Becoming a girl

John Bayley

  • Philip Larkin: Writer by James Booth
    Harvester, 192 pp, £9.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 7450 0769 4

It may be off-putting to think that great artists create to excite themselves sexually; yet in some degree this is probably the case. At least with quite a number. Although the obvious danger would then be including almost every artistic effect under the heading of the pornographic (‘everything he does is so artistic,’ as Anthony Powell remarked of Lawrence’s gamekeeper, quoting a song of Marie Lloyd’s), it might be tempting to construct a General Theory of Pornography in Art along these lines. Lawrence himself, oddly enough, would not qualify; certainly not in the context of Lady Chatterley. One of the many not quite right things about that novel is the way Lawrence tries to distance sexual excitement from himself and his readers, making it a matter of the higher impulse: the feel in the blood and not the sex in the head. Being, in one sense, a better artist in this context than he wished to be, Lawrence none the less succeeded, as we know, in exciting many of his readers.

One of them was Philip Larkin, who always liked and admired Lawrence, considering him a criterion for the literary ‘non-bogus’. But Lawrence would not at all have cared for Larkin’s own use of the pornographic, in its higher or its lower manifestations. For Larkin, like Housman, excited himself on two levels, one of which may seem to have been the impulse behind his best and most characteristic art. The other was plain pornography, of the dirty mackintosh kind, corresponding to Housman’s relish for sex jokes. The relation of the two levels is not easy to determine, but the higher seems connected with a yearning to escape the compulsive repulsiveness of the lower: to escape into art and the mysterious sexual excitement of creation, the world of the Shropshire Lad and of Larkin’s ‘dear translucent bergs:/Silence and space’. The escape is palpably disingenuous, for the reader still feels and can participate in the kind of excitement the writer is giving himself. In the poem ‘Dry-Point’ Larkin specifically contrasts the exasperatingly mechanical repetitiveness of sexual desire with ‘that bare and sun-scrubbed room ... Where you, we dream, obtain no right of entry’ – ‘you’ being the diurnal sexual itch. ‘We dream’ shows that the poet himself does not believe it – nor does his poem intend we should. The cube of light, the sun-scrubbed room, like those ‘dear translucent bergs’, are for Larkin sexual properties by other means, as Wenlock Edge and dead soldier lads and nettles dancing on suicides’ graves were for Housman. It is there that for the poet sex in the head most excitingly takes place.

I started to reflect on Larkin and pornography when reading James Booth’s highly effective and detailed study of his poems, though the subject had been put into my head by Anthony Thwaite’s selection of the poet’s letters. Booth, together with Barbara Everett, is among the few critics who have produced real illumination about the way the poems work: ways of working which notoriously have become more and more indefinable the more public and popular a figure the poet has become – and indeed the more he has become a new industry for the critics. The point to hold onto might well be that such a popularity occurs on the rare occasions when a highly idiosyncratic writer like Larkin or Housman manages unexpectedly to strike an all-responsive chord; when, in fine, as Henry James would say, by exciting themselves they excite others. Like the higher pornography, the higher self-pity – vital to any bestseller – is an important ingredient in Larkin’s popularity.

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