My teenage investigations of poetry were a back and forwards motion between Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. Hughes was dark and passionate. Larkin was cool and sharp. Thirty-five years on I cannot say who are the great names in poetry: Paul Muldoon, Geoffrey Hill, James Lasdun, Don Paterson, Michael Hoffman; good poets and perhaps technically better than the previous generation but not big names.
My first encounter with Larkin was as editor of the Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, with its Stanley Spencer cover. There was a sense of decline in the book. An ample selection of Hardy, which I loved, was at the beginning. The light fun of the Mersey Beat poets fluffed up the end.
There was nothing light about Larkin himself. He produced very little work. I read Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, many times over enjoying the crystal clarity of the word-play and vaguely repulsed by the lack of generosity towards other people. All the same he was democratically snotty, not like Ted Hughes who was so disappointing in his grandiose egotism and infatuation with the tawdry English royals.
I loved what Larkin says about work: he wants work so that he doesn’t have to be a poet all the time. This is different from Hughes who made his life with his writing and, in spite of his aversion to confessional poetry, in the end making his life into his writing. Can we really say which is better? In an earlier post I put up the J’Accuse TV programme by Terry Eagleton. He was snooty about Larkin, saying that he had a dried up and dessicated lack of generosity in his spirit. He was, Hughes said, a “sniggerer”. Who is Olympian enough to cast the deciding vote?
What I find worthwhile in Larkin is the sharp aptness of the images he uses. In the video below he talks about “the fork side and the knife side “(38′). It is clever description of how one could write a poem, uniting the sides of the brain. It cannot be all emotion, he says. There has to be something impersonal. Although you are aware of his personality in the way he presents the images that occur to him he leaves enough space for you to enter as a reader, to recognise the image and ponder it. Reading a poem by Larkin is very much like picking up a curiously-worked stone and admiring its qualities.
He says that his childhood was uneventful: “The thing I remember from my childhood is, largely, boredom.” Perhaps it is precisely this experience of boredom that gives him that ability to pick so carefully over something with quiet attention to its details. There is a quiet dignity about his life in Hull from 1954. What a lonely place! Off the main line from London to Edinburgh so that few people want to go there. Strangely suited to this English eccentric who held racist, sexist and reactionary opinions but who was rather good at watching the world and writing about it without those opinions skewing the vision out of shape.
What do you think?