Seamus Perry: My name is Seamus Perry and I teach English at the University of Oxford, and I’m here today to talk to Mark Ford, who is professor of English at University College, London. We are both contributors to the London Review of Books – me, merely prose; Mark, both prose and poetry – and we are here to talk about the poetry and the life of Philip Larkin. This has been prompted by a number of things: one was the relatively recent publication of a big defensive biography of Larkin by James Booth, who is a great scholar of Larkin at the University of Hull; also, the arrival of Larkin in Westminster Abbey, posthumously; and, finally, 2017 is Hull’s turn to be the City of Culture, in which Larkin is bound to loom very large. So we thought, for those reasons alone, it would be a good idea to talk about Larkin and try and reassess his importance, and why he still matters as a poet today. Larkin features very largely in the archives of the London Review of Books – many great pieces about him have appeared in the pages of the LRB, by Barbara Everett and John Bayley and Alan Bennett and Jenny Diski, and other people, and we may be referring to some of those as we continue our conversation. But perhaps a good place to start would be where Larkin started, and it’s perhaps not where we might think he started – which is to say, although he always wrote poems, his earliest ambitions as a literary figure were to write novels, and I wonder, Mark, if you might say something about that. Where do we place these early novels that Larkin wrote? What are they like?
Mark Ford: I think they’re wonderful. Two novels, he wrote in his very early twenties – Jill was published when he was only twenty-one, I think; and the book published as A Girl in Winter, but which he thought of as The Kingdom of Winter, in 1947, just after the war. And they are poetic novels in some ways, in that there is a limited cast of characters, and the themes of them are close to the themes explored in his poetry: fantasy, the erotic life, one’s dreams of being an ideal self, and the ways in which reality cuts you down to size – and the ways in which we come to accommodate ourselves to reality. And Larkin did like the idea of being a novelist. In a late poem, he fantasised about what he calls ‘the shit in the shuttered chateau’, writing 500 words a day, parsing out the rest of the afternoon between booze and birds. This is a kind of fantasy life which he felt Kingsley Amis, his friend whom he met at Oxford, had succeeded in achieving. And there is a kind of leitmotiv throughout Larkin’s life of Amis being a sort of successful doppelganger – that Amis was Jack the Lad, who did make all his money from his books, and had lots and lots of girls, and Larkin was old misery-guts in Hull, who didn’t have that much money and didn’t get the girls; though that, in fact, posthumously turned out not to be quite the case – he at one time had four girls on the go at once. But still, he wasn’t a lothario of the kind that Kingsley Amis was. So this vision of a life as a novelist ground to a halt with his third novel, which he titled A New World Symphony, and he just couldn’t finish it, and he realised that he would never be able to continue as a novelist, and poetry chose him; he had written lots and lots of poems by that point, but that he just couldn’t keep going as a novelist. He said it was because he wasn’t interested enough in other people.
SP: The novels are very different from Amis’s novels, aren’t they? I mean, Amis’s novels are in a kind of Fielding-esque sort of tradition of knockabout humour, really – Lucky Jim especially, I suppose. And Larkin’s novels, he describes as oversized poems, doesn’t he? So they’re already, as you say, rather poetical enterprises in the first place. And I wonder if there’s something about that very kind of poetic sort of purity that made it difficult to sustain as a novelistic kind of project?
MF: Yes – he thought of the novel as a long prose-poem, and there was an article, I think in Scrutiny, which had talked exactly about that concept of the postwar novel as being like a prose-poem, and he liked that idea. But I think, going back to Amis, it had always been advanced that Larkin is almost a co-author of Lucky Jim, that Lucky Jim was so based on Larkin’s own sense of humour, and Jim Dixon took his name from Dixon Drive, where Larkin was living, and Margaret Peel is based on his girlfriend, Monica Jones, in a rather brutal way. So I think that Kingsley Amis and Larkin shared a kind of humour, which emerges in Lucky Jim, and catapulted Amis to fame; not so, Larkin. And he did come to resent that in later life.
SP: Now, none of that Larkinesque humour gets into the early poems, does it? The first volume is called The North Ship, which is heavily influenced by Yeats, with a little bit of Auden and a little bit of Dylan Thomas. How would you characterise that as a volume?
MF: Yes, Yeats was the primary influence. It’s a kind of distillation of Yeats. If you read Larkin’s early work, it’s odd that he could write Auden by the yards, and there’s yards and yards of sub-Audenesque work, but Yeats actually was good, in distilling his work and making it more kind of crystalline and more imagistic and more symbolist, and more ... jewelled, you could say. And North Ship, in its way, is successful. It’s quite a distance from the Larkin that became incredibly popular in the fifties and sixties, but an understanding of his career does, I think, have to begin with The North Ship.
SP: But these are poems that, if you saw them without an author’s name attached to them, you would struggle to think of them as the work of Philip Larkin, probably.
MF: They come out of the forties, as well, when there were poets such as ... called the New Apocalyptics, and they present a kind of ... emptied-out landscape – there aren’t many people in them. And this is what, I think, if you put them against the novels, it’s fascinating to see that the people get into the novels, and the kind of lyricism gets into the poetry; and Larkin’s great breakthrough was to find a way of bringing together the kind of mundane and the ordinary with this symbolist drive for some kind of intensity of experience ... but to represent it in relation to the quotidian, the everyday, rather than in relation to the purely lyrical.
SP: Yes. So, the person who helped him, the author who helped him make that reconciliation of those different elements in his imagination, you would say, is Hardy?
MF: Yes. I mean, he used to joke about how the influence of Yeats was pervasive as garlic, and he was always quoting Yeats and getting people rather annoyed by quoting Yeats so much. And then, when he was working in Wellington as a librarian – his first job; he worked all his life as a librarian – he used to wake up early, and he had a copy of Hardy’s poems, the selection Hardy made, his last selection of his poems, and it’s been taken ... this is an interesting ... sort of detail, belonged to a local girls’ school – Larkin tells us that, somehow to suggest, I think, a connection between the erotic and Hardy; and I think the erotic is also crucial to Larkin’s work, as it is to Hardy’s. And he read these poems, and suddenly thought: I don’t have to jack myself up to this idea of poetry which Yeats’s works embody, that I can somehow write about my ordinary life in the way that Hardy does, and that there’s not a scrap of Hardy’s 900 pages of poetry that doesn’t have something of interest in it. And he said that every Hardy poem has a spinal cord of thought; and I think that is something which is also crucial to the way Larkin’s poetry develops – that each of them has a kind of donnée, a line of thought, which is then developed.
SP: He says of Hardy, doesn’t he, that he’s not a transcendental writer – he’s not like Eliot or Yeats, he doesn’t go for transcendence; his subjects are time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love. Do you think those are the lessons that Larkin principally learned?
MF: Yes – and that he touches the reader’s heart by showing his own; that ... there’s something a bit defensive about the North Ship poems, that they are somehow invulnerable, and that one of the powerful aspects of Larkin’s work, and the reasons that it became so popular, was because, in defiance of kind of modernist ideas about irony and the distance of the poet from the reader, that Larkin was emboldened by Hardy to think of himself as pretty much an average person – there’s lots of ways in which Larkin wasn’t at all average ...
SP: Or Hardy
MF: ... or Hardy, as well – that’s certainly true; but that the persona that he developed, a bit of an Eeyore persona, but also someone capable of being moved and being hurt, and of being moved by the sight of young lambs being born: that’s not the kind of thing which the poet of The North Ship could have created a poem out of. So there’s a kind of ... ways in which his work connects to what could be called a sentimental tradition in poetry – A. E. Housman is possibly also an influence on this – but that Larkin felt that ... why not expose his own emotions in the poems, or create a simulacrum of the exposure of emotions that might move the reader in the way in which a Hardy or Housman poem moves the reader.