Friday, April 13, 2007

The less deceived

(Both long overdue, and long…)

Four years ago, I swore that under no circumstances would I read anything written by Andrew Motion ever again. The cause? The Poet Laureate’s horrifically embarrassing poem ‘On The Record’ written to commemorate Prince William’s 21st birthday, the “A side” of which was (shudder) a rap.

So credit Alan Bennett and his glowing review of Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin which appears in the collection ‘Writing Home’ for inducing me to change my mind. It helped, of course, that like many a formerly angst-ridden Sixth Form poet, I already had a fascination with Larkin.

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‘Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life’ was first published in 1993, eight years after its subject’s death and one year after the publication of Larkin’s ‘Selected Letters’ edited by Anthony Thwaite, one of his literary executors and himself a poet. This volume of letters had effected a significant change in the way Larkin was viewed. During his lifetime and in the posthumous period preceding the volume’s publication, Larkin was regarded as something of a national institution, an endearingly grumpy and reclusive old man but a people’s Poet Laureate, “the greatest poet of his generation – someone who spoke for the disillusion of the post-war years and for the value of conserving traditions”. The letters written in private but now set before the public revealed him to be a frequently nasty, brutish and selfish man, a misogynist and lover of pornography who regularly and vehemently expressed distastefully racist and sexist sentiments and made snide and spiteful comments about others behind their backs.

The subsequent backlash against Larkin – both as a result of the letters themselves and Motion’s biography which took them as its primary source material – was immediate and loud. Suddenly, not long after he had been regarded as a canonical figure, people were asking whether he should even be taught in schools and universities. Wouldn’t that be grossly irresponsible and lead to the corruption of young minds?

Of course, scrutinising private correspondence for clues as to Larkin’s personality and temperament might be regarded as questionable in itself. Knowing he was dying, Larkin asked his long-term partner Monica Jones to arrange for his notebook diaries to be destroyed after his death, a wish his secretary and lover Betty Mackereth ultimately carried out. But he was less clear and even contradictory in what he said he wanted to happen to other papers, and had in his lifetime signalled some belief in preservation through his donation of a manuscript to the British Library; what’s more, he once commented that: “Unpublished work, unfinished work, even notes towards unwritten work, all contribute to our knowledge of a writer’s intentions”. While his letters naturally contained much more than simply reflections on his work, his literary executors came to the decision that it was in the public interest that they should be published.

How much can really be gleaned about Larkin from reading his personal correspondence? Motion, like Martin Amis, argues that there is a performative aspect to Larkin’s letters; he naturally tailored what he wrote to each individual correspondent, giving each what he knew or thought they would most like to hear and thereby caricaturing facets of his own personality. Fair point, and this is seen most clearly in the ranting misogynistic letters to long-term friend Kingsley Amis – sample quote: “Don’t you think it’s ABSOLUTELY SHAMEFUL that men have to pay for women without BEING ALLOWED TO SHAG the women afterwards AS A MATTER OF COURSE? I do: simply DISGUSTING. It makes me ANGRY”. But Motion does not excuse such performances, or whitewash over them; on the contrary, he generally accepts that Larkin held repellent views which were subsequently magnified for effect.

This then begs the question: does it actually matter what Larkin’s private views were? Do the attitudes and beliefs of the man have any bearing on the work he produced? Well, yes they do. In truth, there are in his poems hints of the bluntness, the cantankerousness, the misogyny, the reactionary politics which the letters were subsequently felt to have “revealed”. But - and this, for me, is the problem – there are also enough brilliantly original and striking images, deft poetic touches and epigrammatic phrases ringing with truth to make the poems live long in the memory.

So it was with a curious mixture of admiration and repulsion that I read Motion's biography.

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Motion observes of Larkin: “His story contains only a modest number of love affairs, almost no foreign travel, no games of Russian Roulette, no shark-fishing expeditions”. However, he goes on to add: “Larkin lived a much more dramatic and intense life than he let on, though it was performed on an inner stage rather than before the wide world”, before rightly making the link to the way in which his poetry teases the greater underlying significances out of the apparently ordinary and mundane. In this biography Motion attempts to do the same with Larkin’s life.

Larkin famously dismissed his childhood as a “forgotten boredom”, but Motion brings it to life in painting a convincing portrait of the dysfunctional nature of his family life and suggesting that his father – the Treasurer of Coventry City Council who openly expressed admiration for Hitler and had Nazi memorabilia on display in his office – was a powerful formative influence on the young poet. An awkward youth, he immersed himself in jazz and beery revelry at Oxford, affecting a laddish yet intellectual persona to mask his fear of academic failure and crippling sexual anxieties.

There are intimations of homosexual leanings or flirtations during his university years, Motion observing: “In his eventual roll-call of right-wing prejudices, he would make sure that blacks, women, children, trades unions, socialists and academics all got it in the neck, but homosexuality was almost never mentioned – or if it was mentioned, it was usually treated tolerantly”. His professed attitudes towards women and sex, often declared to Amis, betray a disgust at least partially explicable in terms of personal confusion and inadequacy: “Re sexual intercourse: always disappointing and often repulsive, like asking someone else to blow your own nose for you”.

Motion goes on to explain away Larkin’s predilection for pornography a little too charitably: “He enjoyed pornography … because he believed it was both cynical and romantic – cynical in obvious exploitative ways, romantic in so far as it implied (he thought) that sex was ‘too good’ for the tainted real world”. The posthumous revelation of the stash he kept in a cupboard of his office in Hull’s university library, and of the letters to Amis, Robert Conquest and others on the subject, not only came as a shock to some of those who thought they knew him best (including long-time lover and colleague Maeve Brennan, who was “astounded and upset” and “felt degraded by the knowledge”); it also meant that poems like ‘Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ (“My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose”) took on a more sinister slant, whilst others like the bitter ‘Love Again’ (“Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt / Someone else drowned in that lash-wide stare”) became even more difficult to stomach.

After graduation Larkin took up his first librarian’s job in Wellington, Shropshire, where he snobbishly claimed to “spend most of my time handing out tripey novels to morons”. A spell at the Queens University of Belfast Library followed and then, most famously, he took up a position at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, a city which Larkin claimed to like “because it’s so far away from everywhere else”. He held the position until his death.

Despite his youthful awkwardness with women and professed distaste for sex, Larkin found that women often yielded to his romantic advances – though this was itself the source of some torment, because it often meant they lost what was for him their initial allure. Motion traces how for much of his life Larkin successfully managed to string along two women, Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan, at once, each knowing about the other, and later seduced a third, Betty Mackereth, all the time fearful of being entrapped into commitment but keen not to be alone. Just as I felt was true of BBC2’s dramatisation ‘Love Again’ a few years back, Larkin is treated sympathetically by Motion, his personal anxieties and failings excused; there is by contrast little consideration afforded to those whose feelings he toyed with and whose lives he touched and in some respects damaged – understandable perhaps, given the nature of the book, but rather disappointing all the same.

And then, of course, intertwined with the dual narratives of his professional and romantic lives is a portrait of Larkin the writer. Motion makes judicious use of his subject’s creative work (as he does letters and diary fragments), and it’s not hard to see why he was praised for bringing a poet’s understanding to his subject, teasing out the nuances of familiar poems and relating them to the precise circumstances of their composition: “He was a candidly emotional and autobiographical writer who always disguised his self-revelations or passed them off as general truths”. However, Motion does also allow for poetic licence, for the fact that they may have been the “thought-adventures” (to use Lawrence’s term) of a man spiritually (and for much of his life physically) holed up in his own Romantic garret, living what Jones described after his death as very much a “a writer’s life”.

The success of Larkin’s second collection of poetry ‘The Less Deceived’, published in 1955, was problematic, because (as Motion argues) his work and indeed his whole sense of self was dependent upon an unhappiness he no longer truly felt; this was, after all, someone who once proudly proclaimed: “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”. He subsequently set about both belittling his own talent – writing a poem was, he suggested, “like laying an egg” or “like having a crap” – and becoming increasingly concerned with influencing the way in which his work was defined and received.

Of course, much of that definition and reception Larkin had no control over, and he was soon co-opted into the school of contemporary poetry termed The Movement by a journalist. Motion observes that “Critics and journalists enjoy making categories; writers aren’t always happy to fit into them”; but Larkin was pleased to be represented as a central figure within The Movement by fellow poet Robert Conquest in his seminal anthology ‘New Lines’. Conquest defined the poetry of The Movement in terms of its robustness and opposition to abstraction and Modernism (a cultural and aesthetic phenomenon which Larkin sniffily dismissed in his book of jazz criticism ‘All What Jazz’ as “a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century”.

If ‘The Less Deceived’ established Larkin as a talented poet whose work was “orthodox, formal, familiar and derived from middle England”, then his next collection ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (1964) “did more than confirm Larkin’s reputation; it turned his voice into one of the means by which his country recognised itself”. A grand claim on Motion’s part, but not easy to disagree with – much like his assertion that the collection “tackles the big, central issues of ordinary life in the language of ordinary speech, and makes them numinous”.

This ordinariness and simplicity marked a hardening of Larkin’s anti-Modernist attitude. Poetry should not be wilfully obscure; it should be accessible to all: “During this century poetry has been increasingly the preserve of academic English teaching. It is thought to be difficult, like higher mathematics, something that can’t be understood without preliminary study and teaching. Of course, some modern poetry is obscure, but to acquiesce in the notion that all poetry is obscure by setting up academic centres to explain it seemed to me the best way to ensure that it would go on being obscure, and probably get more obscure, which would be very much of a Bad Thing. To me, the only qualifications required for reading poetry [are] the understanding of the language it is written in, and a feeling heart”. As the editor of ‘The Oxford Book Of Twentieth Century English Verse’, he very deliberately made his selection of poems to be included so as to promote the sort of unfussy unpretentious poetry that he dealt in himself, a fact that did not go unnoticed by disgruntled critics.

It was for partly this reason that, while the poems which make up the collection which followed ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘High Windows’ (1974), remain resolutely accessible to a non-academic readership, their overall tone is increasingly sarcastic, angry and bitter – see for instance ‘This Be The Verse’ (one of the volume’s two most widely-known poems, the other being ‘Annus Mirabilis’). In some cases, though, anger and bitterness are ultimately supplanted by a wistful sadness (the poem which gives the collection its title being a key example) and he retains his flair for memorable epigrammatic conclusions.

Yet Larkin often felt an instinctive loathing towards such conclusions; Motion discusses “his habit of writing cynical graffiti on his own most monumental lines”. He and Monica may have gleefully defaced a copy of Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Flight From The Enchanter’, but the margins of his own early poems were filled with similarly scatological and savage commentary (“There is not a line of this shitty thing that is free from the most execrable vulgarity or BAD TASTE!!! Balls. Shit all”). Even in his later years, Larkin couldn’t resist what Motion refers to as “a pre-emptive and self-protecting irony”; on his manuscript beneath the celebrated last line of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (“What will survive of us is love”), he noted “Love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years”, while the manuscript version of ‘The Trees’, a simple expression of delight in spring and natural renewal, is undercut with the comment “Bloody awful tripe”.

The anger of ‘High Windows’ reflected Larkin’s increasingly belligerent opinions, particularly with regard to politics. He had long been sympathetic to the right wing, once famously remarking: “not being a political thinker I suppose I identify the Right with certain virtues and the Left with certain vices”; but now, besotted with Thatcher, he wrote to old friend Colin Gunner on Harold Wilson’s Labour government: “Fuck the whole lot of them, I say, the decimal-loving, nigger-mad, army-cutting, abortion-promoting, murderer-pardoning, daylight-hating ponces, to hell with them, the worst government I can remember”.

Other regular targets of his ire were literary contemporaries such as Ted Hughes and his mother Eva. Just as with Larkin’s treatment of the other women in his life, Motion is too indulgent in his subject’s treatment of Eva, towards whom he was generally doting but about whom he was often spiteful. However, ‘The Old Fools’ is in part an expression of disgust about his mother’s loss of faculties, but its miserable conclusion – that we will all ultimately experience “the whole hideous inverted childhood” – suggests that self-disgust is equally significant.

‘The Old Fools’ is one of several poems concerning aging and death in ‘High Windows’ (see also ‘Heads In The Women’s Ward’, ‘I have started to say’, ‘The Building’ and ‘Sad Steps’); it’s clear that they were issues playing on his mind. ‘High Windows’ was his last collection, and as his health and appearance declined his sense of self-disgust grew; in one portrait he bemoaned his “sagging face, an egg sculpted in lard, with goggles on”. “For old age come / Death’s terror and delirium”, Larkin noted morbidly at the end of ‘Heads In The Women’s Ward’, and they came for him on 2nd December 1985, my 8th birthday. It was fitting that a poet famed for epigrammatic conclusions should provide one for his own life; turning to the nurse on his death bed, he whispered: “I am going to the inevitable”.


The Philip Larkin Society

Larkin biography on Wikipedia

John Banville’s ‘Homage To Philip Larkin’ in The New York Review Of Books

Larkin microsite on C4 website

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