Phil the Lark

Ian Hamilton

Philip Larkin, we are told, left instructions in his will that certain of his writings had to be destroyed, unread. His executors obeyed: the word is that several of the poet’s notebooks, or journals, are now ashes. Did Larkin expect to be so obeyed? Or did he imagine that perhaps someone, somehow, might take a peek at the material before it reached the flames? And if such a thought did cross his mind, why didn’t he destroy the stuff himself? He must have known that, by not doing so, he was bequeathing at least the possibility of a dilemma. But then some of his most moving poems contrive a subtle, unsettlable dispute between revelation and concealment. There is a wanting-to-be-known that can desolate or undermine our self-sufficiency.

And now, it seems, there are things about Philip Larkin that we’ll never know. So what? Well, put it like this, the loss can be made to sound not at all what Larkin, as we know him from the poems, would have wholly wished. But then again, who knows? After all, those now-incinerated notebooks might have been full of household accounts or noughts and crosses: the instruction to destroy them a librarian’s last, bleakest joke. Throw these away and you are doomed to imagine that my life was not really as boring as I always used to say it was. Having something to hide is generally reckoned to be better than having nothing to show, he might have thought.

There are no explicit instructions in Larkin’s will concerning the publication or re-publication of his poems. He seems not to have minded the idea of having his most early work exhumed. Nor did he leave any advice about what ought to happen to the various unfinished pieces he would leave behind. We can assume, therefore, that he must have envisaged a Collected Poems rather like the one we’ve now been given: a volume that adds something like eighty poems to his lifetime’s known tally. This is a hefty addition, since the poems we already know him by and most admire total a mere 85. I’m thinking here of the poems collected in The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows. So his ‘output’ has been almost doubled. (I say ‘almost’ because The North Ship, reprinted ‘with considerable hesitation’ in 1966 and offered more as a curiosity than to be admired, adds another 30 titles to the list.) What it all boils down to, or up to, is that Larkin the thrifty now has a Collected Poems of substantial bulk.

Ought we to think, though, as he generally did not, that adding means increase? Kilograms aside, the plumpened Larkin oeuvre does not carry a great deal of extra weight. On the contrary, a poet whom we value for his sparingness, for not out-putting work that he wasn’t ‘pretty sure’ amounted to the best that he could do, is now to be seen as somewhat cluttered with botch-ups, immaturities and fragments. It’s as if this most bachelor of poets had suddenly acquired a slightly messy family life.

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