Larkin and Us

Barbara Everett

  • Larkin at Sixty edited by Anthony Thwaite
    Faber, 148 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 571 11878 X
  • The Art of Philip Larkin by Simon Petch
    Sydney University Press, 108 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 424 00090 3

‘What are days for?’ asks a poem in The Whitsun Weddings. It’s a good opening line, with that abruptness and immediacy most Larkin openings have. And it’s a good question, making it plain – among other things – that living is not really what poems do: they only chart the results of asking questions like these, bringing

       the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

In this way, ‘Days’, though it has larger and more interesting ends in view, throws some light on the odd gaps between ‘life’ and ‘literature’, and on the always obscure and tangled relations that exist between them before ‘days’ become poems and a life turns into Works. One of the most absorbing subjects available to literary scholarship and criticism, it is evoked, perhaps accidentally, in the title of Larkin at Sixty, 20 essays in celebration by friends and acquaintances of the poet.

Many of the contributors are writers themselves. Kingsley Amis’s reminiscences of a 40-year-friendship have an effortless interest which is met at more intensity in his own best novels; Gavin Ewart’s affectionate ode is almost ideally deft; Alan Bennett’s implacably wary set – piece (‘Why not something more along the lines of a biscuit barrel?’) makes one laugh a good deal more, or more festively, than most festschrift items do. In short, Larkin at Sixty gets a lot of different kinds of readableness into not much more than a hundred pages. But Alan Bennett’s question, which might be paraphrased as ‘What is Larkin at Sixty for?’, has a point: the book has problems a biscuit barrel would have been free of. The worst of them starts with the title. This has a nice straightforwardness, like those Tudor portraits that hedged their bets by writing over the subject’s head not only his name but his age as well. Larkin at Sixty can’t therefore do anything but make a reader hope for just that: a Portrait of the Artist. There are, it is true, a handful of pleasantly occasional photographs, and what seems in reproduction a surprisingly bad drawing of the poet, but the text may foil anyone whose ‘Larkin’ is the author of the three main volumes of verse – and it is hard to see what other readers the editor could have looked for. Such a reader may finish this enjoyable collection of essays feeling obscurely that he now knows the poet rather less well than he did before.

The problem is not simply that of the gap between life and literature, for Thwaite’s collection spans them, adding to anecdotes of the life criticism of the writing. The trouble is that the actual poet seems to elude both. The anecdotal richness of the first half (Noel Hughes on the schooldays, Amis on Larkin as an undergraduate, Charles Monteith on publishing Larkin, Barry Bloomfield and Douglas Dunn on Larkin the librarian, and others) neatly circumambulates the poet, who has made it clear that in a sense life began for him when the good poetry began, at 20 or even 30, and the ‘Toads’ poems probably say as much as one wants to know about the librarianship, or say it in a way that Bloomfield and Dunn, good as they are, can’t help not coming up to. The second or critical section is extremely strong: John Gross on the Oxford Book, George Hartley on the early publishing, Clive James on the jazz criticism as well as the poems, Alan Brownjohn on the novels, Christopher Ricks on Larkin’s poetic style and structure, Seamus Heaney on his idealism, and others. But in this too, oddly enough, one can fail to find Larkin: because the desire to make tribute tends to move the stress towards the more public, more social aspects of the work, giving little sense of the human being whose presence makes Larkin’s verse as highly individual as it is.

Difficulties get launched in Anthony Thwaite’s introductory essay. ‘The man for whose birthday this book has been assembled has been characterised ... as “the best-loved poet of his generation”. Many would call him the finest living poet writing in English.’ This is warm, and just: but it is not perhaps a good ‘platform’ for a tribute to Larkin. What stands in the way is not merely that modesty on the part of the poet which Thwaite mentions, but something perhaps more significantly principled. The ‘Best of Britain’ approach may not be good for any poet, but especially not good for Larkin, who has in his Oxford Book waged a private war (or so it seems) on that very notion of ‘the best’. It is the nature of Larkin’s Oxford Book to act against most preconceived academic or critical or merely journalistic categorising of ‘the best’, in favour of individual ‘good poems’, the name and status of whose writers are really quite immaterial. John Gross’s interesting essay in the present volume finds in the anthology a ‘cynicism ... inseparable ... from tolerance’: the choice seems to me more positive and more principled, deriving from a real desire to replace doctrinaire patterns by a great free amassment of good individual poems, good individual writers wholly out of competition with each other.

It is perhaps his sense of this that makes Thwaite go on to insist that his real subject is not the public man but the private. There is some pleasant detailing of the poet’s personal kindness and unfailing amiability of social bearing, before Thwaite concludes with a statement of purpose, however hesitant and hedged: ‘I seem to be working around to a statement that Larkin is really much nicer, much more normal, much more like us, than both his admirers and his detractors have established ... That is not my intention ... though ... though ...’ The writer’s uncertainty here is justifiably caused by his difficulty in saying what his intention is, if not this. And if it is this, he has problems. The least of them is the fact, as he must know, that this ‘niceness’ is on view in the poems, for whoever wishes to observe it: anyone who does not is not going to be convinced by the testimony of bystanders. For – and this is the real problem – Thwaite could hardly have chosen worse, logically speaking, in choosing to expound the ‘niceness’ of Larkin. Nice is – as a glance at the OED will confirm – one of the most extraordinary words in the English language: it is now as near as makes no matter to meaning nothing whatever. Only in about the fifth century of its usage, and in the 13th of its 14 dictionary definitions, did it cease to mean something slightly nasty and begin to mean something fairly nice. And it did so by becoming a word reflecting pure social utility: its meaning now is a grunt of social assent. It means ‘one of us’.

Thus, in taking for theme Larkin’s niceness, Thwaite is showing how the poet is ‘like us’, as he says. But how many readers make an us? If Thwaite includes his readers, then we may not want to know about the Larkin who is like us. We want to know about the Larkin who is like himself, and perhaps we can only really learn that from the poems. For the only Larkin we know is unlike us in one vital respect: he is a very good poet. In the context of the introduction, however, Thwaite’s ‘like us’ may refer to a much smaller group of friends and acquaintances. He lays great stress on an essentially friendly and informal intention, aiming a cheerful kick at academic nonsenses, murmuring the name of Jake Balokowsky and disclaiming all, formal biographical or critical purposes: ‘This is not The Life and Letters of Larkin.’ Very good: one can do nothing but sympathise with the belief that small is, after all, beautiful. But how big is print? Friends, however normal and nice, do not normally (or nicely) publish their liking for each other – indeed, privacy and its excluding mutuality are of the essence of friendship. To publish is to cease to be ‘one of us’ (Elizabethan aristocrats did not publish) and it demands a public form to bridge the gap in communication. It is suggestive that, despite all his feeling about Jake, Thwaite has had to approximate to a form that is in its origins not only academic but German in the formality of its rituals. It may have been a mistake ever to have tried to domesticate here the ritual of Festschrift, for the English have their own system of manners, to which privacy, informality and paradox are essential. If English scholarly festschrifts are as good as they often are it may be because academics do not in general write well enough to worry about little things like tone and style, but merely settle zestfully to finding a good home for their latest Note or Query.

But many of Thwaite’s 20 contributors are not academics but writers, a class of persons well able to sense the potential for embarrassment in such situations. It is obviously this majority of writers who have tended to edge the volume away from the festschrift towards an allied, perhaps directly descended form: the anecdotal tribute on the part of writers to a celebrated literary personality who has given occasion for it by having lately died. In its gathering of talents Larkin at Sixty can stand up well beside comparable recent collections on Waugh and Auden. But it has peculiarities they lack. The least of these is that nothing in Larkin’s work suggests the self-seeking showmanship which many other excellent writers can on occasion rise to, or sink to. This pales before the simple fact that Larkin is not dead. The contributors therefore face a situation capable of testing the keenest friendship, and they do it without being able to fall back on that brisk aversion of the eyes from the personal which is the method of most scholarship and most festschrifts. Larkin’s eyes are clearly felt to be essentially unavoidable: if they do not precisely direct all their words to the poet, most contributors express their warmth of feeling by failing to address themselves to the reader. They are, that is to say, sometimes obscure, and often embarrassed. One might explain the extra memorability of those contributors already mentioned (Amis, Ewart, Bennett) in terms of their superior skills in concealing (or nearly concealing) embarrassment, and in achieving (or nearly achieving) a tone of sincerity.

But even the best contributors can seem discomforted by their task to a degree that makes reading them something of a task in itself; others give up the problem and settle to a thorough discussion of themselves. Larkin at Sixty contains a rich variety of perplexities in tone and treatment. The first essay in the book, by Noel Hughes, a school contemporary of the poet, manages in its few pages to violate every principle of public and private decorum: public, in that its stories tend to the obscure as well as the trivial; private, in that it appears to abuse the confidences of a fifty-year-long acquaintanceship. The difficulty is not so acute elsewhere, but it is pervasive. One of the most interesting contributions, Charles Monteith’s good-humoured essay on being Larkin’s publisher, can’t help but make one wonder if all publishers always quote private letters quite so publicly. The problem has different forms: George Hartley’s quietly intelligent discussion of uncollected poems makes a reader feel that he can only approve the poet’s judgment in not collecting them; Robert Conquest plunges the reader into an obscure background involving reciprocal limericks which were no doubt funny at the time but which are not (unlike those Monteith quotes) funny enough now.

In the absence of any more exact sense of subject and form, these warm and well-intentioned and often strikingly intelligent essays have to get round all the problems of their sole power of cohesion – a kind of group self-consciousness, sometimes emerging in a peculiar clubbiness of tone. At its worst, this can even manage to exclude the poet (one or two contributors move into the benign stoop of a headmaster offering a reference for an unusually difficult pupil); more frequently, it excludes the reader. The comedian W.C. Fields put an advertisement into Variety reading:

A HAPPY CHRISTMAS
  TO EVERYBODY
   EXCEPT TWO.

Sooner or later, a reader of Larkin at Sixty gets to feel like one of those TWO. This is a result worth some reflection, given the friendly and ‘social’ nature of the impulses that produced the book, and it ought perhaps to prompt some sense of the laws that govern and restrict the ‘social’ in any literary work.

The most recent critical study of Larkin’s verse is based on comparable principles of social judgment and arrives at a comparable effect of exclusion and of limitation. Simon Petch’s The Art of Philip Larkin is a sensible and perceptive study of Larkin’s poems and novels, which it regards, by and large, appreciatively. If his judgments are (or so it seems to me) erratic, this is because they rest on bases of argument that, in their very different way, are as limitingly, even distortingly, social as are those at work in Larkin at Sixty. There is an obvious difference of attitude between the easy professional friendliness of the tribute, and the toughly moralising and psychologising academicalism of the critical study. And yet Petch, too, is writing about the poet who is ‘like us’.

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