred Owen, and Stevie Smith (whose poems have the “authority of sadness”). If not all these names are familiar to American readers, that shows just how insular an Englishman Larkin is, and how much at odds with the century he lives in.
As one might expect, reigning over all these prose pieces is Thomas Hardy. “Hardy’s concept of poetry,” says Larkin, did not “lie outside my own life.” “Hardy taught us not to be afraid of the obvious.” Larkin’s ideal poetry is simple, mundane, narrow—in contrast to modernist poetry, which to him is purposely difficult and obscure. His explanation for the momentous and deleterious shift that occurred in the writing of poetry appears in the introduction (included here) to All What Jazz, a 1972 collection of newspaper reviews. “My theory,” Larkin writes in this brilliant and impassioned anti-modernist manifesto,
is that [the genesis of modernism] is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tensions between the artist and his material, and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened and even perished. Hence the artist has become overconcerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage.
Larkin holds this to be true of Pound, Eliot, and even Auden, whose post-30′s work, he writes, “gave warning how far literature was replacing experience as material for verse.”
The unfortunate “new reader” of this kind of poetry is, in Larkin’s words, “like a partner of some unconsummated marriage [who] has no idea of anything better.” As for the critic-celebrators of modernist poetry, their job is the thankless one of demonstrating “that the author has said something other than he intended.” Indeed, the only thing that keeps these poets alive, since they really have nothing to say to us, is the “iron lung of academic English teaching.”
If we find ourselves agreeing with these sentiments, and many others in Required Writing, there is, alas, just as much to dismay us. Consider Larkin’s categorical condemnation of the “blight” of modernism. Are all works of art under this rubric merely “irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it”? Guernica? Remembrance of Things Past) Are we really unable to enjoy all of modern painting, and if so is it because it does not “represent what anyone with normal vision sees”? Is the whole of postwar poetry so bad as to justify Larkin in his refusal to read almost any of it? Can Larkin be serious in stating that, in the cultural life of this century, Louis Armstrong is “more important than Picasso”?
Then there is the much greater problem that Larkin’s own poetry does not abide by the harsh anti-modernist strictures set forth in his prose writings. Larkin’s mature poetry, as we have seen, is firmly rooted in modernist practice, engaging as it does the symbolist and visionary impulses of his first mentor, Yeats. While Larkin may admire W.H. Davies’s “steady, un-ecstatic celebration of natural beauty and the qualities in man that seem allied to it,” there is little trace of this in Larkin’s own poetry. His “prose” side thinks John Betjeman’s verse will come to dominate the second half of the century “as Eliot dominated the first,” and will reestablish the link between poetry and the public that Pound and Eliot broke. His “poet” side hardly feels so compelled to be a popular, Betjeman-like versifier; indeed, Larkin’s work is much too difficult and complex to be anything but an elitist taste.
To be sure, we never expect one side of a poet-critic to be entirely governed by the other, and especially not the former by the latter. But in Larkin’s case the divergence really amounts to a contradiction. How can it be explained?
We may begin with a remark of Larkin’s made in a 1962 article not included in Required Writing but cited in an excellent short study of Larkin’s career recently published by the English poet Andrew Motion:
Very little that catches the imagination gets clearance from either the intelligence or the moral sense. And equally, properly truthful or dispassionate themes enlist only the wannest support from the imagination.
In other words, the poetic imagination and the prose intelligence are to be regarded as exclusive realms, involving separate functions and goals, and each pursuing its distinct course without impediment from the other. Thus Larkin’s reactionary literary ideas, strongly held though they may be, are put on hold when the imagination takes over to produce a poem, and vice versa. Some poems, like “This Be The Verse,” are just like prose pieces; that is, they are written at the behest of the “moral sense.” But more often in Larkin’s mature poetry we find not beliefs but representations of emotions and experiences—or both, as in “High Windows.”
Such a split literary personality is itself nothing unusual. T.S. Eliot wrote of it in After Strange Gods (1934):
I should say that in one’s prose reflections one may be legitimately occupied with ideals whereas in the writing of verse one can only deal with actuality.
In Eliot’s terms, Required Writing is a book about ideals, about the way Larkin would like things to be. It is also a codification in prose of the morally astringent poems that are a natural development of Larkin’s obsession with the English line. The rest of his poetry, however, testifies to a different actuality. It may well be, then, that the censorious essays collected here are “required” in yet another final sense as well—required by Larkin himself as the chains from which he can, when need be, gratifyingly break free.
On the occasion when his name was proposed for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the “prose” Larkin said, “I have really very little interest in poetry in the abstract.” (This is, after all, the man who has written, “Books are a load of crap.”) Not only on the evidence of his enduring poetic achievement, but on the evidence of the marvelous witticisms and brilliant observations peppered throughout Required Writing, we know better.