Aardvark

John Bayley

In 1974, with High Windows about to appear, Larkin lamented in a letter that critics would have passed the word around – Donnez la côtelette à Larquin – give Larkin the chop. Of course he was wrong. The chorus of praise swelled higher than ever: with each slim volume the certainty and authority of the poems and their unique feel of personality left readers dazzled. Larkin first; the rest nowhere. And though no one said so – perhaps fellow-poets were too envious – they showed how indispensable rhyme-schemes as subtle yet as traditional as his could still be.

Now, with the letters and biography it is the personality that has got the chop. Clearly it was not PC; but amongst all that has been written about him that seems hardly relevant, though Doctors Eagleton, Paulin and Jardine have rubbed home the point that poetry is politics, and that Larkin’s is now shown to be fundamentally out of order – ‘English’ therefore bad. The establishment they represent takes for granted that poets now bring the right assumptions to their work, a point that struck me forcibly in the summer when acting as a judge for the forward Poetry Prize, an admirable new scheme for giving some money to good poets, not necessarily young ones. As it turned out, Thom Gunn, once associated with Larkin in the ‘Movement’, was the chief beneficiary. But what struck me most about the numerous entries, all of which had been published in magazines or in booklet form, was that they were poems with the right attitudes, demonstrating subliminally or openly that their creators conformed, and had their hearts in the right place.

It seemed a bit like the Augustan ideal, or the Victorian convention. However wild and woolly their form and language, the poems had an underlying correctness, an unconscious wish to be ideologically sound. Mavericks were common, but true outsiders not. Augustan conformity had its Collins and its Blake and Smart: its mad poets who kicked over the traces. Victorian poetry had to have its nonsense and its horror writers, its Lears and Carrolls and Cities of Dreadful Night. Our version of this today might be Larkinian lugubriousness and derision, defeatism, irresponsibility – sentiments to which every bosom is capable of returning an echo, particularly in an era of national and social decline.

Might be, but isn’t: there was no sign of a Larkin or of Larkinism among the entries for the poetry prize. Perhaps this was natural, considering the recent outcry against him: indeed from a social point of view it might even be considered a good sign. Much as the Augustans wanted remoralisation and tranquillity after the upheavals of civil war and restoration, so today we seem to desire a universally accepted morale-bestowing conformity. The arts acquiesce in this more than they seem to know. Indeed, such internal conformity often strikes one as virtually a product of its apparent opposite: widespread social and sexual toleration. We approve empowerment and being non-judgmental. But as the Foucault camp used to say – from a rather different angle – such tolerance is itself insidiously repressive. It is not the bourgeois who exercise it today, but the wider and more indeterminate Class of the ideologically sound.

So there was no question of being non-judgmental about Larkin. Not just because he was not PC but because his whole personality, as openly and flagrantly revealed in his letters and by his biographer, was seen to constitute a kind of outrage. Paulin and Jardine were quite right that the poetry reveals it all: it had already done so to anyone who had really read it and delighted in its personality. The personality was what mattered; and the fact that Larkin brought no ready-made outside attitudes to it – good or bad. Like his hero Lawrence he was shamelessly himself.

The attack on Larkin is thus fundamentally an attack on the idea of personality – personality devoid of the appropriate ideological trimmings. For Larkin that was what art was all about. He declined to enter into any discussions about it, merely saying that he knew what got him, what for him was ‘thrilling’. All forms of contemporary academic criticism reject such simple absoluteness, principally because English departments must ultimately be dedicated, even it only by the logic of their present-day organisation, to an ideas-centred pursuit of togetherness, a uniformity of response. Hence all official or quasi-official writing on Larkin gets him wrong. Larkin despised English departments (he got a First in one himself) and made no secret of his hilarity and contempt. They do not forgive him, however cleverly and enthusiastically they may have admired and dissected his poems; and publication of the letters and biography gives them a chance to show it.

The only comment on the subject which Larkin himself seems to have thoroughly approved of, and quotes in a letter, was by Clive James in his collection The Metropolitan Critic. ‘Just now and again James says something really penetrating: “originality is not an ingredient of poetry, it is poetry” – I’ve been feeling that for years.’ This suggests, among other things, how deep was his instinct for not bringing anything in from outside when he wrote: no idées reçues, no second-hand emotional baggage. He only ‘thrilled’ to the kind of poetry which did not do that, although he began by using other styles as models – Auden, Yeats, Hardy. He judged other poets of his time as phonies who used, not other styles but whatever attitudes were lying about, and were anxious to be in the swim. This in itself makes him an intractable subject for criticism’s comparative techniques.

Much deeper than any ideological objection, however, is our assumption today about the language of art, or rather language in art. Since Adorno’s and George Steiner’s assertions that the horrors of the concentration camps and the German final solution had made the language of poetry impossible, there has existed a lack of confidence in the potential of language to do more than stand by and wring its hands, as it does with each new atrocity in the utterances on radio and TV. Geoffrey Hill’s poetry has made something of a speciality in distrusting language in this way; inventing, as it were, a precise and searching idiom of distrust. But the real poet of these horrors, Paul Celan, had no such distrust. His vision of them is wholly individual, wholly his own; so that his words exist not beside the thing they describe but have become it. The language of real poetry can do that, and in so doing, as R.P. Blackmur put it, ‘adds to the sum of available reality’.

It is significant that no fewer than three reviewers of the Larkin biography quoted Auden’s epitaph on Yeats. Time, says Auden, ‘Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.’ ‘With this strange excuse’ it pardons Yeats and Kipling, and will even, seemingly, pardon Paul Claudel; and Larkin as well no doubt. But why the whole question of pardon, deployed with ironic lightness by Auden but now accepted dead seriously, should come into the matter is not easy to see. You do not pardon an aardvark for being an aardvark. Larkin, Celan, Auden himself, are all in their different ways originals. Their poetry is itself, and not another thing; with no trace of what the post-war German poet Günter Eich called ‘controlled language’.

In this context the idea of disapproval seems engrained in contemporary social attitude: all the odder, as I remarked, because in so many other contexts we are adjured not to be ‘judgmental’. Even Alan Bennett in this journal, friendliest of Larkin’s reviewers, found Larkin’s family situation and father ‘grotesque’ because of the father’s pro-Nazi views. But in those days eccentrics flourished, and views of all kinds were taken to be one’s own affair. It was not exactly toleration, more a kind of innocence, an instinctive respect for individuality. Post-war events have certainly seen that off. Anthony Burgess remembered in his review of the Larkin biography attending a fancy-dress party in 1941 dressed as an SS officer. Nobody took much notice. Today it would seem a vicious provocation or an act of tasteless bravado. Humour and ridicule, antidote and disinfectant, have all become politicised.

Larkin’s independence, or irresponsibility, is all the more striking because it was always there. Amis, Wain, even Conquest, were once conventionally of the left, as the thing to be: Larkin gave it all the cold shoulder. And they remained politicised in a way that he did not. He made fun of it all in his own way, as the late poem ‘Aubade’ makes a joke and a pose out of his horror of dying. Nothing in the proprieties can be more serious than a joke; and his certainly do not need the pardon and patronage that his biographer, or even the friendly reviewer, have given him. All tightly compressed poetry, Blake’s or Celan’s, makes a joke where ordinary language waffles or euphemises. ‘Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau.’ Celan’s joke is the best, or the worst, of all.

Since the biography and the letters the correct attitude to Larkin seems to have become a version of the rather snooty though reverberant epitaph which Mallarmé made for Poe: ‘Tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change.’ But death and immortal fame have not turned this poet into pure essence, not his writings. Larkin was his own Boswell, and the letters are just as much a work of art as the poems, with the same power of eliciting fascination, curiosity, hilarity. Who but Larkin would have signed off to one correspondent ‘Ogokuo (what happens if you type Philip one space along)’. Postmen, like doctors, carried such jests from house to house. ‘What use is an endearment and a joke?’ he ended an early unpublished poem about letter writing. Of course he knew that in the best poetry, as in the best letters, they are of paramount use. Kidding on the level was his natural sport, as Dr Johnson said that comedy was Shakespeare’s.

No doubt he really did have ‘a huge contempt for all “groups” that listen to or discuss poetry’; but he revelled in all kinds of ceremonial, because ceremony was both traditional and moving, and next door to farce. The Great Comedian rejoiced in the wickedly explicit (‘my own mind is so shallow that I can only respond to lighter poems, written in total explicit style’) because it concealed the fact that he really was a Good Egg, if not necessarily ‘one of the best’. When he had to move from the High Windows flat his despair was characteristically comical. ‘Abbey National bum. Neighbours bum. Rates bum. Retirement bum. Pension bum. Emergency bum. Cause for concern bum. After a long illness bravely borne bum. In his day thought to be representative of bum ...’ Bum – including his own and Mrs Thatcher’s was the time-honoured way of signing off a letter to Kingsley Amis. Childish stuff? His last letter to Amis ends: ‘You will excuse the absence of the usual valediction.’

The valediction, like the poetry, works by a sort of uncovenanted reversal. Grandeur comes out of diminishment in poem after poem – ‘Absences’, ‘Days’, ‘Coming’, ‘Ignorance’, ‘Sad Steps’, ‘Dockery and Son’, ‘The Old Fools’, ‘Going’, ‘Love Songs in Age’ – all of them. Like the ill-tempered priest and doctor in ‘Days’, running over the fields in their long coats, the heroic and the sublime make their reluctant appearance willy-nilly. It is the paradox of great art distrusted by Adorno and yet manifested in Celan: poetry becoming another thing – its language transforming the place of horror or the place of boredom. Can readers really feel depressed and lowered by Larkin? He seems to me to uplift, to be in a comic sense ‘too good for this life’, like the desecrated lady on the poster advertisement for Sunny Prestatyn. Even his fear of death can calm and satisfy ours. (After ‘Aubade’, he had a letter from a lady of 72 ‘saying she felt as I did once but now doesn’t mind’.) But, as happens with other great writers, everyone has their own Larkin. Mine is not that of his biographer Andrew Motion, whose good intentions seem to speak from beyond too great a gap in culture and time.