Larkin and Us
- 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
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’.
Simon Petch’s Larkin has to be ‘like us’, because the essence of his work is its close working relationship with his audience: an audience that often disappears into the poet, and he into it, in a series of fluctuating reciprocities. The poet’s writing is defined with absolute consistency as a series of actions, and those actions are defined as dynamic repercussions within the social group constituted by poet-and-reader. In the beginning, this activity is apparently initiated by the poet: ‘The strategies of Larkin’s poetry are often based upon the firm and decisive establishment of an unobtrusive authorial presence whose function it is to manipulate the reader’s perspective.’ But in process this turns into a sufficiently mutual activity, in which poet and reader are therapeutically at one: ‘the human capacity for self-deception is exposed as almost limitless ...’
If Petch thinks hard and effectively, he does so often by imposing categories objectionable not merely by the standard of Larkin’s own writing but in terms of that morality which gives backbone to the writing of his criticism. The critic’s sense of what action is almost always includes the frankly aggressive, as if the most healthful social behaviour were to beat one’s neighbours’ brains out. One of the odder characteristics of this book is the degree to which ‘viciously’ and ‘brutally’ are repeatedly adverbs of praise. In ‘Church Going’, ‘the title is viciously ironic’; in ‘I remember, I remember’, ‘negatives are brutally hurled against the mythic stereotypes, which are in tatters by the end of the poem’; ‘The tendency of art to idealise generally is viciously debunked in “The Card-Players”.’ And it follows predictably enough that the critic rates high in Larkin’s work such poems as come nearest to an aggressive social purpose. To my mind, he overrates Larkin’s occasional satirical gestures: ‘Naturally the Foundation ...’ he finds ‘hilariously funny, bitterly satirical and deeply serious’, but the poem’s very uncertain fortunes with the general reading-public don’t just illustrate that public’s incapacity for irony: they are also to be explained by the fact that the poet is simply least good at satire. As a writer, Larkin is in some ways too honest, too inward and too generous for that essentially public, devious and malicious form. Comparably, though in reverse, Petch is tart about the two ‘political poems’ in High Windows because he believes that ‘it would be hard to disagree with [Larkin’s] political bias and to admire these poems ... these poems reveal only weaknesses.’ But ‘Homage to a Government’ is misread if we turn it into a kind of satire, reading it for its purely ‘party’ or social purpose, indicated only by a date beneath. It is in fact a fine and disturbing, if faint, poem about any betrayal of principle to ‘policy’: it envisages the death of principle in a spirit or in a country abandoned wholly to money, and everything that ‘money’ comes to figure in Larkin’s verse:
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
For Simon Petch, difficulty is, in fact, widespread in High Windows: it even leads him to fall below the high level of intellectual efficiency maintained elsewhere in the book, when, finding the obliquities of ‘Sympathy in White Major’ honestly ‘confusing’, he reads ‘Major’ to denote a military gentleman, and then gives the poem up (the title alludes – or so it seems to me – to Gautier’s Art-for-Art’s-Sakist poem, ‘Symphonie en Blanc Majeure’). Most of all he dislikes the intense and ugly-beautiful ‘The Card-Players’, whose ‘unsatisfyingness’ the critic specifies, suggestively, in terms of its ‘unlikeness’ – not ‘unlike us’ but ‘as utterly unlike anything Larkin wrote before High Windows as it is unlike anything else in the book ... In spite of Larkin’s cleverness the poem achieves very little ... It remains an unfortunately “artistic” poem.’ This strange and remarkable poem celebrates wholly authentically a ‘secret, bestial peace’. Though ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ are loose and unworkable terms, a part of the strength of ‘The Card-Players’ is the way it has roots that seem to go back to the earliest part of the poet’s career, so that from some angles it is quintessential Larkin. It is a new image of that almost-Platonic ‘lighted tenement scuttling with voices’ that the detached mind regards in ‘Age’, from The Less Deceived, and, to go further back, it can seem to reduce the whole of Jill down into a Petrarchan sonnet (on page 237 of that novel Dirk can be found as the young poet lighting his clay pipe with a tongs-held cinder).
Of more general interest is the way the critic here uses inverted commas round that word ‘artistic’: they help to define what is right and perhaps wrong with his whole study. Despite the use of the word in his title, Simon Petch is surely deficient in his sense of what ‘Art’ can mean. He defines it only socially, assuming that a poem is a specific conversation such as one might overhear in a bus queue (she said to me; I said to her). Where he finds that this supposed naturalism produces results incompatible with the facts of that quasi-autobiography or quasi-history he assumes poetry to be, Petch ascribes to the poet a thorough system of ‘masks’ and personae (whose use would break the back of the impact of most of Larkin’s best poems). The artist’s aesthetic medium is commensurately converted into the social or political rhetoric of a ‘strategist’, bent on persuasion, the manipulation of perspectives. This has a decisively limiting effect on the critic’s close understanding of the medium. Thus he tackles that characteristic feature of Larkin’s verse, the large, slow and living rhythm by which the poems move on the page, by merely docketing off metres and rhyme-changes. Similarly, he takes care of the poet’s formidable linguistic powers – which can keep a highly personal and even esoteric vocabulary within what seems the commonest parlance – by solemnly and reiteratively saluting the incidence of puns: as in the proposal that the word ‘lambent’, which describes the child’s vision of a bright future in ‘Triple Time’, contains word-play on ‘lamb’ to point up the fact that metaphorical sheep are about to graze into view within the next line or so. Larkin is not a poet likely to allow large general movements of mood and tone to be invaded by minor irritants like a sheepish pun on ‘lambent’.
The immediate consequence of this deficient sense of art is a defective sense of the critic’s role – what it is to read. Simon Petch can address himself to the poems with that aggressive equivalence of mien he has imputed to the poet: that is to say, essentially rewriting the work, just as he imagines the poet to be at work rehabilitating our psyches. Taking the verse as a largely naturalist phenomenon within a social context, he corrects the poet’s slips as one might correct an undergraduate’s errors in tutorial. Thus, kindly, ‘we do not all hate home’; and, a comforting aside concerning ‘If, My Darling’, ‘one doubts if he knows himself as well as he thinks.’ This is making the poet ‘like us’, certainly: not merely answerable for his statements but answerable-back. In short, the ‘social’ method of approach gains its clarity by ignoring or distorting some of the most important conditions of what one has to refer to as ‘Art’.
Keats said tersely but lastingly that we dislike poetry which has an evident design on us. The Art of Philip Larkin gets very near to thinking the opposite, and in doing so it is highly representative of most current critical theory and practice. The poet is a man whose job is to do something to or for us, to ‘manipulate our perspective’, for instance: that is why he so much needs that hostile equipment of ‘strategies’. Such descriptions of the poet surely err in suggesting a social presence so invasive, so destructively directed towards the reader, as to make him blench, cringe and retreat, more often than not: anything, rather than quietly read the poem. For all such ‘social’ theories fail to take into account simple facts of literary practice: for example, that reading, and, all the more, writing, are two of the most solitary and lonely habits in existence. A great stage of civilisation was achieved when human beings started to read silently, to themselves, without moving their mouths: it was a plateau of inwardness men reached only slowly. Reading and writing remain pursuits which teach a person how to be by himself – perhaps how to be himself. And Larkin’s verse is particularly readable because it particularly leaves you alone. This is what makes its quality of sociability so remarkable, so difficult for imitators to catch: like many aspects of the poet’s work, it has a kind of paradox inside it. For certainly there is an aspect of Larkin’s style and substance that is ‘sociable’ – Simon Petch, like a good many other critics of the poet, is by no means wrong in focusing on this side of the work, and Petch scores many shrewd points in following it out logically and consistently. Certainly, too, there is an aspect of Larkin’s writing which is not at all discrepant with Anthony Thwaite’s expressed preference for what is ‘normal’, what is ‘nice’, what is above all ‘like us’; even his book’s tone sometimes of roistering, needling friendliness re-echoes something to be found in the poetry.
Thwaite quotes approvingly a description of the poet as ‘the best-loved ... of his generation’, and adds that Larkin’s poems ‘are so substantially known and quoted’. If one were trying to define what it is that is peculiarly original about the poet’s work it is perhaps to have invented a poetry of which these things might outstandingly be said – a poetry that asks, so to speak, for this particular praise. Larkin has brought into the short poem of feeling a personal presence that has unusual solidity – a voice, tone and manner substantial and recognisable, indeed unmistakable. Lyric poetry, poetry of feeling, often needs intensities and abstractions such as tend to fragment ‘personality’: it is Larkin’s unusual achievement to have managed to bring these intensities within the limits and the strengths of an embodied human presence. He fuses, one might say, outcry and anecdote. If Larkin is, therefore, ‘best-loved’, and ‘known and quoted’, it is partly from the creation of a human presence to be ‘loved’ and ‘quoted’ (or unloved and quoted, as the case might be).
The whole address of Larkin’s poems to the reader is that of a vivid and actual being who is the reverse of the ‘Invisible Poet’ (Kenner’s phrase for Eliot) invented by Modernism’s quest for impersonality. To assume that Larkin has merely pushed English poetry back into the native tradition would surely be a mistake: there is nothing quite like this in earlier poetry, certainly not in the quiet ruminations of Georgian verse. It is safer to think that it required the presence of a doctrinal impersonality to encourage the poet to ‘go and do unlikewise’, an exercise certainly made fruitful by the succession of Hardy to Yeats as the poet for whom Larkin has a special feeling. Similarly, much that is colloquial and downright in Larkin’s diction seems half to depend on a conscious and remedial turning-away from Modernist abstraction that could hardly have proceeded without some real understanding of the opposed method. In the fiercely anti-Modernist paragraphs in his later introduction to All What Jazz, Larkin angrily mentions ‘a play in which the characters sit in dustbins’, and yet in ‘Toads Revisited’ the poet tolerantly envisages ‘characters in long coats/Deep in the litter-baskets’ – there seems little difference in the images except that the second is much better written.
It is on these terms that one might call the Larkin who began to discover himself in The Less Deceived the ‘Visible Poet’. He became a poet whose verse, though capable of its own intensities of abstraction, its own degrees even of symbolism, has proved widely available because of the steadiness with which it renders all poetic experience into an easily-recognisable publicly-private personality, whose anecdotes, reflections and sayings are ‘quotable’ – splendidly adaptable to or adoptable by the common stock. This Visible Poet is a social or sociable figure in two different ways. He is beautifully-mannered, easily-humorous and kindly-genial even in his trenchancies and irascibilities, in his playing of what Ben Jonson might have called the ‘Honest Surly’ role, or Molière the ‘Misanthrope’ part. And Larkin’s later volumes have shown him promptly and responsibly willing to extend his range even so far as to ‘speak for England’: he writes poems, which seem to me good poems, on national and political subjects.
Simon Petch finds in these ‘political’ poems only ‘weakness’. Our disagreement prompts a further distinction: it helps to suggest the degree to which Larkin’s assumption of the Visible Poet role introduces complication into his work. He is a far more various and more complicated poet than one would expect him to be: at least, he arouses surprising difficulties of agreement among equally appreciative readers and admirers. Almost all these difficulties seem to me to derive from the poet’s assumption of a certain clarifying role and voice, which often leads to false conclusions on the part of critics. If Simon Petch judges a poem like ‘Homage to a Government’ harshly, it is because Larkin’s directness and characteristic authenticity lead the critic to base unwary assumptions on a Visible Poet’s form of expression. He is assuming, one might say, first that the Visible Poet is a role co-extensive with the whole of Larkin’s achievement, and that any departure from it is a falling-off; and secondly, that the utterance of a Visible Poet is social in bearing and literal in import. (Interestingly enough, this matches what seems to be some quality of caricature in Robert Conquest’s description, in Thwaite’s volume, of Larkin’s Conservatism.) Petch outlines the major reason why he finds High Windows in general ‘less satisfying’ than The Whitsun Weddings thus: ‘In many of the poems Larkin’s stance is extremely hard to determine, making it impossible to work out his relationship with the speaker of a poem ... As a whole “Livings” is elusive; and elusiveness is rarely the poet’s most successful mode.’
This is a valuable summary, because it defines the point of agreement on which Petch’s critical study and Thwaite’s tribute meet: they meet in an agreement that both in life and literature social ‘stance’ is vital to the maintenance of the self. Any critical conclusions reached will derive from and be limited by that same premise. In more localised terms, the critic is objecting here to the fact that the Visible Poet is less evident, or less effectively present, in High Windows than in the two preceding books of verse. Anyone who thinks that nonetheless High Windows is at least as good as The Whitsun Weddings, and in some respects better, has to come to a simple conclusion. The Visible Poet is a means and not an end: he is a form that expresses some but not all of the things Larkin has to say as a poet. Moreover, he is in distinct opposition to other sides of Larkin as a poet, so much so that one must see his invention as in part remedial, self-curative. There is an important part of Larkin’s work which is far from being contained within the ‘social’ or ‘sociable’, and it cannot be written down merely as a form of weakness. From beginning to end (and it is present in the last of Larkin’s poems to be published) it is as fruitful as it is difficult to handle. Petch may be right when he speaks of the terms on which the poet achieves ‘success’, but success is not the only criterion imaginable. Certain aspects of Larkin’s and indeed perhaps of any writer’s excellence derive from what can only be called an unsociable self for whom success is almost incidental.
There is little place in a celebratory volume for making discriminations between good and bad: even the best of the critical essays in Larkin at Sixty take for granted the sense of a coherent and splendid canon. There is therefore room to say that Larkin is a poet in whose work appear strains of the extremely good and the extremely bad. What is odd is that these variations pass for little. The North Ship, for instance, now seems to have been accepted as on a par with the poet’s later work: as immature but roughly of the same kind and quality. A recent radio broadcast, presented as a tribute on Larkin’s 60th birthday, interspersed with items of jazz poems from the last two volumes of verse – and The North Ship. This is interesting because although some of the poems in that collection are merely pretty and derivative, many are bad: in a way that is similar to what is outstanding in Larkin’s best. What is wrong about The North Ship is a kind of extreme unsociability. Frankie Howerd once said in a radio interview that he couldn’t tell a joke he found unfunny: ‘It makes me sweat with embarrassment.’ Some of the poems in The North Ship are within range of producing that degree of embarrassment, and they do so because the poems in this early volume are to an unusual degree written in unawareness of the reader. They use derivative literary exercises to organise feelings of a nakedness and innocence well in excess of the means or strength of the medium of transcription.
Expertise is much more in evidence in Larkin’s novels, especially in the second, A Girl in Winter, and yet it seems to me that they too ‘embarrass’: their problem is again one of communication. Formidable literary gifts are beginning to be on display in these novels, acute and realistic insights into psychology, the capacity to re-create a recognisable world, and yet all these talents are used to manifest a quality of feeling projected at a reader almost as a cat might lay a mouse at one’s foot: an offering somehow not sufficiently compatible with any requirements a reader might have. Communication does not take place.
There is an abyss of distance, and a relation of pure contrast, between the worst moments in the earlier writing and the remarkable tough geniality and wit, the social poise and assurance, of Larkin’s poems at their best: the Visible Poet is as formidable a social presence as the pre-visiblc poet and novelist are vulnerable. The change from one to the other suggests a degree of heroic labour, of punitive aesthetic self-education, which is humbling to contemplate. This side of Larkin’s career surely does give cause for tribute, because it is exemplary: it encourages by suggesting what improvement may lie in the harshest self-criticism. Yet, oddly, this theme is touched on only rarely in Thwaite’s book.
The first reason for talking about the weaknesses, or rather the violent problems, of Larkin’s early writing is appreciation of the extraordinary degree of change. The second reason is that the writer has also surely not changed at all – and the paradox is central to his power as an artist. That first ‘unsociable’ writer was not sheerly displaced by the ‘social’ one but went into an underground existence within or behind the other: and it is this that gives all Larkin’s work as a Visible Poet its inimitable charge of feeling, its unexpected complication and depth. For all his accomplishment, Larkin has never precisely stopped being the kind of writer he seems to have started out as: the intense, unnoticing artist given up to embodying his own experience, whose presence in the novels and The North Ship makes them so impossible and yet so gifted and promising.
Simon Petch’s introduction outlines most interestingly and efficiently the confusion in what have grown up as ‘Larkin studies’: the complete lack of consensus as to what does or does not constitute a good Larkin poem, and the disagreement, sometimes real contradiction, as to the essential nature of the poet as a writer. But he does not explain this confusion, either here or later in his study. The reason seems to me clearly that the ‘Visible Poet’is all too frequently taken at his face value, with a consequent difficulty in explaining or even understanding what to make of all the other data of Larkin’s verse. More simply, praise and appreciation of this or that poem will to some extent depend on the writer’s basic premises concerning the social, either absolutely or in the circumstances. Thus it is not at all surprising that two of the very best essays in Larkin at Sixty, those by Christopher Ricks and Clive James, are agreed in saluting the poet’s ‘wit’ as the primary quality of his poetry, and that both write eloquently on the poet’s conscious intellectual skills and his mastery of craft: there is something appropriate and decorous, in such a ‘social’ tribute, in concentrating on these attributes of the Visible Poet.
But there is a case to be made for the largeness of a different kind of writing, without which it is difficult to explain the authenticity of ‘Dockery and Son’, ‘The Explosion’ and ‘To the Sea’. What makes these poems good is a nakedness of presentment: an at first sight uninterpretable, unintcrpreted sequence of feeling. Such poems are ‘there’ on the page, with a peculiar solidity of substance and a peculiar quietness of movement that can make them stand out in contrast with the poems surrounding them in an anthology. Among a highly competent collection of static and decently opinionative current verse, Larkin’s poems are silent, and move. They are not (Petch’s word) ‘brutal’, but they have a quality that might be called ‘animal’ or ‘natural’: their intense existence is, for all the appearances of the Visible Poet, in excess of their impulse (not their skill) to communicate.
For anyone who writes on poetry as an academic, it is hard not to appreciate, and seek to do justice to, the intelligence of poets. Indeed, few readers of Larkin can find him anything but highly intelligent, or do anything but praise the ‘wit’ of his writing. And yet reading his poems can sometimes make one see that if poets differ creatively from professional intellectuals it is not in their use of their intelligence: it is in their knowing better things to do with their stupidity. There is a distinguished side of the unsociable poet that makes, so to speak, human stupidity speak out, like the pathetic ‘blorting’ women of his own ‘Faith Healing’:
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice ...
‘Blort’ here seems to be (unless it is a simple misprint for ‘blurt’) Larkin’s invention: something midway between ‘blurt’, ‘abort’ and ‘blore’ (the last meaning the noise that sheep and cattle make, a bellow – or possibly a raspberry); and it seems right that Larkin should have invented this word. The poems that appear to me to be his best are those which, inside their wit, blort: express some speechless amazement and pain at existence. They do not precisely communicate what they feel, but it is shareable. In these poems the poet becomes as little as possible the ‘manipulator’: indeed, they help to recall to a reader the fact that the social, the active and the communicative faculties are sometimes of only secondary importance to a writer. A more important role is one hard to define but perhaps closer to the old terms, ‘testifying’, or ‘bearing witness’: being there, feeling the things that it is necessary for human beings to feel. Larkin’s true subjects, especially in recent years, have a special basicness and baldness and extremity. It is hard to think of another poet in the modern period who has made the individual’s apprehension of death quite as central to his work as Larkin does in poems like ‘The Old Fools’ and ‘Aubade’ – and this is not an experience that can reasonably be called ‘social’.
Definitions of the social of course differ. Dr Johnson remarked that people come into company in order to have their loneliness in common, and, in this sense of the word, even Larkin’s most ‘blorting’ poems are very social indeed: they create that ‘larger loneliness’ that ‘Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel’ defines so incomparably. There is perhaps more of this ‘larger loneliness’, authentic, undeniable and austere, in High Windows than in any of the earlier volumes, just as it seems to have more respect, with all its artistry, for inarticulacy – even down to its profusion of four-letter words. These are a kind of crystallisation of everything in the book that is sociably-unsociable (just as ‘The Card-Players’ is of the uglily-beautiful, or beautifully ugly). The volume is strongly void of opinion, which it derides (in ‘Posterity’, in ‘Annus Mirabilis’ and ‘Vers de Sociéte’): instead it has objects. Poems like ‘Show Saturday’ and ‘To the Sea’ are so dense with things, so crammed with objects like pebbles and baskets and honeycombs (‘pure excellences that enclose/A recession of skills’), that they hardly have room for speech at all: a kind of silence governs them.
But this quality is also present in that apparently most social and communicative of volumes, The Whitsun Weddings. Consider one of its finest poems, ‘Dockery and Son’. This is an anecdote about a visit paid by the poet to his old university, apparently on the occasion of a funeral. Yet it isn’t this sad event that sends the speaker back home again afterwards in a state of considerable shock, but a few words – perhaps casual or perhaps deliberately dismissive – dropped by the Dean of the poet’s old college. He says that a younger contemporary of the speaker’s now has a son at the college, and the news, gradually digested, brings a terrible stock-taking to the poet, a sense of a lifetime’s wastage or even wholesale failure. This story observes all the social conventions of anecdote: it is terse, off-hand, ironical, with a detachment and ease in speaking of the self that contrasts absolutely with the awkwardnesses of tone in the very early poems; it is an assured and even an entertaining poem. And yet it gathers to a conclusion of great impact. We feel it the more by being drawn in, as the poem proceeds, to an increasingly intense and inward process of thought from the silent teller of the story; and we note this the more in that the anecdotist is silent, with a speechlessness that stands in marked contrast to the flat brevities of the Dean:
‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with –’ ‘Or remember how
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight
We used to stand before that desk, to give
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?
I try the door of where I used to live:
What worries Simon Petch is what he feels to be the discrepancy between this apparently random and very personal opening (‘the poem opens with someone speaking who is very much a minor character’) and the ‘generalisation’ – as he calls it – to which the poem quietly but steadily rises at the end:
Life is first boredom, then fear
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
Petch sees this in close connection with the ending of ‘Mr Bleaney’, adding that in both the poem ‘remains dramatic at the end’, and that it is important to see the close as ‘commenting on the speaker’. This does justice to the social poise the poet manifests, the quiet detachment from self with which he records and shares an experience: what one might call the extraordinarily unaffected purity of tone in ‘Dockery and Son’. But it does injustice to the experience itself, which is not that of the case-history which the critic’s ‘commenting on’ hints. Larkin’s poem gives voice, as it grows, to the whole human sense of failure in life. And it is a part of its nature that it does so without anything of the maudlin or the self-abasing: it invests the condition with dignity. This is another respect in which Larkin’s poems have their own inner complexity, almost a moral ‘wit’of treatment. The ‘social’ tone of his poems places them at once at the centre of what used to be called the essentially ‘worldly’: there is nothing unworldly about them, no hint of alternative culture. Their ‘stance’ is always that of the busy and in some sense successful businessman who (in ‘Toads’ and ‘Toads Revisited’) looks askance at the ‘stupid or weak. / Think of being them!’ And yet this businessman works under the pressure of knowledge quite as undermining as anything that might happen on the market (‘All we can leave our children now is money’). In this he has his failure too. And the failures of such characters are presented in Larkin’s poems with a gesture peculiarly convincing, because lacking in all those forms of weakness that might, in relation to human suffering, protect us, serve to dissociate us from the sufferers: to ‘think of being them’ is precisely what the poems do, truly as well as ironically. The special Larkin invention is the man who goes down fighting: whose pain comes to us through a wholly undermining because almost comic astonishment and rage.
The speaker of ‘Dockery and Son’ sees clearly enough that the actual relation of Son to Dockery may have been little better than a ‘harsh patronage’, but this knowledge – comically or tragically – does nothing to protect him from that abrupt shock of sonlessness which is his particular burden of failure in life. The last lines of the poem crystallise this experience with an extraordinary blank austerity which at once realises and more largely and humanly generalises: ‘this is how it is.’ In the knowledge of what each has not got (a son, or an alternative to ‘harsh patronage’) Dockery and the speaker meet, as they did not appear to have met in college. In this meeting, there is reflected an aspect of the poem which makes it very different from mere anecdote, from that appearance – so quietly instituted in the first verse – of the randomness of what happened to happen. The silent speaker’s shocked process of thought is, in fact, not ‘mere’ memory but a sense-making, a stock-taking (as in fact perhaps all memory really is). There is no randomness in the poem, but a continual and creative pattern of relationships, like that very first and apparently ironical link of father to child in the title of ‘Dockery and Son’. The first stanza, quoted here, contains just such a linking, as the dark suit of the funereal visitor makes him suddenly remember being gowned long ago in front of the Dean. The poem is a network of journeys, re-echoing and half – ironically reflecting each other: to and from the university, into the past and into the future. It travels, one might even say, from the gregariousness of youth to a larger human community. So that when the solitary poet wakes on his journey home at the point of change, to eat ‘an awful pie’ and walk along
The platform to its end and see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong
– at this moment, the poem also has power to mirror the mysterious intercrossing laws of relationship, of person to unknown person and of forgotten past to present, all the strange conditions, hindered and unhindered, in which the natural and the fruitful are at work in human life. The twenty years of adulthood it has taken Dockery (whoever he is) to beget a son, and the son to grow to manhood, it has also taken the poem we read to come into being, with its fruit of knowledge and of self-knowledge. And a reader can hardly find the poem he knows less good than the unknown Son of Dockery.
That increment which both poet and reader come to (another relationship not unlike that of Dockery and Son) could fairly be called an increase in human wisdom. ‘Dockery and Son’ is a poem of education. But what is learned is scarcely the same as the knowledge that may be acquired at that university it starts from: where the college Dean looms magisterially, almost paternally, over a vision of youth and youthful ideals glimpsed again, like the college lawns, glimpsed as ‘dazzlingly’ but largely delusory – or at least ungetatable now (‘A known bell chimes’). The silent speaker in the end possibly knows more than the Dean, because he knows that dream both from the inside and from the outside. But the poem suggests that there is a particular condition to that wisdom: the self gaining it must be devoid of action, at least in the dynamic sense (‘brutally’, ‘viciously’). The speaker is passive, powerless, subordinate, merely open to experience. The ‘I’ of ‘Dockery and Son’ merely ‘nods’ before the Dean, is ‘locked’ out of his old room and ‘ignored’ by his university, before being carried northwards in a train contrastingly potent for all its invisibility. He suffers the intense experience of the poem as no more than ‘shock’, registered by a lingering ‘numbness’. Even the station pie has more identity than the speaker: it is ‘awful’, it is itself. The ‘self’ in the poem is apprehended only as an uncanny power to communicate – though not, it appears, with the Dean: it can communicate only inwardly and reflectively on subjects of more personal intensity and perhaps of larger human moment than any the Dean is acquainted with. To understand, and particularly to understand how things are related (how Dockery goes with Son), it is clearly necessary to claim no glittering prizes, and to recognise that there is in the end ‘for me nothing’. In ‘Send no money’, one of Larkin’s most basic poems, the speaker repudiates with rage his innocent childish choice of a life of ‘seeing’ rather than ‘wanting’: a repudiation which perhaps strips from him the impurity of having (after all) only ‘wanted’ it. To see truthfully through Truth is the end of most of the poet’s journeys. This is a process which could without doubt be psychologised and ‘dramatised’: but it is just as good to see it as being one way of saying that truth and power belong to different moral kingdoms.
The most consistent and frequent objection made to Larkin’s poems is that they are ‘negative’. This is unanswerable, if one assumes that power is in itself the highest conceivable value: an assumption unavoidable in a secular modern society, without metaphysical sanctions for its sense of truth. Truth is displaced and replaced by power-in-action, leading to success: and the success of success can be seen in the currency of the word ‘successful’ in critical usage. But the exact sense in which Larkin’s poems are ‘negative’ deserves scrutiny. They most certainly do not lack power in the form of energy: it is by their superiority in energy that they show themselves as ahead of most contemporary English poets. This energy, which takes many forms, is reflected in Larkin’s choice of the train-poem. ‘Dockery and Son’ is one, others being both the other large-scale triumphs in The Whitsun Weddings, the title-poem and the opener, ‘Here’. ‘Here’ begins with a ‘Swerving east ...’ that carries the enormous three-stanza image-loaded opening sentence swinging through the poem with an extraordinary, spacious momentum. It is not (as in certain Victorian train-poems) just the pleasure of the mimesis of fast movement that matters, but the precise intention of getting somewhere. But what is odd about this is that the point of arrival tends always to dissolve from its significance in literal space into a transcription of the achievement of having learned, the record of having carried a burden of knowledge. The sense of going somewhere is strong in ‘Dockery and Son’, even if only in terms of withdrawal, recoil, but the point of arrival is not Sheffield but ‘for me nothing’, and ‘the only end of age’. The marvellous northward-driving energy of ‘Here’ does not end, as we might have expected, at Hull, but goes on past it into the silent and isolated sea-coast beyond: what is really ‘luminously-peopled’ is the air, what stands at the barrier is ‘silence’, where the ‘hidden’ and the ‘neglected’ ‘flower’ and ‘quicken’ into life. In each case, the individual power of the poem, the driving energy, finds its limits, and pauses before the reality outside that limit. And it is a vital aspect of that reality that it can be understood only as the end of ego, of the self’s success: for me nothing. It is a striking feature of ‘Here’ that this intensely individual and animated poem, one of Larkin’s unique and characteristic creations, nowhere includes the word ‘I’. In ‘Dockery and Son’, too, ‘I’ plays a part subordinate and mute, sufficient only to hold the thread of the clue: ‘I catch my train, ignored,’ ‘I suppose I fell asleep,’ ‘I changed.’ From this point of view, criticism has perhaps over-psychologised, over – socialised, over-humanised poems like ‘Dockery and Son’, converting a line like ‘Whether or not we use it, it goes’ into a moan of depression. The poem may contain depression but is not depressed: ‘whether or not we use it’ is also a silent truthful tribute to the existence of a world outside ourselves (and to that degree outside the social) that, like a train carrying us, ‘goes’.
If one wanted to distinguish a poem by Larkin from one written by an admirer and imitator, I think the factor would be the extremity of its energy and the extremity of the control that breaks the back of the energy. Neither seems to be equalled in contemporaries. The phenomenon produces characteristic structures like the train-poems. And it emerges, too, in disturbing and beautiful images of energy moving silent below a surface, at peace (like a mole) within its own inhuman inarticu – lacy:
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence.
The energy of the train poems takes us beyond the social to a place that is itself, undefinable (‘out of reach’); the countryside of a wholly lost England retains this self-sustaining energy locked in the imagination’s photograph. It is this sense of containment, of latency, that appears to me the most valuable aspect of Larkin’s poetry, a quality at once unsocial and yet ‘speaking’. It is far from being confined to pastoral or wistful images: in High Windows, the ‘lamplit cave’ of ‘The Card-Players’ and the ‘Conference Room’ of ‘Friday Night ...’ have it profoundly. The commonest of his techniques is to endow the commonplace with precisely this self-withdrawn containment:
Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.
‘Threatening our humanity, and standing for so much of what we fear, the ambulance takes on menacing overtones’: Petch’s comment has its own social fidelity, since fear is indeed what we have in common in our normal response to the sound of an ambulance. But Larkin’s ambulance has something purely Larkin, a mystery ‘giving back / None of the glances it absorbs’ – as poems withstand criticism. The nearest things to Larkin’s ambulances that I know (apart from ambulances) are those sinister twin-motorcyclists who once glided as outriders before Death’s Rolls-Royce in Cocteau’s film Orphée: the immediate appearance of his ambulance brings back that distant cinematic shock. But the differences are much more interesting. Larkin’s heralds of death have been stripped of all that is outré, everything that tells of the smart, camp shock-trooper. His ambulances move cleanlily, like the lines of ancient lost villages under wheat-fields: something entirely commonplace, silent, but loaded with an energy that, unexpressed, takes the form of truth. Tellingly, the last line of the verse works by a meiosis, an undersaying of the unsayable. At the literal level, we could remark, like Petch, that in point of fact not all households do get visited by an ambulance. If we don’t, it’s because we know that the ‘visit’ is really a ‘visitation’, by death, as by a government inspector or a plague or even an angel. Within the discipline of the verse and of the diction, the power of the image, held back (‘closed ... giving back none ... unreachable’), releases its largest meaning.
Our current aesthetic is almost certainly one of power rather than truth. We expect a work of art to alter us, to affect us, and we praise and dispraise art in terms that measure the intensity of its onslaught on us, not by the value of the truth it tells. Criticism, too, can become a medium of power, judged not by the light it throws on its nominal subject, but by the energy it releases and displays. As a criterion, this reduces all literature to rhetoric; it is by their handling of their potential power that we recognise the difference between literature and rhetoric. The ‘negativism’ of Larkin’s verse, the quality of the ‘elusive’ and the ‘evasive’ often spoken of, may be personal demerits, or they may be the quality in his work that most verifies it as art. Even the direct and colloquial, unpretentious and honest poems of a ‘Visible Poet’ don’t tell us anything: Larkin is negative in this way too, as art must be negative. The value of poems like those in The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows is their capacity to ‘be there’, at the central points of human suffering and change. In this way they are as sociable as any writer needs to be.