Cultural Cohesion, p.11Clive James
It should be obvious that Davie, while trying to praise Hardy as an artist, is actually diminishing him in that very department. Less obviously, he is also diminishing art. To look for a life-transforming theme, surely, is as self-defeating as to look for a life-enhancing one. Good poetry transforms and enhances life whatever it says. That is one of the reasons why we find it so special. In this case, as in so many others, one regrets the absence in English literary history of a thoroughly nihilistic poet. The Italians had Leopardi, who in hating existence could scarcely be said to have been kidding. Faced with his example, they were obliged at an early date to realize that there is poetry which can deny a purpose to life and yet still add to its point.
Larkin, Davie insists, follows Hardy and not Yeats. “Larkin has testified to that effect repeatedly,” he announces, clinching the matter. Yeats’s influence was “a youthful infatuation.” The ground is well laid for a thoroughgoing misunderstanding of Larkin on every level, and after a few backhanded compliments (“The narrowness of range . . . might seem to suggest that he cannot hear the weight of significance that I want to put on him, as the central figure in English poetry over the past twenty years”—narrowness of range as compared with whom? With people who write worse?) Davie buckles down to the task.
Hardy, we have already learnt, was neutral about industrialism because his technique mirrored it: his skill as a constructor implicated him. With Larkin it is otherwise. Larkin can feel free to hate industrialism because he has no special sense of himself as a technician: “The stanzaic and metrical symmetries which he mostly aims at are achieved skilfully enough, but with none of that bristling expertise of Hardy which sets itself, and surmounts, intricate technical challenge.”
By this stage of the book it is no longer surprising, just saddening, that Davie can’t draw the appropriate inferences from his own choice of words. Being able to quell the bristle and find challenges other than the kind one sets oneself—isn’t that the true skill? The awkward fact is that unless we talk about diction, and get down to the kind of elementary stylistic analysis which would show how Larkin borrowed Hardy’s use of, say, hyphenated compounds, then it is pretty nearly impossible to trace Larkin’s technical debt to Hardy. Not that Davie really tries. But apart from understandably not trying that, Davie clamorously doesn’t try to find out about Larkin’s technical debt to Yeats. And the inspiration for the big, matched stanzas of “The Whitsun Weddings” is not in Hardy’s “intricacy” but in the rhetorical majesty of Yeats. In neglecting to deal with that inspiration, Davie limits his meaning of the word “technique” to something critically inapplicable. Technically, Larkin’s heritage is a combination of Hardy and Yeats—it can’t possibly be a substitution of the first by the second. The texture of Larkin’s verse is all against any such notion.
Mistaking Larkin’s way of working is a mere prelude to mistaking his manner of speaking, and some thunderous misreadings follow as a consequence. In Larkin, we are told, “there is to be no historical perspective, no measuring of present against past.” Applied to the author of “An Arundel Tomb,” this assertion reminds us of the old Stephen Potter ploy in which a reviewer selected the characteristic for which an author was most famous and then attacked him for not having enough of it.
According to Davie, Larkin is a Hardyesque poet mainly in the sense that he, too, “may have sold poetry short.” With Larkin established as such a baleful influence, the problem becomes how to “break out of the greyly constricting world of Larkin.” Davie enlists the poetry of Charles Tomlinson to help us do this, but it might have been more useful to linger awhile and ask if Larkin isn’t already doing a good deal by himself to help us get clear of his dreary mire—by going on writing, that is, with the kind of intensity which lit up the gloom and made us notice him in the first place. Here again, and ruinously, Davie is dealing in every reality except the realities of art. He cannot or will not see that Larkin’s grimness of spirit is not by itself the issue. The issue concerns the gratitude we feel for such a grimness of spirit producing such a beauty of utterance.
Near the end of the book, Davie draws a useful distinction between poets and prophets. The prophet is above being fair-minded: the poet is not. The poet helps to shape culture, with which the prophet is at war. Prophetic poetry is necessarily an inferior poetry.
To this last point one can think of exceptions, but generally all this is well said, and leaves the reader wondering why Davie did not then go back and find something centrally and vitally praiseworthy in the limitations of the Hardy tradition. Because it is the Hardy tradition which says that you can’t be entirely confident of knowing everything that reality contains, let alone of transcending it. The Hardy tradition is one of a mortal scale. It does not hail the superhuman. As Larkin might put it, it isn’t in the exaltation business. That is the real point which Davie has worriedly been half-making all along. In a striking way, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is an eleventh-hour rejection of Davie’s early gods. Somewhere in there among the dust and hubbub there is a roar of suction indicating that the air might soon be cleared.
IV. THE NORTH WINDOW
To stay, as Mr. Larkin stays, back late
Checking accessions in the Brynmor Jones
Library (the clapped date-stamp, punch-drunk, rattling,
The sea-green tinted windows turning slate,
The so-called Reading Room deserted) seems
A picnic at first blush. No Rolling Stones
Manqués or Pink Floyd simulacra battling
Their way to low-slung pass-marks head in hands:
Instead, unpeopled silence. Which demands
Reverence, and calls nightly like bad dreams
To make sure that that happens. Here he keeps
Elected frith, his thanedom undespited,
Ensconced against the mating-mandrill screams
Of this week’s Students’ Union Gang-Bang Sit-in,
As wet winds scour the Wolds. The Moon-cold deeps
Are cod-thronged for the trawlers now benighted,
Far North. The inland cousin to the sail-maker
Can still bestride the boundaries of the way-acre,
The barley-ground and furzle-field unwritten
Fee simple failed to guard from Marks and Spencer’s
Stock depot some time back. (Ten years, was it?)
Gull, lapwing, redshank, oyster-catcher, bittern
(Yet further out: sheerwater, fulmar, gannet)
Police his mud-and-cloud-ashlared defences.
Intangible revetments! On deposit,
Chalk thick below prevents the Humber seeping
Upward to where he could be sitting sleeping,
So motionless he lowers. Screwed, the planet
Swivels towards its distant, death-dark pocket.
He opens out his notebook at a would-be
Poem, ashamed by now that he began it.
Grave-skinned with grief, such Hardy-hyphened diction,
Tight-crammed as pack ice, grates. What keys unlock it?
It’s all gone wrong. Fame isn’t as it should be—
No, nothing like. “The town’s not been the same,”
He’s heard slags whine, “since Mr. Larkin came.”
Sir John arriving with those science-fiction
Broadcasting pricks and bitches didn’t help.
And those Jap Ph.D.s, their questionnaires!
(Replying “Sod off, Slant-Eyes” led to friction.)
He conjures envied livings less like dying:
Sharp cat-house stomp and tart-toned, gate-mouthed yelp
Of Satchmo surge undulled, dispersing cares
Thought reconvenes. In that way She would kiss,
The Wanted One. But other lives than this—
Fantastic. Pages spread their blankness. Sighing,
He knuckles down to force-feed epithets.
Would Love have eased the joints of his iambs?
He can’t guess, and by now it’s no us
A sweet ache spreads from cramp-gripped pen to limb:
The stanza next to last coheres and sets.
As rhyme and rhythm, tame tonight like lambs,
Entice him to the standard whirlwind finish,
The only cry no distances diminish
Comes hurtling soundless from Creation’s rim
Earthward—the harsh recitativo secco
Of spaces between stars. He hears it sing,
That voice of utmost emptiness. To him.
Declaring he has always moved too late,
And hinting, its each long-lost blaze’s echo
Lack-lustre as a Hell-bent angel’s wing,
That what—as if he needed telling twice—
Comes next makes this lot look like Paradise.
“Wolves of Memory” from Encounter, June 1974
“Smaller and Clearer” from New Statesman, March 21, 1975
“Yeats vs. Hardy in Davie’s Larkin” from Times Literary Supplement, July 13, 1973
“The North Window” from Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 1974
“Don Juan in Hull” later included in At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979
4. An Affair of Sanity
Required Writing by Philip Larkin
Every reviewer will say that Required Writing is required reading. To save the statement from blinding obviousness, it might be pointed out that whereas “required writing” is a bit of a pun—Larkin pretends that he wouldn’t have written a word of critical prose if he hadn’t been asked—there is nothing ambiguous about “required reading.” No outside agency requires you to read this book. The book requires that all by itself. It’s just too good to miss.
Required Writing tacitly makes the claim that it collects all of Larkin’s fugitive prose, right down to the speeches he has delivered while wearing his Library Association tie. There is none of this that an admirer of his poems and novels would want to be without, and indeed at least one admirer could have stood a bit more of it. The short critical notices Larkin once wrote for the magazine Listen are, except for a single fragment, not here. As I remember them, they were characteristically jam-packed with judgements, observations and laconic wit.
If Larkin meant to avoid repetitiveness, he was being too modest: incapable of a stock response, he never quite repeats himself no matter how often he makes the same point. On the other hand there is at least one worrying presence. The inclusion, well warranted, of the prefaces to Jill and The North Ship can hardly mean that those books will be dropped from his list of achievements, but the inclusion of the long and marvellous introductory essay to All What Jazz, an essay that amounts to his most sustained attack on the modernist aesthetic, carries the depressing implication that the book itself, which never did much business, might be allowed to stay out of print. That would be a shame, because jazz is Larkin’s first love and in the short notices collected in All What Jazz he gives his most unguarded and exultant endorsement of the kind of art he likes, along with his funniest and most irascible excoriation of the kind he doesn’t.
Jazz is Larkin’s first love and literature is his first duty. But even at the full stretch of his dignity he is still more likely to talk shop than to talk down, and anyway his conception of duty includes affection while going beyond it, so as well as an ample demonstration of his capacity to speak generally about writing, we are given, on every page of this collection, constant and heartening reminders that for this writer his fellow-writers, alive or dead, are human beings, not abstractions.
Human beings with all their quirks. Larkin proceeds as if he had heard of the biographical fallacy but decided to ignore it. “Poetry is an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are.” But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that sanity can be hard won, from inner conflict. He has a way of bringing out the foibles of his fellow-artists while leaving their dignity at least intact and usually enhanced. To take his beloved Hardy as an example—and many other examples, from Francis Thompson to Wilfred Owen, would do as well—he convincingly traces the link between moral lassitude and poetic strength. This sympathetic knack must come from deep within Larkin’s own nature, where diffidence and self-confidence reinforce each other: the personal diffidence of the stammerer whose childhood was agony, and the artistic self-confidence of the born poet who has always been able to feel his vocation as a living force.
The first principle of his critical attitude, which he applies to his own poetry even more rigorously than to anyone else’s, is to trust nothing which does not spring from feeling. Auden, according to Larkin, killed his own poetry by going to America, where, having sacrificed the capacity to make art out of life, he tried to make art out of art instead.
It might be argued that if the Americanized Auden had written nothing else except “The Fall of Rome” then it would be enough to make this contention sound a trifle sweeping. It is still, however, an interesting contention, and all of a piece with Larkin’s general beliefs about sticking close to home, which are only partly grounded in the old anguish of having to ask for a railway ticket by passing a note. He is not really as nervous about Abroad as all that: while forever warning us of the impossibility of mastering foreign languages, he has the right Latin and French tags ready when he needs them, and on his one and only trip to Germany, when he was picking up a prize, he favoured the locals with a suavely chosen quotation in their own tongue.
Lurking in double focus behind those thick specs is a star student who could have been scholarly over any range he chose. But what he chose was to narrow the field of vision: narrow it to deepen it. He isn’t exactly telling us to Buy British, but there can be no doubt that he attaches little meaning to the idea of internationalism in the arts. All too vague, too unpindownable, too disrupting of the connections between literature and the life of the nation.
Betjeman was the young Larkin’s idea of a modern poet because Betjeman, while thinking nothing of modern art, actually got in all the facts of modern life. Like all good critics Larkin quotes from a writer almost as creatively as the writer writes, and the way he quotes from Summoned by Bells traces Betjeman’s power of evocation to its source, in memory. The Betjeman/Piper guidebooks, in which past and present were made contemporaneous through being observed by the same selectively loving eye, looked the way Larkin’s poetry was later to sound—packed with clear images of a crumbling reality, a coherent framework in which England fell apart. An impulse to preserve which thrived on loss.
In Required Writing the Impulse to Preserve is mentioned often. Larkin the critic, like Larkin the librarian, is a keeper of English literature. Perhaps the librarian is obliged to accession more than a few modern books which the critic would be inclined to turf out, but here again duty has triumphed. As for loss, Larkin the loser is here too (“deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”) but it becomes clearer all the time that he had the whole event won from the start.
Whether he spotted the daffodil-like properties of deprivation, and so arranged matters that he got more of it, is a complicated question, of the kind which his critical prose, however often it parades a strict simplicity, is equipped to tackle. Subtle, supple, craftily at ease, it is on a par with his poetry—which is just about as high as praise can go. Required Writing would be a treasure house even if every second page were printed upside down. Lacking the technology to accomplish this, the publishers have issued the book in paperback only, with no index, as if to prove that no matter how self-effacing its author might be, they can be even more so on his behalf.
Observer, November 25, 1983; later included in
Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988
To track the closing stages of Larkin’s career was among the delights of being a literary critic in the late twentieth century, but the pleasure was not unmixed. Larkin’s poetry was, and will always remain, too self-explanatory to require much commentary. Puzzle poems like “Sympathy in White Major” were few, and on the whole his work made
There was edifying fun to be had, however, in pointing out how Larkin’s incidental prose was of a piece with his verse. As a device for self-protection, Larkin was fond of proclaiming his loneliness, misery and bristling insularity, but his prose is there to prove his generous and unprejudiced response to the spontaneous joys of life. With T. S. Eliot, the essay on Marie Lloyd is a one-off: clearly he loved the music hall, but he never contemplated allowing the instinctive vigour of popular culture to climb far beyond the upper basement of his hierarchical aesthetic. Larkin never contemplated anything else. His poem about Sidney Bechet saluted the great saxophonist not just as a master, but as his master. For Larkin, pre-modern jazz was the measure of all things: he wanted his poetry to be as appreciable as that. His touchstone for the arts lay in what came to be called the Black Experience.
Helping to make this clear turned out to be useful work, because after his death the scolds moved in. They wanted to dismiss him as a racist, and might have carried the day if a body of sane opinion had not already been in existence. He was also execrated as a provincial, a misogynist and a pornophile. He was none of those things except by his own untrustworthy avowal, usually framed in the deliberately shocking language he deployed in his letters for the private entertainment of his unshockable friends. In his everyday behaviour he did the best a naturally diffident man can to be courteous, responsible and civilized at all times, and in his poetry he did even better than that. In no Larkin poem is there an insensitive remark that is not supplied with its necessary nuances by another poem. To believe Larkin really meant that “Books are a load of crap” you yourself have to believe that books are a load of crap. The arts pages are nowadays stiff with people who do believe that, even if they think they believe otherwise: all they really care about is the movies. There are people reviewing books, even reviewing poetry, who can read only with difficulty, and begrudge the effort. No writer, alive or dead, is any longer safe from the fumbling attentions of the semi-literate literatus. But here again, the exponential proliferation of bad criticism can scarcely deprive the good critic of a role—quite the contrary. There has to be someone to save what ought to be obvious from the mud-slide of obfuscation, if only by asking such childishly elementary questions as: if you can’t see that it took Larkin’s personality to produce Larkin’s poetry, what can you see? And if you can’t accept Larkin’s poetry as a self-sustaining literary achievement, what are you doing putting pen to paper?
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