Sunday, August 9, 2009

Philip Larkin: Aug 9 1922 - Dec 2 1985

Philip Larkin's "Church Going" is one of my favorite poems. His Required Writing was my constant and perfect companion on my trip to Provence in May; my other companion, a brother who speaks French, was ideal in almost all ways, but slightly less constant, inasmuch as there were a few afternoons which ended with him napping in the hotel room while I sat in one or another hotel lobby reading Larkin; in other words, without Larkin, I might have had some lonely moments.

When, as a young man at Oxford, Larkin encountered an older poet named Vernon Watkins, Larkin enthused about D.H. Lawrence's poems. Watkins said, "The shape of a poem by Lawrence is the shape of the words on the page; the shape of a poem by Yeats is the shape of the instrument on which the poem is played." Larkin writes: "I saw instantly what he meant and asked him if he thought form so important." "Poetry rhymes all along the lines, not only at the ends," Watkins pointed out. Larkin says that the older poet was never mean in his assessments of other poets: "Even the poets whose work he did not like he never abused, simply seeming to suggest that it was a question of scope, of range. 'Not a final statement, I feel,' would be his typical judgement."

Required Writing included interviews that had been conducted with Larkin. In one with The Observer Larkin said, "Actually, I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through in my writing. But it's unhappiness that provokes a poem. Being happy doesn't provoke a poem. As Montherlant says somewhere, happiness writes white. It's very difficult to write about being happy. Very easy to write about being miserable. And I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any -- after all most people are unhappy, don't you think?"

In response to a question about his own childhood Larkin said, "Well, I didn't much like other children. Until I grew up I thought I hated everybody, but when I grew up I realize it was just children I didn't like. Once you started meeting grown-ups life was much pleasanter. Children are very horrible, aren't they? Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes."

In an interview with The Paris Review he said, "Oh, no, I've never been to America, nor to anywhere else, for that matter. Does that sound very snubbing? It isn't meant to. I suppose I'm pretty unadventurous by nature, party because that isn't the way I earn my living -- reading and lecturing ... and so on. I should hate it. And of course I'm so deaf now that I shouldn't dare. Someone would say, 'What about Ashberry?' and I'd say, 'I'd prefer strawberry'" (Larkin was a lifelong librarian; writing was an avocation.)

"A writer once said to me, if you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast: the rest is a desert full of bigots. That's what I think I'd like: where if you help a girl trim the Christmas tree you're regarded as engaged, and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don't call on the minister. [This is] a version of pastoral."

From an essay titled "Books" he wrote: "I should never call myself a book lover, any more than a people lover: it all depends what's inside them. Nor am I a book collector: when a don asked me how many books I had, I really couldn't reply, but this didn't matter as all he wanted to tell me was that he had 25,000 or 50,000, or some improbable number. I was too polite to deliver a variant of Samuel Butler's 'I keep my books around the corner, in the British Museum', yet at the same time I felt a wave of pity, as if he had confessed to kleptomania or some other minor psychological compulsion."

I ran across a word I was unfamiliar with in Larkin's book: reminiscential. Isn't it anice word? And so useful to one who, like me, likes to write teensy bits of memoir.

In a review of the 1981 publications of Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, he wrote: "Up until 1959 Plath's poems lack what one looks for in any writer of stature: the individual note or theme by and with which he or she will henceforth be identified. Line by line they are often remarkable: in sum they are unmemorable. But in that year begins:

The day she visited the dissecting room,
They had four men laid out, black as burnt turkey,
Already half unstrung . . . .

The shock is sudden, and the possibility that she is simply trying on another style is dispelled by the two following pieces, 'Suicide off Egg Rock' and 'The Ravaged Face'. Plath liked them for their 'forthrightness', a word suggesting the abandonment of literary fancy in favor of plainer realism ... she had found her subject matter. It was, variously, neurosis, insanity, disease, death, horror, terror."

(In my own way, I say much the same thing in "Birthday Guy On Azalea Path", a scantily-literary essay I wrote a year and a half ago which has been published in Plath Profiles, a literary journal devoted to Plath, put out under the aegis of Indiana University, Volume II of which is available online at -- and I should say here, of course, that Philip Larkin and George Fitzgerald are but two of a countless many who have commented on the drastic change of tone in Plath's poems at a certain point in her life.)

(And, yes, it's fair enough to consider a portion of the above paragraph an unabashedly unashamed advertisement for myself.)

Later in Larkin's review of Plath: "Increasingly divorced from identifiable incident, [the late poems] seem to enter neurosis, or insanity, and exist there in a prolonged high-pitched ecstasy like nothing else in literature. They are impossible to quote meaningfully: they must be read whole."

Here's Larkin's wholly perfect and whole "Church Going":

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin lies dead in Cottingham Municipal Cemetery in what is now East Riding, Yorkshire.

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