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Is Larkin good for you?

Johnny Lyons

Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin, by Clive James, Picador, 95 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1529028829

In a brief interview (“Books that made me”, The Guardian, October 5th) coinciding with the publication of his latest book, the late Clive James responded to a question about the last book that made him cry:

It was 20 minutes ago when I was reading Larkin’s poem “To the Sea”. Sometimes I could swear his memories were mine. Although Australia and Britain have very different beaches, when he was near the sea he always thought it was his element.

James’s answer rings entirely and movingly true. He has been writing perceptively and lovingly about the poetry of Philip Larkin for most of his life. Indeed, one of the chief virtues of James’s lapidary essays on Larkin is their suggestion, perhaps even demonstration, that the more perceptive one is about Larkin’s poems the more admirable and lovable they become. The magic of James’s criticism is that it sends us running back to Larkin, having deepened and rekindled our admiration and enthusiasm for a poet who must surely count as one of the greatest in English literature.

My own response to reading James’s collected essays on ‘Don Juan of Hull’ is to consider the unfashionable question of whether Philip Larkin is good for us. The very idea of asking whether poetry is good for you may strike the reader as naïve or beside the point. For surely poetry’s purpose is to delight rather than instruct. The moment we moralise poetry, the argument goes, is the moment we murder it. There is, of course, much to agree with in this viewpoint, but there is also a lingering suspicion that it doesn’t quite encompass the whole truth. Larkin’s poetry, in particular, encourages us to take a more capacious view of the matter. This isn’t because his poetry is didactic in some straightforwardly moralistic way; indeed nothing could be more alien to Larkin than the vulgar notion that poetry is meant to make you a nicer person. Rather his poems, if we let them, awaken us to a certain sensibility that is not exhausted by an appreciation of their expressive originality and sublimity. In short, there’s an undeniable sense in which Larkin’s poems have the effect of making us a little deeper, perhaps even wiser too.

This isn’t to suggest that all his poems are edifying. Many are simply beautiful, and by no means any the less wonderful for that. Here are just a few marvellous examples:

Cut Grass

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
With lilac bowed
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

Or

            To the Sea

To step over the low wall that divides
Road from concrete walk above the shore
Brings sharply back something known long before –
The miniature gaiety of seasides.
Everything crowds under the low horizon:
Steep beech, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand, and further off
A white steamer stuck in the afternoon – …

Lines like these remind us how lyrically captivating and uniquely memorable Larkin’s verse is and why James’s remark that it “can still tear me to bits” resonates. They also reveal that his poems can be spiritually revitalising purely by virtue of their capacity to delight. And yet, as I wish to suggest, there are also poems that possess more than exclusively lyrical texture and beauty, that combine profound human insight with intrinsic poetic pleasure. Trying to define what makes Larkin’s poetry deep and edifying is far from easy and may well be foolish. For there is the real possibility that his brand of wisdom can be conveyed only at an angle or rather poetically, and that any attempt to distil it into prosaic prose is not only doomed to failure but amounts to an act of aesthetic vandalism. So, there’s a real risk here that what I’m about to say may be futile as well as unforgiveable. You have been warned.

A good place to start is with a characteristically acute remark that Clive James’s friend, the critic and novelist Martin Amis, makes about Larkin’s poetry. Amis claims that Larkin is very much a novelist’s poet. What he means by this is not just that so many of Larkin’s poems “read like distilled short stories, as if quickened by the pressure of a larger story, a larger life”. He also attributes the special attraction of the poet to novelists and “students of human nature” to the fact that the transparency of much of his verse gives us irresistible glimpses of “the mystery story of Larkin’s soul”. Amis then proceeds to give his own typically perceptive take on what the poetry reveals about its poet’s psyche. But rather than follow Amis’s lead and explore the enigma of Larkin’s soul, I shall use his observation as the prompt to explore the poet’s worldview. My own take is from the perspective of someone who wishes to know if it’s possible to derive any insights of general human significance from Larkin’s poetry. But first a very brief word about my un-Larkinesque-sounding “insights of general human significance”.

By using this term I’m not suggesting that we should seek to mine Larkin’s verse in the hope of discovering universal and perennial truths about the human condition. I’m enough of a historicist to be sceptical about the existence of such transcendent verities. Besides, it is by now too late in the day to entertain the idea that the world possesses cosmic significance. I’m more interested in the possibility that Larkin’s poetry may possess moral insights of a general though steadfastly untranscendent, godless nature.

So what might these insights be? They are, I suggest, the lessons that can be wrought from the kind of uncompromisingly undeluded but humane poetic sensibility of Larkin. The qualities that we might associate with what we might call Larkin’s realism would include a sense of scepticism, honesty, humour, ambivalence and even courage. If we were to use Larkin’s more favoured and evocative compound adjectives we might describe it as undogmatic, undeceived, unbelieving, unconsoling, un-Orphic and undaunted. As for the actual perspective on or view of life itself, Larkin’s poem Ignorance gives us part of the answer:

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure,
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so,
Someone must know.

With his typically light but unfailingly assured touch, Larkin conveys the inescapable subjectivity of modern life. No longer can we claim that any of our views about things of importance are grounded upon objective and unchanging foundations. The loss of the old, pre-modern reassuring certainties means that we have no choice but to rest our convictions on nothing more than our own personal and contingently-formed outlook. And yet part of us still can’t help yearning for the possibility that somewhere “someone must know” what’s really “true or right or real”. The disappearance of truth, or rather the acknowledgment of its absence, shouldn’t entail a strenuously ironic embrace of the arbitrary and meaningless. God, or the belief in God, may have rendered itself unfeasible, but we still find ourselves left with the residual and unending need to believe in the transcendent, in something more vindicatory than the mere happenstance of our own personal thoughts and feelings.

Nowhere does Larkin probe our unsatisfied and unsatisfiable yearning more honestly and unblinkingly than in his final masterwork, “Aubade”. There is a sustained depth and candour to this poem that stands comparison with the writings of any great modern thinker. It testifies to Larkin’s peerless gift of conveying in an authoritative but un-heavy-handed way the nervous, sweaty helplessness that accompanies the prospect of death. Within fifty lines of verse “Aubade” manages to tell us most of what we need to know about life and the end of life. If ever there was a poem to vindicate Amis’s claim that Larkin is a novelist’s poet, this is surely the pre-eminent instance. Indeed to describe “Aubade” as a “distilled short story” must qualify as an extravagant understatement, up there with Woody Allen’s joke that, after taking a speed-reading course and then having read War and Peace, he could confidently state that it “involves Russia”. Between the dismal and chilling opening and the semi-stoical but no less disturbing close, we are given a spellbinding master-class on the felt reality of our own fear of dying. Larkin’s unflinching confrontation with the fact of his own “unresting death”, a sense that life has shaped us and not we ourselves (“an only life can take so long to climb / free from its wrong beginnings, and may never”), his knowing rejection of the by now self-evidently false consolations of religious belief (“created to pretend we never die”) and of secular rationalism (“specious stuff that says No rational being / Can fear a thing it will not feel”), the virtually uncomprehending but no less frightening “emptiness” that our death will bring and “for ever”, our vain attempts at denial even though “Death is no better whined at than withstood”, and then finally the recognition that we are left paralysed before that thing “we can’t escape, yet can’t accept”.

But isn’t all this simply a reconfirmation, albeit a particularly marvellous one, of Pope’s famous definition of poetry as “what oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest”? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Larkin’s poems magically transmute the leadenness of life into something distinctly unleaden. No, in the sense that it can hardly be true to say that “Aubade” is merely a poetic version of what we all already know.

If it were the case that Larkin’s poetry encapsulates in beautiful and unforgettable language what everybody is aware of, then it would seem we are faced with a truly staggering case of stubborn human denial on a virtually universal scale. I suspect that Larkin’s perspective is not that widespread at all. And it’s this same suspicion that makes me think that Larkin is good, even vital, for us. One of the reasons we are still needlessly floundering in the darkness of confused and confusing thoughts and feelings is because we haven’t imbibed enough of him. Before I try to explain in more tangible terms what makes Larkin’s poetry edifying, it’s worth saying something about his poetic style. Pope’s concise description of poetry is fine as far as it goes, but its problem is that it doesn’t go very far; it’s not nearly fine-grained enough.

Amis identified a major component of Larkin’s style when he emphasised the transparency of his poetry. There is also his signature lucidity and precision of expression as well as the impression we have that his poems are hardly aware of themselves as poetry in any grand or affected sense. His poetry fulfils Orwell’s ideal of good writing, in that it possesses the virtue of being as clear “as a windowpane”. To achieve such an effect in prose is rare, but to accomplish it in poetry is exceptional. Larkin manages to be supremely poetic by being self-consciously unpoetic. Moreover, as Orwell also insisted, a writer’s style is not a trivial thing: it tells us something important about the integrity of the writer and of his message. This is particularly true of Larkin’s style: the form of his poetry is so intimately connected with its content. The poet Derek Walcott articulates this feature of Larkin less blankly than I can:

No other poet I know of makes the reader an intimate listener as well as Larkin does. The poems are not confessional, they are shared with the reader, with the joke always turning on Larkin. He would never write:
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.
The Eliot line is too heraldically plangent. Larkin would describe the spoon. When he eats “an awful pie” at a railway station, the pie is not the symbol – a tacky epiphany. He will continue to eat more pies. “I have measured out my life in awful pies” would be closer to his experience. The railway platform goes on; the awful pies are eaten. The poet does not separate himself from the others in the cheap restaurant.

It is precisely this instinct or commitment not to “separate himself from” the reader, or from humanity at large, that informs his spare, metonymic style of writing. There’s a kind of robust democratic or at least anti-elitist impulse at work here that reflects an overriding desire to be understandable or, at the very least, not to allow highfalutin language to be the reason for obscuring what he is seeking to convey. Larkin’s remarkable talent lay in discovering a way of combining clarity of meaning with loveliness of expression in poems that feel “as naturally as leaves to a tree”. This isn’t merely to repeat the virtual bromide that his style is inseparable from what he has to say. It’s that his wholeness as a poet and as a person rendered him incapable of leaving us with a poem that failed to fulfil such a demanding and unforgiving standard. Larkin’s best poems are, as James reminds us in a superb New Yorker essay, “poetry better than can be said. […] Larkin had the gift of reuniting poetry at its most artful with ordinary speech at its most unstudied – at its least literary.” James captures this unique and arresting quality of Larkin in the following almost Larkinesque lines in “A Valediction for Philip Larkin”, a poem he wrote in the wake of hearing that Larkin had died:

They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,
Except for being absolutely it.

The unadorned profundity of the sentiment conveyed in his last long poem, “Aubade”, was not a one-off. This isn’t to say that all his poems are preoccupied with death, though many of them are, even from a relatively early age: his “On Being Twenty-Six”, for example, reflects an almost comically premature sense of the loss of youth, missed opportunities and the growing shadow of Father Time. But there are other equally central themes and priorities which recur throughout his sparse but flawless poetic output. These include the centrality and importance of having a keen sense of humour:

When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in silent pledge:
He devoted his life to others …
      “Sympathy in White Major”

The equally important if retrospective fact that most, if not all, of the decisions we have made in our lives are clueless and involve regret:

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
         “Dockery and Son”

The misunderstanding and hurt caused by the generation gap and the sense of understanding and forgiveness that should spring from the recognition of its inevitability:

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,|
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
     “This Be the Verse”

The joy to be gained from leading an unassuming and gentle life and not being too strident and full of ourselves:

May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents;
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching at happiness is called.
          “Born Yesterday”

The importance of empathic imagination and of seeking to explore the insights it can disclose:

Now it’s a phrase applicable to no one,
Lying just where you left it, scattered through
Old lists, old programmes, a school prize or two,
Packets of letters tied with tartan ribbon –
Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless, wholly
Untruthful? Try whispering it slowly.
No, it means you. Or, since you’re past and gone,

It means what we feel now about you then:
How beautiful you were, and near, and young.
      “Maiden Name”

Never to lose sight of the preciousness of non-human life and what it can tell us about ourselves:

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless;
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set.
   “The Little Lives of Earth and Form”

The strange and unsettling fact that marriage can end up being a paradoxical and painful journey of growing nearer apart:

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest …
… It becomes still more difficult to find|
Words at once true and kind
Or not untrue and not unkind.
        “Talking in Bed”

These are just some of the themes that are so truthfully and memorably treated in Larkin’s poems. There are, of course, many others that one could highlight, including our wanton and, by now, seemingly irreversible destruction of the natural world (“Going, Going”), the unfading importance of being courteous and kind (“To the Sea”, “The Mower”), the irretrievable loss of pre-1914 innocence (MCMXIV), the quiet inspiration we can take from nature’s example (“The Trees”), the elusiveness and even vanity of happiness (“High Windows”), the stubborn persistence of our childhood memories (“Home is so Sad”), the all-things-considered consolations of work (“Toads Revisited”).

But apart from the endless pleasure that Larkin’s poetry provides, what is the cumulative effect of reading and rereading his poems? Can we say that the impression left by his verse adds up to a position, a vision even? I think we can, but it’s not an outlook in any kind of metaphysically grand or morally strident sense. It’s also not a position that assumes it can hubristically supplant all others. It’s one that is consistently deflationary but never belittling of life, that recognises the absurdity of the world but without an ounce of existentialist melodrama or smug irony, that has given up the ghost of God but still finds spiritual solace in “churchgoing”, that’s prepared to say that “all books are crap” while affirming that we’d be lost without them, and that never loses sight of the importance of having a seriously developed and genuinely self-deprecating sense of humour.

But why should we think this is good for us? Well, one of the main benefits of reading Larkin is that it helps change our conception of what good means or at least might mean. He achieves this by broadening or, better still, deepening our understanding of the good. After reading Larkin, it becomes peculiarly difficult to retain our preconceived, unsceptical notion that the good is necessarily optimistic or inspirational, let alone pious or cosily moralistic. Rather it becomes far more natural and necessary to see the world as a largely cold and comfortless place where only the most exiguous and ephemeral forms of meaning and pleasure are derivable.

The eminent critic Christopher Ricks was definitely on to something when he compared Larkin’s unsanguine view of the world with that of Dr Johnson:

“Human life”, Johnson said, “is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” Life is not something that can be made better other than palliatively (not that this is nothing), and life cannot be bested. Or worsted. Except by death. “Experience makes literature look insignificant beside life, as indeed life does beside death,” Larkin wrote.

There is much to learn from Ricks’s observation. His remark that life can be treated only palliatively strikes just the right chord with Larkin’s equivocal view of the world. Larkin is realistic and honest enough to declare the relative paltriness of poetry compared with the solidity of life, and then the relative paltriness of life compared with the certainty and finality of death. But we shouldn’t forget the inclusion of the not insignificant caveat “look” in the above quote from Larkin: literature is not rendered worthless by life or death. On the contrary, it’s one of the few palliatives that genuinely helps.  

 I mentioned above that Larkin’s position or perspective on life and literature is not one that should replace all others. Too much of Larkin, like anything or anyone in life, is hardly good for you. His unceasingly unsentimental and occasionally dyspeptic view of the world is perhaps only endurable alongside other more cheerful poets and perspectives. This is the way I would suggest we read, for example, Seamus Heaney’s critique of what he perceived as the almost wanton bleakness of Larkin’s last long poem,. Heaney remarks that “For all its truth-breaking truths and beauties, ‘Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called the ‘spiritual intellect’s great work’.” One can identify with Heaney’s qualms about Larkin’s coming down on the side “of chemical law and mortal decline”, as well as with his desire not to see poetry lose its commitment and capacity to affirm the positive side of life, the part, as he says, “that makes the Orphic effort to haul life up the slope against all the odds”. But one doesn’t have to come down on one side or the other. What we have here is what Hegel might have described as a conflict between “right and right”. To admit the possibility that there is truth in Larkin’s view as well as in Heaney’s objection is not to say that everything is relative. It is merely to affirm that poetry has the power to bear witness to the many-sidedness of life and that no single poetic perspective is ever comprehensive enough to exhaust the truth of life’s variegated and integral variety.

A defining characteristic of all genuine art is, as Martin Amis acutely avers, its inability to lower our spirits, even if its message is irredeemably gloomy or, at times, unbearably sad. The artistic genius of Larkin’s poetry rests, at least in part, on his gift of somehow sublimating our appreciation of life by amplifying its ordinariness. The overall, unerring effect is to elevate rather than diminish the bittersweet experience of life. Nowhere is the persistent ambivalence of Larkin’s poetry more movingly and irresolvably expressed than in the closing lines of “An Arundel Tomb”:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

1/12/1019

Johnny Lyons taught political theory at Trinity College Dublin before joining the commercial world. He is the author of The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, which will be published by Bloomsbury in January.

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