Faber Book of Groans

Christopher Ricks

  • Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 by Philip Larkin
    Faber, 315 pp, £4.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 571 13120 4

‘How,’ asked Dr Leavis, vaulting into his review of T. S. Eliot’s On Poetry and Poets, ‘can a book of criticism be at once so distinguished and so unimportant?’ Of Philip Larkin’s comparable and incomparable ‘miscellaneous pieces’, it might be asked: How can a book of criticism be at once so un-‘distinguished’ and so important? But then how can this Faber book of groans be so exhilarating? The open unsecret is: by being unremittingly attentive and diversely funny. Asked in an interview about his ‘secret flaws’ as a writer, Larkin levels his reply: ‘My secret flaw is just not being very good, like everyone else.’ Asked whether he consciously uses humour to achieve a particular effect, he obligingly particularises while generalising: ‘One uses humour to make people laugh.’ Deprecating untruth, he is a master at combining the Retort Courteous and the Quip Modest. You didn’t mention a schedule for writing ... ‘Yes, I was afraid you’d ask about writing.’ Sometimes things are such that he does have to press on to give the Reply Churlish (‘Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?’), and the Reproof Valiant (What do you think about Mrs Thatcher? ‘Oh, I adore Mrs Thatcher’), and even the Countercheck Quarrelsome (‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets!’). But like Touchstone, he is not cut out for giving the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct. Like Touchstone, he is independent of mind, prepared to tell people when they are feigning; and, playing the Fool, he is of course licensed by all the authorities whom he banters, cajoles and outwits, countenanced and honest the while.

Larkin clears of cant not only his mind but his mouth, and not only his. Dr Johnson steadies Larkin’s mind (‘Now one must clear one’s mind of cant’), while at the same time encouraging him to heights of irresistible albeit temporary concession which are a comic counterpart to the great verse-paragraphs of ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ (‘Yet should ... Should ... Should ... Should ... Should ... Should ... Yet’). Concerned not to be unfair, even to ‘The Holy Barbarians’ alias the Beats, Larkin musters a crescendo of grantings while biding his time:

Now one must clear one’s mind of cant and admit, firstly, that everyone is free to live as he likes as far as society will let him; secondly, that other people besides Angel Dan Davies enjoy poetry, jazz and sex; and thirdly that, appalling as it would be to have Itchy Dave Gelden coming in one’s door ‘fidgeting and scratching his crotch’ (‘Hi, what’s cookin’? Are we gonna blow some poetry, maybe?’), he would probably be no worse than a guardee subaltern talking about Buck House, or your father-in-law telling you how his new golf clubs cost more but aren’t as good as his old ones. Other people are Hell (I have never seen why Sartre should have been praised for inverting and falsifying this truism), and the self-important spongers of Venice no more so than the rest.

By this time one is yearning for the stubborn But against which all these sequent waves of fairmindedness will go up in foam. Larkin’s timing is perfect, and his But of a sentence is petrified into a twelfth of his opening one. ‘But Mr Lipton’s point is that they are a lot less so.’ The retorted scorn of this is as unanswerable as a back turned upon you, duly and inexorably.

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