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.

Larkin’s eloquence repeatedly casts itself as retort and ensuing silence. He is in every sense a reactionary writer. Required Writing turns the tables on required reading, and its author has a good ear for a retort: Cole Porter’s wife, asked if her jewels are real, asks back: ‘Real what?’ Larkin similarly turns back a turn of speech so that his interlocutor (an interviewer, a critic, a poet or a reader) has to face the prior question about that way of putting it. Sometimes the tone of his manoeuvre is robustly collusive, as who should say: Come off it. There is an apocryphal story afloat of Larkin grumbling to someone about how it is the schoolteachers who are the really lazy sods, whereupon the embarrassed remonstration ‘I’m a schoolteacher myself actually’ was at once met by Larkin’s genial rumbling it as a chance for co-opting: ‘Well you’ll know just what I mean then.’ Sometimes the retorting tone is nannying, along the lines of ‘Take those words out of your mouth, you don’t know where they’ve been.’ Mostly the tone has the dear grouchiness of Edward FitzGerald, another master of lugubrious comedy and of critical aperçus that weigh more than other men’s tomes. Like Larkin a chastening defender of poets against their own incipient inauthenticities, FitzGerald used to groan to good effect. Tennyson had written for his friend Spedding, bereaved of a brother:

Words weaker than your grief would make
  Grief more.’Twere better I should cease
Although to calm you I would take
  The place of him that sleeps in peace.

FitzGerald subjected this to a proto-Larkin quizzing: ‘I used to ask if this was not un peu trop fort. I think it’s altered or omitted in future Editions. It is all rather affected.’ So Tennyson authenticated the lines as:

Although myself could almost take
  The place of him that sleeps in peace.

Larkin has found it – not officiously made it – his business to ask of certain ways of putting it if they are not un peu trop fort. To ask it in English, though, lest the very asking be rather affected.

Come off it, or un peu trop fort: Auden, for instance, is asked not to come on quite so strong. When Auden contrasts poets (‘They can dash forward like hussars’) with novelists (who ‘must / Become the whole of boredom’), it remains for Larkin to do the de-canting: ‘Nobody has ever likened me to a hussar, and I doubt if any novelist has ever quite managed to become the whole of boredom; there is always a little left over for the reader.’

Sometimes the retort courteous will be a matter of giving a reverberation to the most conventional of phrases: ‘I never learned to dance in a conventional sense.’ Sometimes the turn will be a reminder of how worse-than-provincial the metropolitan vanity can be. So you don’t ever feel the need to be at the centre of things? ‘Oh no, I very much feel the need to be on the periphery of things.’ None of his retorts is a put-down, because our author’s own propensity to succumb to the lures of plumpness is ruefully acknowledged. Ripeness is all but inescapable. A rhetorical formula like ‘If I hesitate to call this such-and-such’ is all set to deliquesce from ripeness to rottenness: Larkin stanches it, first by going for the sort of word that ordinarily would not follow this rhetoric (‘If I hesitate to call this boloney ... ’), and then by going on to two very different kinds of admission neither of which would usually gain entrance after such an opening – this, plus a vigilant parenthesis: ‘If I hesitate to call this boloney, it is partly because I cannot disprove it (any more than he can prove it), and partly because I seem to have said something of the sort myself.’

Naturally it can be replied that these humorous turnings are no less rhetorical than the higher-flying tropes that they trap, but it is central to Larkin’s achievement that he should repeatedly create authenticity out of the interrelation of inauthenticities. The balance and sustenance of alternate tones are often in Larkin, as they were in Byron, a balance and sustenance of alternate rhetorics, neither of which is authentic in itself but which in conjunction and mutual critique can be magnanimously right.

It is a feat of this book that, for all its grudging and its grudges, it should feel so magnanimous. Partly this is because it is so open in its antagonisms, its doubts, and its warnings (especially about the cultural entertainment industry and about the ‘cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic’). Partly it is that Larkin is so happy to let other people say felicitous things. Many of the best jokes are allowed to be other men’s. ‘I remember saying once, I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife. Whoever I was talking to said, They’d do that, too, if their agents could fix it.’ Or there is his substantiating Betjeman’s tolerance: ‘I remember once saying to him, “Churches are all the same really,” to which he replied: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” ’ Even more handsome by way of imperturbable discomfiture is Larkin’s telling of an Oxford compliment to him, expecially as it lurks in the hinterland which Larkin has made his own, between inadvertence and acumen. (As when Larkin good-naturedly thinks it is a pity that Donald Davie’s poem ‘A Sequence for Francis Parkman’ doesn’t ‘tell me who Parkman is: one of his American friends, perhaps’. It is a pity, too, about the expunging of what I had taken to be just such an immersing in the deconstructive element: Sylvia Plath ‘was, to use Henry James’s well-worn phrase, immersing herself in the destructive element’. I’m afraid this now reads banally ‘Joseph Conrad’s’.) The Oxford memory is this: ‘The highest academic compliment I received as an undergraduate was “Mr Larkin can see a point, if it is explained to him.” ’

The feeling of magnanimity comes as well from the fact that Larkin’s devoting himself almost entirely to writers who are usually condescended to as ‘minor’ (Housman, William Barnes, de la Mare, Betjeman) is itself a various and sustained argument for inverting the usual priorities and for seeing these poets’ virtues as the truly important ones. Indeed, Larkin can retrieve the word ‘minor’ as an ally not to be underrated, saying of W.H. Davies’s sweet resistance to rural domesticity: ‘He hit back in minor ways such as neglecting the garden and waving at girls in a nearby laundry.’ Larkin’s veneration of Hardy rings out the more vibrantly if one hears it against the thin words of T. S. Eliot in 1935: ‘Thomas Hardy, who for a few years had all the cry, appears now, what he always was, a minor poet.’

The risk taken by the poet, whom Eliot styptically called ‘the practitioner’, when writing criticism is that things said about others may be taken to be merely self-regarding, the regard being a squint or an oeillade. What Larkin says of Eliot – ‘one suspects in fact that his account of Marvell’s quality is to some extent a description of his own, or what he would like his own to be’ – must itself be capable of being retorted upon Larkin, with this reservation: that it is a damaging thing to say only if the word ‘suspects’ is justified. Larkin says of Betjeman that, like Kipling and Housman, he has proved ‘that a direct relation with the reading public could be established by anyone prepared to be moving and memorable.’ It would be silly to suspect Larkin of thinking of himself as in that company. The gaze is straight, no smirking. Larkin singles out as the ‘imaginative note’ of Hardy ‘the sometimes gentle, sometimes ironic, sometimes bitter but always passive apprehension of suffering’. Nothing implies that Larkin thinks himself Hardy’s peer; everything does more than imply that Larkin knows himself Hardy’s colleague. What did Larkin learn from other poets? ‘Hardy, well ... not to be afraid of the obvious.’ Including the obvious admission that when a poet speaks well of others, he is likely to be speaking, well, of himself. For the poet of ‘Self’s the man’ is the man who declines to be a poet in residence ‘because I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.’ He prefers to be a poet in reticence.

He has for some of us that rare comic force which is a matter of the whole idea of him and his ways and his tones, so that just to imagine his cadences is involuntarily to smile to yourself. There is a sentence in a school anthology the mere thought of which always makes me happy, even though the sentence quotes nothing directly and resembles the flattest exchange of courtesies: ‘I consulted Philip Larkin about his inclusion in this volume: Mr Larkin’s view was that he would prefer not to collaborate with attempts to make his poetry more accessible to younger readers.’ (It is ‘collaborate with’ – not in – that does it.) I get the same pleasure from the exquisite flat-tongued opening of a paragraph in a piece here on A.E. Housman – it goes simply: ‘Then again, he seems to have been a very nice man.’

‘The authority of sadness’ is what Larkin respects in the poetry of Stevie Smith. But these flickering counter-impulses of wit and humour are what validate such sadness, in Larkin’s poetry as in hers, just as the counter-impulse of sadness deepens the humour of Larkin’s prose. Taking a proper pleasure in creating a poem, or in re-creating as a reader its experience, is something quite other than a covert pleasure in sadness itself. Larkin’s prose is indeed the humorous relishing of glumness, but his poems, except when they lapse, are not a relishing of sadness. ‘Actually, I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through in my writing. But it’s unhappiness that provokes a poem.’ The achieved authority of sadness is not the same as the inaugurating provocation of unhappiness. Larkin would be suspicious of Tennyson’s open arms:

Immeasurable sadness!
And I know it as a poet,
And I greet it, and I meet it,
Immeasurable sadness!

Meeting it, yes, but greeting it is going a bit far.

Of course there are questions (especially about reconciling this with that) which Larkin need not particularly worry about but which we should. A man may live differently with his own contradictions, not least because he knows both how much they have made possible for him and how little might be left standing if he were to permit himself an Ibsenesque dismantling. But this very lucid writer can be very puzzling. ‘It would be death to me to have to think about literature as such, to say why one poem was “better” than another, and so on.’ Why should this, when under academic auspices, be more death-dealing than it is when as a reviewer (of Auden, most notably) Larkin is obliged to do exactly this, to say why one poem is ‘better’ than another? He does it, with stringency and glee. Even better, he goes for better not ‘better’, having no truck with those prophylactic inverted commas which belong in the unLarkin worlds of high pseudo-philosophical intellectuality or of low cultural egalitarianism. Assuredly Larkin believes – and says – that some poems are better than others, not ‘better’. Is the point that if he were in ‘the academic world’ (or, rather, were there as a teacher, not a librarian), he’d have to go in for inverted commas? Or is there something very different about reviewing? Or should one just say: Come off it?

Then there is the selecting itself. Many reviewers have bemoaned the absence of their favourite Larkin bemoanings. Believing as I do that some of Larkin’s best things are very portable, I particularly regret that, once he’d decided he would include items as small as paragraphs, he had no time or space for the following three, all of which exhibit the sentiment (of honesty) with more weight than bulk. From the London Magazine (February 1962), on literature, life and death, and on the poet’s being ‘perpetually in that common human condition of trying to feel a thing because he believes it, or believe a thing because he feels it’. From Poet’s Choice (1962), on ‘Absences’, as then his favourite poem: ‘I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly-unconvincing translation from a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often.’ And from Let the poet choose (1973), where his entry is entrancingly timed:

I looked through my three books of poems, and after some time came to the conclusion that I was subconsciously looking for poems which did not seem to me to have received their due meed of praise. Of course, there were quite a lot of them, and selection was difficult, but in the end I picked ‘MCMXIV’ and ‘send no money’, both from The Whitsun Weddings.

  Looking at them, I see that they have a certain superficial resemblance: they are both, for instance, in more or less the same metre. On the other hand, they might be taken as representative examples of the two kinds of poem I sometimes think I write: the beautiful and the true. I have always believed that beauty is beauty, truth truth, that is not all ye know on earth nor all ye need to know, and I think a poem usually starts off either from the feeling How beautiful that is or from the feeling How true that is. One of the jobs of the poem is to make the beautiful seem true and the true beautiful, but in fact the disguise can usually be penetrated.

How clean this comes. But then so does everything actually included in Required Writing, except perhaps its no longer being recorded (as it was on magazine publication) that for the Paris Review interview Larkin flunked or funked his orals. Gone is the prefatory note which included: ‘Mr Larkin did not let down his guard sufficiently to be interviewed in person. He stipulated it be conducted entirely by post: “You will get much better answers that way.” He took nearly five months to answer the initial set of questions, stating, “It has taken rather a long time because, to my surprise, I found writing it suffocatingly boring.” ’ Boring it isn’t, but it now lacks some of its comedy for those unaware of the exact circumstances which moved the interviewer to deploy as the final ground of his beseeching: ‘For someone who dislikes being interviewed, you’ve responded generously.’

Raymond Williams, writing about Monty Python, said not uncheerfully that ‘English Philistinism has always comforted itself with the half-memory of the man who tried to be a philosopher but found that cheerfulness kept breaking through’ (LRB, Vol.2, No 23). Larkin, full-memoried, remembers the difference between breaking through and breaking in, and in his mock-philistinism creates a deliberate variant on those words of Oliver Edwards to Dr Johnson: Larkin tells how, un able to maintain as a reviewer his intended praise for all jazz, the interest of those reviews for him now is in ‘watching truthfulness break in, despite my initial resolve’. Truthfulness, cheerfulness, and the authority of sadness: we should gratefully retort upon Larkin the anecdote he tells of William Barnes. ‘Nor was his appeal limited to men of letters: “an old Domestic Servant” wrote to him in 1869, having found his poems among some books she was dusting: “Sir, I shook hands with you in my heart, and I laughed and cried by turns.” ’