Philip Larkin has been called the other English poet laureate, though he is widely read in Europe and in the United States. Larkin’s idea of a poetry is the act of constructing ‘a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.’ Rarely interviewed, it is not an easy task to get an overview of his life or work other than from the work itself. Most of the data in this article comes from an interview he did with the Paris Review in 1982. What we are left with is a view of an essentially human poet, not striving to ‘change’ his readers, but simply to communicate with them.
Larkin’s father was a city treasurer and it looked for a while as though Larkin would end up as a serviceman, a teacher or in the civil service. In 1943 when he graduated from Oxford, his eyesight prevented him joining the Armed Forces and his stammering limited him as a teacher. The Civil Service turned him down. He wrote one of his two novels, Jill, at this time, a well-crafted work until the last section when the protagonist seems to reject society and lash out childishly. Working next at a library in Shropshire, he began to accrue professional qualifications, and by 1946 he had completed Jill, The North Ship, and his second novel, A Girl in Winter.
Larkin started living in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1955. After eighteen months (during which he wrote the poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’, which has as its theme the transitory nature of living in an anonymous room), he took a flat and lived there for nearly eighteen years, where he wrote the bulk of The Whitsun Weddings and all of High Windows.
He tended to write poetry in the evenings, after work, he said: ’I don’t think you can write a poem for more than two hours. After that you’re going round in circles, and it’s much better to leave it for twenty-four hours, by which time your subconscious or whatever has solved the block and you’re ready to go on.’
Larkin reported that he wrote short poems quite quickly, but longer ones would take weeks or even months. Interestingly, he stated that he was never sure whether he was going to finish a poem until he had thought of the last line. For him, this would come when about two-thirds of the way through writing the poem ‘and then it was just a matter of closing the gap’.
His motivation for writing poetry was because he felt that he had to, out of a ‘duty to the original experience’. Without any particular recipient or listener in mind, he wrote for ‘anybody who will listen’, but would not normally show what he had written to anyone.
Larkin preferred reading poetry to listening to it, and has some interesting things to say about the differences:
Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much - the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the ‘score’ that doesn’t ‘come to life’ until it’s ‘performed.’ It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music.
Words are, after all, linked to meaning in ways that music is not. A musical symbol on a page does not convey significance like a word. Music, like painting, takes an unrecognisable symbol or action and cumulatively turns it into something that has an effect upon a reader: writing, especially poetry, is sub-divisible into units of meaning which can have an effect that is not cumulative. In writing, of course, there is a cumulative effect, most notably seen in a novel:
I wanted to ‘be a novelist’ in a way I never wanted to ‘be a poet,’ yes. Novels seem to me to be richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems. When I was young, Scrutiny ran a series of articles under the general heading of ‘The Novel as Dramatic Poem.’ That was a stimulating, an exciting conception. Something that was both a poem and novel.
What makes novels ‘richer, broader, deeper, more enjoyable than poems’, at least potentially, is that their use of gaps, holes, emptinesses and silences is less intense. With less of these silences - used in poetry to accentuate meaning and rhythm - the reader is under less pressure: attention can broaden outward and relax to a degree.
For similar reasons, Larkin didn’t like plays:
They happen in public, which, as I said, I don’t like, and by now I have grown rather deaf, which means I can’t hear what’s going on. Then again, they are rather like poetry readings: they have to get an instant response, which tends to vulgarise. And of course the intrusion of personality—the actor, the producer—or do you call him the director—is distracting.
Larkin defined the novel a something that ‘should follow the fortunes of more than one character’ and claimed that his novels were more original than his poems: ‘A long poem for me would be a novel. In that sense, A Girl in Winter is a poem.’
And yet Larkin ended up being known for poetry rather than his two novels, and this, as mentioned, was driven by an impulse to preserve experience. Not just bland documented experience, though, but its aesthetic heart: ‘First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God,’ he said.
Avoiding the poetic trends of the twentieth century towards Irony and the use of increasingly obtuse metaphors and archetypes, Larkin’s approach to poetry made a virtue of provinciality. It was the local, the personal, the private and the pleasurable which he put into his poems, striving to blend the shape of the poem with its material: 'At any level that matters, form and content are indivisible. What I meant by content is the experience the poem preserves, what it passes on.'
This was at odds with the poetic style of his day, which thrived on the use of allusions, the more obscure the better:
To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots, but dodges the writer’s duty to be original.
Rather, the poet’s job was to relate a simple experience as comprehensively as possible:
My objection to the use in new poems of properties or personae from older poems is not a moral one, but simply because they do not work, either because I have not read the poems in which they appear, or because I have read them and think of them as part of that poem and not a property to be dragged into a new poem as a substitute for securing the effect that is desired. I admit this argument could be pushed to absurd lengths, when a poet could not refer to anything that his readers might not have seen (such as snow, for instance), but in fact poets write for people with the same background and experiences as themselves, which might be taken as a compelling argument in support of provincialism.
His approach was not focused on methodology:
No device is important in itself. Writing poetry is playing off the natural rhythms and word order of speech against the artificialities of rhyme and meter. One has a few private rules: Never split an adjective and its noun, for instance.
Rhyme was one of the few tools he fell back on:
Usually the idea of a poem comes with a line or two of it, and they determine the rest. Normally one does rhyme. Deciding not to is much harder.
Thus Larkin stands out as ‘anti-modern’:
It seems to me undeniable that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it, painting represented what anyone with normal vision sees, and music was an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones. The innovation of ‘modernism’ in the arts consisted of doing the opposite. I don’t know why, I’m not a historian. You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegan’s Wake and Picasso.
Likewise, basing judgements about poetry on their subjects was, in his view, misguided: 'Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.' This leaned towards an anti-didacticism, too: 'I’ve never been didactic, never tried to make poetry do things, never gone out to look for it. I waited for it to come to me, in whatever shape it chose.'
In terms of an overview, this placed Larkin, he thought, in a commonsensical tradition of communication, rather than an insanity:
A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognisable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.
Poetry remained a personal thing, rather than a social or intellectual action:
You must realise I’ve never had 'ideas' about poetry. To me it’s always been a personal, almost physical release or solution to a complex pressure of needs—wanting to create, to justify, to praise, to explain, to externalise, depending on the circumstances. And I’ve never been much interested in other people’s poetry—one reason for writing, of course, is that no one’s written what you want to read.
Probably my notion of poetry is very simple. Some time ago I agreed to help judge a poetry competition—you know, the kind where they get about 35,000 entries, and you look at the best few thousand. After a bit I said, Where are all the love poems? And nature poems? And they said, Oh, we threw all those away. I expect they were the ones I should have liked.
An endearing thought from a poet who endears his readers to him rather than alienates them.
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