Is the poet Philip Larkin a modernist?


Philip Larkin

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As a poet, Philip Larkin has often been seen as an anti-modernist -- that is, as a poet who consciously rejected many of the most influential poetic trends of the first half of the twentieth century. If one associates modernism with poets such as Ezra Pound (or even the more often more accessible T. S. Eliot), then Larkin is not a modernist as they were. He did admire the writings of W. H. Auden, but that is partly because Auden himself wrote in a style much less "difficult," much less arcane, than the style associated with the Pound of the later Cantos or than the style of Eliot in The Waste Land.

Consider, for example, the closing lines of The Waste Land:

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih    shantih   shantih

These are the kinds of highly allusive, highly puzzling lines (at least to a typical reader) that one can never imagine Larking writing. In fact, Larkin deliberately and quite vocally turned his back on much of the more obscure, overly intellectual, formally unconventional writings of the modernist poets who preceded him.

Larkin is not an intentionally "sophisticated" or anti-bourgeois writer, as Pound or Wallace Stevens often are, nor he is a given to extreme formal experimentation in the ways that, say, E. E. Cummings or William Carlos Williams are.  Instead, Larkins' poetry seems generally traditional in form and highly accessible in phrasing. He admired earlier English poets such as Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owen, and in fact England and the English are two of his favorite topics. In that sense, again, he represents a turn away from the highly self-conscious internationalism of many "modernist" poets.

Here, for example, are the opening lines of one of Larkin's best poems, "Aubade":

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

Here, likewise, are the opening two lines of another important Larkin poem, "Dockery and Son":

'Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn't he?' said the Dean. 'His son's here now.'

Larkins' poems seem simple in phrasing (although, of course, upon examination they prove far more complex than they initially appear). Larkin deliberately tried to write in a style that would make poetry relevant again to the majority of "common" readers.  As a member of the so-called "Movement," he was part of an intentional rejection of many of the perceived excesses of literary modernism. He much more admired the writings of John Betjeman than those of Ezra Pound. He represents, in that sense, a return to the grand tradition of poetry in English, a tradition often rejected by the modernists

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