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Philip Larkin: The Novelist’s Poet
Over at The Financial Times, Martin Amis wrote a lengthy feature on the “importance” of Philip Larkin.
He begins with a light historical lens:
How good/great/important/major is Philip Larkin? Instinctively and not illogically we do bow, in these matters, to the verdict of Judge Time. Larkin died 25 years ago, and his reputation (after the wild fluctuation in the mid-1990s, to which we will return) looks increasingly secure. And we also feel, do we not, that originality is at least a symptom of creative worth. Larkin certainly felt so. In a letter of 1974 he quotes a remark by Clive James – “originality is not an ingredient of poetry, it is poetry” – and adds, “I’ve been feeling that for years.” Larkin’s originality is palpable. Many poets make us smile; how many poets make us laugh – or, in that curious phrase, “laugh out loud” (as if there’s any other way of doing it)? Who else uses an essentially conversational idiom to achieve such a variety of emotional effects? Who else takes us, and takes us so often, from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom? And let it be emphasised that Larkin is never “depressing”. Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.
And continues to one of his major points, on how Larkin (himself a fiction writer in his early career) is more of a novelist’s poet than a poet’s poet:
It is important to understand that Philip Larkin is very far from being a poet’s poet: he is something much rarer than that. True, Auden was a known admirer of Larkin’s technique; and Eliot, early on, genially conceded, “Yes – he often makes words do what he wants.” But the strong impression remains that the poets, in general, “demote” Larkin on a number of grounds: provinciality, lack of ambition, a corpus both crabbed and cramped. Seamus Heaney’s misgivings are probably representative: Larkin is “daunted” by both life and death; he is “anti-poetic” in spirit; he “demoralises the affirmative impulse”. Well, these preference-synonyms are more resonant than most, perhaps; but preference-synonyms they remain (still, Heaney is getting somewhere in “The Journey Back”, where the imagined Larkin describes himself as a “nine-to-five man who had seen poetry”). No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.
And then, since controversy is crucial, we get a taste of some Larkin-bashing, which came, for the most part, posthumously:
The transition, if you recall, was prodigiously ugly and violent. It began with an attack by the poet Tom Paulin (in the correspondence columns of the Times Literary Supplement):
race hatred … racism, misogyny and quasi-fascist views … For the present, this selection [the Letters] stands as a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.
Here we see, up close, the fierce joys of self-righteousness. You will also notice how quaintly commissarial Paulin’s words now sound. For this there is a historical explanation. The Letters, and Motion’s disaffected Life, appeared during the high noon, the manly pomp, of the social ideology we call PC (aka Westernism, Relativism, and – best – Levellism). All ideologies are essentially bovine; and Paulin was simply the leader of the herd, which then duly stampeded.
Next, like a plodding illustration of the domino effect, came the business of “demotion”. “Essentially a minor poet,” decided one literary air-sniffer. “He seems to me more and more minor,” decided another. Yet another, in a piece nobly entitled “Larkin: the old friend I never liked”, suddenly spoke for many when he said that Larkin’s poems “are good – yes – but not that good, for Christ’s sake”. And so the trahison continued, slowly winding down as the ideology lost stamina. Its efforts were of course quite futile. Today, long After, Larkin is back to being what he was Before: Britain’s best-loved poet since World War II.
To read the rest, where Amis turns his gaze to a more personal assessment of Larkin’s standing, go here.