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The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin

By Harriet Staff

First there was The Selected, then The Collected, and now The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, a soon-to-be-released compilation of all the poems— published and previously unpublished— that the poet ever wrote. 768 pages, folks.

The book, edited by the “Larkinesquely named” Archie Burnett (as a recent Guardian review points out), will be available in March and already it’s getting some attention. There’s that Guardian review, for instance, which calls Burnett’s view “both panoptic and microscopic,” continuing:

The critical apparatus he erects approaches the shaky heights of Babel, yet the wealth and profusion of detail within it would purblind Larkin’s own shivering sizar. There are moments too of unintentional mild comedy. Larkin, the most politically incorrect of poets, would have enjoyed, and snarled at, the citation Burnett offers from a fellow critic who, warning against a too literal linking of the poet’s life and the poet’s poems, “correctly insists that ‘An April Sunday Brings the Snow’ does not specify the sex of the ‘you’ addressed, the relationship of the speaker to that person, or indeed details of skin colour and ethnicity”. True, of course, and a valid point, yet one finds it hard to resist the urge to respond as Larkin would have done in one of his outrageous letters to Kingsley Amis, by saying: “Bum”.

Purblind his sizar? Dang. There’s also a long piece on Larkin in the January/February issue of Humanities, which tries to peel back the layers of Larkin’s carefully constructed persona:

Larkin put considerable effort into establishing his persona, not merely as the represented speaker of his poems but as a real-life working poet. He presented himself as a full-time librarian who, at the end of a day’s work, after preparing and eating his solitary dinner and washing up, wrote unpretentious and “unliterary” poems, based on common experiences and the emotions they prompted. He maintained that there was nothing extraordinary about what he did. He once said of the experience that inspired “The Whitsun Weddings,” “You couldn’t be on that train without feeling the young lives all starting off, and that just for a moment you were touching them… It was wonderful, a marvelous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

This is, of course, sheer fantasy. “Anybody” might have had a broadly similar emotional response to the wedding parties boarding the train at a half-dozen stops between Hull and London, but the claim that anybody could have written the poem is a secondary artifact of the mask that Larkin fashioned for himself.

One thing this new collection reveals, Humanities argues, is that Larkin’s writing process wasn’t as effortless as he would have us believe: “The appearance of poems he held back from publication revealed someone far more credible: a working poet whose impressive successes were sometimes hard won and whose commitment to writing was unremitting and lay at the core of his identity.”

Read the whole piece here.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.