Cultural Cohesion, p.7Clive James
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
Similarly, The Whitsun Weddings starts and ends without a mention of the author. The first poem, “Here,” is an induction into “the surprise of a large town” that sounds as if it might be Hull. No one who sounds as if he might be Larkin puts in an appearance. Instead, other people do, whose “removed lives/ Loneliness clarifies.” The last poem in the book, “An Arundel Tomb,” is an elegy written in a church crypt which is as sonorous as Gray’s written in a churchyard, and no more petulant: that things pass is a fact made majestic, if not welcome.
As for High Windows, the last collection published while he was alive, it may contain, in “The Building,” his single most terror-stricken—and, indeed, terrifying—personal outcry against the intractable fact of death, but it begins and ends with the author well in the background. “To the Sea,” the opening poem, the one in which the white steamer so transfixingly gets stuck in the afternoon, is his most thoroughgoing celebration of the element that he said he would incorporate into his religion if he only had one: water. “The Explosion” closes the book with a heroic vision of dead coal miners which could be called a hymn to immortality if it did not come from a pen that devoted so much effort to pointing out that mortality really does mean what it says.
These two poems, “To the Sea” and “The Explosion,” which in High Windows are separated by the whole length of a short but weighty book, can be taken together as a case in point, because, as the chronological arrangement of the Collected Poems now reveals, they were written together, or almost. The first is dated October 1969, and the second is dated January 5, 1970. Between them in High Windows come poems dated anything from five years earlier to three years later. This is only one instance, unusually striking but typical rather than exceptional, of how Larkin moved poems around through compositional time so that they would make in emotional space the kind of sense he wanted, and not another kind. Though there were poems he left out of The Less Deceived, and put into The Whitsun Weddings, it would be overbold to assume that any poem, no matter how fully achieved, that he wrote before High Windows but did not publish in it would have found a context later—or even earlier if he had been less cautious. Anthony Thwaite goes some way towards assuming exactly that—or, at any rate, suggesting it—when he says that Larkin had been stung by early refusals and had later on repressed excellent poems even when his friends urged him to publish them. Some of these poems, as we now see, were indeed excellent, but if a man is so careful to arrange his works in a certain order it is probably wiser to assume that when he subtracts something he is adding to the arrangement.
Towards the end of his life, in the years after High Windows, Larkin famously dried up. Poems came seldom. Some of those that did come equalled his best, and “Aubade” was among his greatest. Larkin thought highly enough of it himself to send it out in pamphlet form to his friends and acquaintances, and they were quickly on the telephone to one another quoting phrases and lines from it. Soon it was stanzas, and in London there is at least one illustrious playwright who won’t go home from a dinner party before he has found an excuse to recite the whole thing.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round . . .
Had Larkin lived longer, there would eventually have had to be one more slim volume, even if slimmer than slim. But that any of the earlier suppressed poems would have gone into it seems very unlikely. The better they are, the better must have been his reasons for holding them back. Admittedly, the fact that he did not destroy them is some evidence that he was not averse to their being published after his death. As a seasoned campaigner for the preservation of British holograph manuscripts—he operated on the principle that papers bought by American universities were lost to civilization—he obviously thought that his own archive should be kept safe. But the question of how the suppressed poems should be published has now been answered: some other way than this. Arguments for how good they are miss the point, because it is not their weakness that is inimical to his total effect; it is their strength. There are hemistiches as riveting as anything he ever made public.
Dead leaves desert in thousands . . .
He wrote that in 1953 and sat on it for more than thirty years. What other poet would not have got it into print somehow? The two first lines of a short poem called “Pigeons,” written in 1957, are a paradigm distillation of his characteristic urban pastoralism:
On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west . . .
Even more remarkable, there were whole big poems so close to being fully realized that to call them unfinished sounds like effrontery. Not only would Larkin never let a flawed poem through for the sake of its strong phrasing; he would sideline a strong poem because of a single flaw. But “Letter to a Friend about Girls,” written in 1959, has nothing frail about it except his final indecision about whether Horatio is writing to Hamlet or Hamlet to Horatio. The writer complains that the addressee gets all the best girls without having to think about it, while he, the writer, gets, if any, only the ones he doesn’t really want, and that after a long struggle.
After comparing lives with you for years
I see how I’ve been losing: all the while
I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours . . .
A brilliantly witty extended conceit, full of the scatalogical moral observation that Larkin and his friend Kingsley Amis jointly brought back from conversation into the literature from which it had been banished, the poem has already become incorporated into the Larkin canon that people quote to one another. So have parts of “The Dance,” which would probably have been his longest single poem if he had ever finished it. The story of an awkward, put-upon, recognizably Larkin-like lonely man failing to get together with a beautiful woman even though she seems to be welcoming his attentions, the poem could logically have been completed only by becoming a third novel to set beside Jill and A Girl in Winter. (Actually, the novel had already been written, by Kingsley Amis, and was called Lucky Jim.)
But there might have been a better reason for abandoning the poem. Like the Horatio poem and many of the other poems that were held back, “The Dance” is decisive about what Larkin otherwise preferred to leave indeterminate. “Love Again,” written in 1979, at the beginning of the arid last phase in which the poems that came to him seem more like bouts of fever than like showers of rain, states the theme with painful clarity.
Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery . . .
What hurts, though, isn’t the vocabulary. When Larkin speaks of “Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt,” he isn’t speaking with untypical bluntness: though unfalteringly well judged, his tonal range always leaves room for foul language—shock effects are among his favourites. The pain at this point comes from the fact that it is so obviously Larkin talking. This time, the voice isn’t coming through a persona: it’s the man himself, only at his least complex, and therefore least individual. In his oeuvre, as selected and arranged by himself, there is a dialogue going on, a balancing of forces between perfection of the life and of the work—a classic conflict for which Larkin offers us a resolution second in its richness only to the later poems of Yeats. In much of the previously suppressed poetry, the dialogue collapses into a monologue. The man who has, at least in part, chosen his despair, or who, at any rate, strives to convince hi
Larkin, in his unchecked personal despair, is a sacrificial goat with the sexual outlook of a stud bull. He thinks, and sometimes speaks, like a Robert Crumb character who has never recovered from being beaten up by a girl in the third grade. The best guess, and the least patronizing as well, is that Larkin held these poems back because he thought them self-indulgent—too private to be proportionate. One of the consolations that Larkin’s work offers us is that we can be unhappy without giving in, without letting our wish to be off the hook (“Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs”) wipe out our lives (“the million-petalled flower/ Of being here”). The ordering of the individual volumes was clearly meant to preserve this balance, which the inclusion of even a few more of the suppressed poems would have tipped.
In the Collected Poems, that hard-fought-for poise is quite gone. Larkin now speaks a good deal less for us all, and a good deal more for himself, than was his plain wish. That the self, the sad, dithering personal condition from which all his triumphantly assured work sprang, is now more comprehensively on view is not really a full compensation, except, perhaps, to those who aren’t comfortable with an idol unless its head is made from the same clay as its feet.
On the other hand, to be given, in whatever order, all these marvellous poems that were for so long unseen is a bonus for which only a dolt would be ungrateful. Schnabel said that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas were music better than could be played. Larkin’s best poems are poetry better than can be said, but sayability they sumptuously offer. Larkin demands to be read aloud. His big, intricately formed stanzas, often bridging from one to the next, defeat the single breath but always invite it. As you read, the ideal human voice speaks in your head. It isn’t his: as his gramophone records prove, he sounded like someone who expects to be interrupted. It isn’t yours, either. It’s ours. Larkin had the gift of reuniting poetry at its most artful with ordinary speech at its most unstudied—at its least literary. Though a scholar to the roots, he was not being perverse when he posed as a simple man. He thought that art should be self-sufficient. He was disturbed by the way literary studies had crowded out literature. But none of this means that he was simplistic. Though superficially a reactionary crusader against Modernism, a sort of latter-day, one-man Council of Trent, he knew exactly when to leave something unexplained.
The process of explaining him will be hard to stop now that this book is available. It is still, however, a tremendous book, and, finally, despite all the candour it apparently offers, the mystery will be preserved for any reader acute enough to sense the depth under the clarity. Pushkin said that everything was on his agenda, even the disasters. Larkin knew about himself. In private hours of anguish, he commiserated with himself. But he was an artist, and that meant he was everyone; and what made him a genius was the effort and resource he brought to bear in order to meet his superior responsibility.
Larkin went to hell, but not in a handcart. From his desolation he built masterpieces, and he was increasingly disinclined to settle for anything less. About twenty years ago in Britain, it became fashionable to say that all the poetic excitement was in America. Though things look less that way now, there is no need to be just as silly in the opposite direction. The English-speaking world is a unity. Britain and the United States might have difficulty absorbing each other’s poetry, but most people have difficulty with poetry anyway. In Britain, Larkin shortened the distance between the people and poetry by doing nothing for his career and everything to compose artefacts that would have an independent, memorable life apart from himself. There is no inherent reason that the American reader, or any other English-speaking reader, should not be able to appreciate the results.
Art, if it knows how to wait, wins out. Larkin had patience. For him, poetry was a life sentence. He set happiness aside to make room for it. And if it turns out that he had no control over where his misery came from, doesn’t that mean that he had even more control than we thought over where it went to? Art is no less real for being artifice. The moment of truth must be prepared for. “Nothing to love or link with,” wrote Larkin when he was fifty-five. “Nothing to catch or claim,” he wrote when he was twenty-four, in a poem that only now sees the light. It was as if the death he feared to the end he had embraced at the start, just so as to raise the stakes.
The New Yorker, July 17, 1989 ; later included in
The Dreaming Swimmer, 1992
2. On Larkin’s Wit
Larkin at Sixty, edited by Anthony Thwaite
There is no phrase in Philip Larkin’s poetry which has not been turned, but then any poet tries to avoid flat writing, even at the cost of producing overwrought banality. Larkin’s dedication to compressed resonance is best studied, in the first instance, through his prose. The prefaces to the reissues of Jill and The North Ship are full of sentences that make you smile at their neat richness even when they are not meant to be jokes, and that when they are meant to be jokes—as in the evocation of the young Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the preface to Jill—make you wish that the article went on as long as the book. But there is a whole book which does just that: All What Jazz, the collection of Larkin’s Daily Telegraph jazz record review columns which was published in 1970. Having brought the book out, Faber seemed nervous about what to do with it next. I bought two copies marked down to seventy-five pence each in a Cardiff newsagent’s and wish now that I had bought ten. I thought at the time that All What Jazz was the best available expression by the author himself of what he believed art to be. I still think so, and would contend in addition that no wittier book of criticism has ever been written.
To be witty does not necessarily mean to crack wise. In fact it usually means the opposite: wits rarely tell jokes. Larkin’s prose flatters the reader by giving him as much as he can take in at one time. The delight caused has to do with collusion. Writer and reader are in cahoots. Larkin has the knack of donning cap and bells while still keeping his dignity. For years he feigned desperation before the task of conveying the real desperation induced in him by the saxophone playing of John Coltrane. The metaphors can be pursued through the book—they constitute by themselves a kind of extended solo, of which the summary sentence in the book’s introductory essay should be regarded as the coda. “With John Coltrane metallic and passionless nullity gave way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions on not-especially-attractive themes during which all possible changes were rung, extended investigations of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity.” This final grandiose flourish was uttered in 1968.
But the opening note was blown in 1961, when Larkin, while yet prepared (cravenly, by his own later insistence) to praise Coltrane as a hard-thinking experimenter, referred to “the vinegary drizzle of his tone.” In 1962 he was still in two minds, but you could already guess which mind was winning. “Coltrane’s records are, paradoxically, nearly always both interesting and boring, and I certainly find myself listening to them in preference to many a less adventurous set.” Notable at this stage is that he did not risk a metaphor, in which the truth would have more saliently protruded. In May 1963 there is only one mind left talking. To the eighth track of a Thelonius Monk album, “John Coltrane contributes a solo of characteristic dreariness.”
By December of that same year Larkin’s line on this topic has not only lost all its qualifications but acquired metaphorical force. Coltrane is referred to as “the master of the thinly disagreeable” who “sounds as if he is playing for an audience of cobras.” This squares up well with the critic’s known disgust that the joyous voicing of the old jazz should have so completely given way to “the cobra-coaxing cacophonies of Calcutt
“I can thoroughly endorse,” wrote Larkin in July 1966, “the sleeve of John Coltrane’s Ascension (HMV), which says ‘This record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting.’ ” In November of the same year he greeted Coltrane’s religious suite Meditations as “the most astounding piece of ugliness I have ever heard.” After Coltrane’s death in 1977 Larkin summed up the departed hero’s career. “. . . I do not remember ever suggesting that his music was anything but a pain between the ears. . . . Was I wrong?” In fact, as we have seen, Larkin had once allowed himself to suggest that the noises Coltrane made might at least be interesting, but by now tentativeness had long given way to a kind of fury, as of someone defending a principle against his own past weakness. “That reedy, catarrhal tone . . . that insolent egotism, leading to 45-minute versions of ‘My Favourite Things’ until, at any rate in Britain, the audience walked out, no doubt wondering why they had ever walked in . . . pretension as a way of life . . . wilful and hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for serious consideration . . . dervish-like heights of hysteria.” It should be remembered, if this sounds like a grave being danced on, that Larkin’s was virtually the sole dissenting critical voice. Coltrane died in triumph and Larkin had every right to think at the time that to express any doubts about the stature of the deceased genius was to whistle against the wind.
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