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Philip Larkin

May 17, 2013


Just in case anyone wanted to see a picture of Philip Larkin trying to breastfeed a woolly rabbit.

I sometimes forget that I’ve published on Larkin – dogged and devoted eighteenth-centuryist that I am.  And then I go to update my page – – and there it is, staring at me.

Always unsure whether liking Philip Larkin’s verse constitutes a “guilty pleasure” or whether liking him actually makes me “guilty” of something.  The terms “guilty pleasure”, like the use of “scare quotes” in general, serve to try to put an artificial frame or context around something that would otherwise get you into hot water.  No doubt about it, Larkin was racist, misogynist, imperialist and just about every unpleasant adjective that comes with “ist” at the end.  And there’s no separating the man from the work.  I think it was Terry Eagleton who once said that Evelyn Waugh was as good as a novelist could possibly be while still remaining a completely horrible human being.  I’m not sure that the same is true of Larkin, possibly because Larkin is far less happy.  Can a studied and fully inhabited pose of self-inflicted misery prove redemptive?  Larkin (“too easily bored to love) poses the question.

Do I think Larkin’s transcendent gifts render his bigoted and reactionary views irrelevant?  I do not.  I don’t have that kind of notion of artistic transcendence to begin with, and the slopes of Parnassus are not some Mount Purgatorio where vulgar politics get progressively shed as you get closer towards the top.  When reading Larkin, it’s important to stay angry, and then do something constructive with that anger.

But I can’t deny that his rhythmic perfection, his studied use of deferred rhyme, his choreographing of rhyme and half rhyme to illustrate how “prove” does not chime with “love” all take my breath away.  He was a nasty lonely man who was on to something.  That something did not save him, but might save the rest of us.

Larkin is someone for whom transcendence is only ever episodic and transitory.  It’s not that his epiphanic poems are “failures”, but rather that the failure of epiphanies to hang around long enough to do any good is heightened by the fact that epiphanic moments of breathless unexpected wonderment stubbornly refuse give up and go away.  The idealism sharpens the cynicism and the cynicism sharpens the idealism.  To assert (as Heaney does) that the ideal moments of revelation are what Larkin is “ultimately” about misses the essence (if there is an essence) of Larkin – a man and a poet who is not ultimately about ultimately.


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