Larkin: An Overview

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.