The world of Larkin —Sarah Humayun

More than one critic has pointed out that the common reader, when he goes to poetry, doesn’t want simple fare; he wants the menu in French with unpronounceable names

The other day I picked up the books section of a local paper, and found a list of writers whose birthdays fall in August. Among them there was Philip Larkin, on August the ninth (1922-1985). Who can say if Larkin is a well-known poet or not, here and now, though I think he’s made it into some syllabi and some conversations. Taufiq Rafat thought him great and two years ago Zulfikar Ghose, speaking in Lahore, mentioned him with a frown.

I myself would rate him very highly. His poems are mostly short, beautifully formed, darkly funny, quietly sad, but never saddening. That in itself is good enough to recommend any poet. Larkin had, as well as all that, a certain attitude towards the whole business of being a poet that was, depending on how you look at it, provocative or repulsive, maddening or comforting.

It is said of him that he was provincial, a little England poet. This label, which Larkin so obligingly encouraged, has been a hot favourite with commentators. Very few writers have had the privilege of being believed on themselves; Larkin was one of them. And his avowed provinciality was only partly a pose. By wearing it like a blazon Larkin was admitting to the things he wasn’t or didn’t want to be.

He didn’t want to be a modernist, a movement he once characterised by the three Ps — ‘Pound, Picasso and Parker’. He didn’t want to reach for ‘tradition or the common myth-kitty’; ‘To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them…dodges the writer’s duty to be original’. He didn’t want to be difficult, which Eliot had pronounced a necessity for the modern poet. Of course Eliot liked his poems and he liked Eliot’s, and Faber under Eliot published The Whitsun Weddings.

This might pass for an old-fashioned conservatism that scorned the fashion for old things, except that Larkin’s desire to be simple wasn’t simplistic. In an interview he spoke of his dislike for poetry readings, saying that ‘this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page’.

It was on the white, emptied square of the page that the poem sang out, or not at all. Larkin didn’t want anything to come between the poem and the reader, not even its writer, or especially not its writer. He wouldn’t have two performers on the stage, the poem and the poet. Here somebody might see the continuity with Eliot, with his desire for impersonality in poetry. Or somebody else might note the extremism of this position, the longing to make the poems self-sufficient, perfectly communicative in their isolation.

This is possibly of no interest to the casual reader, and it was the casual reader that Larkin wanted to draw in, the one who might glance at a poem and then glance again. And might even sit down to read it, might flip idly through the volume, thinking poetry is not my kind of thing but… But even this might be too naïve a picture of Larkin’s readership.

More than one critic has pointed out that the common reader, when he goes to poetry, doesn’t want simple fare; he wants the menu in French with unpronounceable names. Perhaps Larkin best suits them who know their own appetites very well.

However, Larkin did explicitly invite a comparison between poetry and entertainment, saying that poetry ‘competes’ with, say, watching TV or a jog in the park. People will continue to ask why he framed the question in this mulish way. It is a dead end for educationists who argue for art on the strength of its ability to improve or ‘develop’ people. Indeed Larkin heaped scorn on the possibility, or danger, that the student readership might become the main audience for poetry in the west.

Those who are not inclined to brush this aside as simple philistinism may scratch the polemic in Larkin and discover a complex and tenacious understanding of the uses of art. For others there are the poems. They are about such things as loneliness, the failure of love, sickness, death, nature, work, the passing of time. The usual-unusual things. They are in an unpretentiously modern English, with a tone that can hit the registers of the profane and the sublime. Here I offer a very short sample (forty-eight words, short enough to get by even an exacting newspaper editor), which stands out even within Larkin’s luminous oeuvre, titled 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,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds

Source: Daily Times, 7/8/2008

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