Larkin, Philip 1922–
Larkin is a British poet, novelist, and essayist. The subject of his poetry is his personal experience, the setting that of common provincial life. Larkin has consistently rejected what he feels to be the obscure symbolism of contemporary poetry and its focus on aesthetic problems. His concerns are humanistic, and a recurrent theme is man in his relationship to nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The unanswerable perfection of [Larkin's] best poems, the inevitable finish which leaves nothing to be said, are so apparent that one has heard such comments as, 'Yes, marvellous—but minor', as if perfection implied diminution. Such ladder-ratings get one nowhere. Who is the greater—Mozart or Beethoven?
Innocence, the pathos and grim humour of experience, the poignancy of the past (whether one's own remembered past or the imagined past of another century), the change and renewal of nature, the dread of the future, death and all that leads up to it and away from it: such listing of the subject-matter of Larkin's recent poems quickly runs itself into flat abstractions, totally lacking the precise circumstantial figurativeness and sensitive cadences of the poems themselves. Larkin has said that a good poem is both 'sensitive' and 'efficient'—two more abstractions, but ones that are given flesh when one reads such poems as "Sad Steps", "The Explosion", "The Building", all published during the past few years. "The Building" opens with a typically dense and carefully selected proliferation of impressionist detail, so organised that it is only gradually one realises that the place being described is a hospital: as in the classic "Church-Going" and "The Whitsun Weddings", the detail is an embodiment of the poem, not the casual decoration its colloquial ease at first suggests…. (p. 59)
And in the end, relentlessly...
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For the most part the poets of the 1950s, and particularly Philip Larkin, reject the traditions of their immediate past. Their poetry represents a revival of a tradition associated with Hardy and kept alive only through the vigour and persistence of poets like Robert Graves. Their distrust of political programmes or religious or philosophical ideas is profound; their hatred of the "old gang," whose faith in programmes and ideas led Europe into six years of slaughter, runs deep. In poetry they took pride in their craft, and in experience they felt themselves carefully forward taking nothing on trust—not even themselves. The poetry of Philip Larkin defines the mood of this post-war generation with great sensitivity. (p. 142)
The North Ship was generally regarded as promising but poetically immature and surprisingly Georgian in tone, and his reputation rests on the poems of The Less Deceived together with the few poems he has since published in journals and magazines…. [His novels] Jill and A Girl in Winter, both of which were written before 1946,… are bleak and pessimistic to the point almost of nihilism.
The strength of Philip Larkin's poetry lies in the sheer elegance of his craftsmanship, in the cool detachment of himself from his poetry, and in his tone. It is this sense of tone—in Larkin a delicate but precise irony continually undercutting the composure of the poem, largely self-directed but also used as a defensive intelligence through which to define the ambiguity of his attitude. Larkin is breaking new ground in English poetry; his poetry defines the attitudes of his time in his concern with the world of the individual unwilling to commit himself to ideas—philosophical, social, or even personal—and at the same time a world nonetheless concerned with these issues. He has managed to create a kind of poem in which he can set a space, a tension, between himself and the poem and within this space manipulate, mainly through irony (the holding of two or more often contradictory attitudes simultaneously), a considerable range of attitudes that he clarifies with subtle intelligence and vigour. The ambiguity is removed from image and metaphor … and is clearly suggested through texture and tone. He refuses—even in personal relationships—to commit himself through word and gesture, to lose his freedom by bringing himself to any statement or positive attitude, and his poetry reflects a world in which feeling and intelligence are actively engaged but in the manner of eighteenth-century scepticism. An intense sense of personal integrity, an urbane and sensitive intelligence, and a healthy, honest scepticism combining with a brilliantly polished control of poetic technique are the qualities admired and imitated by his contemporaries. (pp. 142-43)
Larkin's poetry is a direct expression of the sensitive and intelligent mind's refusal to be taken in [by causes]. As a writer he has avoided the literary, the metropolitan, the group label, and embraced the nonliterary, the provincial, and the purely personal. He embraces the uncertainties of life with all its contradictions and refuses illusions even where he would be most willing to accept them. His rejection of the past, the literary past and his own, is part of the pattern of his feeling that we can only honestly know the present, the now, and cannot honestly respond to this if we are at the same time committing ourselves to the future—"the past is past and the future neuter."… There is no self-pity in Larkin and he refuses sentimentality by withdrawing from experience at that point where it is necessary to make a choice, and no disillusion because he refuses all illusion—his ironic detachment is comprehensive. Even the intense beauty that his poetry creates is created by balancing on a keen ironic edge. His subjects in the end are the great commonplaces of life—time, suffering, love and death—and the final beauty is derived from a deep and moving source of...
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[In his third collection, High Windows], as in The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings (one small and dazzling book every 10 years), [Larkin] writes with enormously concentrated, incandescent transparency about achingly intimate, precisely observed, familiar figures that fill him at once with parched despair and an affection so tainted with regret that it has all but been stifled….
Not for him the grand gestures of Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas, the visionary ego of Yeats, the formal revolutions of Eliot and Pound. "Content alone interests me," he declares. "Content is everything." He fits with unresisting precision into traditional structures (and can also stand them hilariously on their heads), filling them with the melancholy truth of things in the shrunken, vulgarized and parochial England of the 1970s.
And what marvelous freshness and wit he bestows on the drab forms! …
What sustains Larkin, this bleak and wintry spirit, is not the cozy backward glance to a better, smaller, greener England. He prefers the past, yet he is not sentimental. Rather, through his fanatically clear-eyed intelligence, refining and defining the shards of ancestral memory and contemporary fact, he offers an extraordinarily powerful, if wholly unaggressive, kind of resistance—the unworldly but perfect triumph of imagination over the dry rot of despair. And because he writes with anguished lucidity, Larkin is not only admired by the critics of Great Britain, he is bought and read by the thousands. Since the death of Robert Frost, whose way of seeing was not unlike his own, Philip Larkin has had no American counterpart.
Pearl K. Bell, "Poets of Our Times," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 26, 1975, p. 5.
The Librarian of Hull gives you recognizably the same product in his latest book [High Windows] as he did in his first, The North Ship, twenty years earlier. If you like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing you like. I love it. Spare, evocative, heroically lucid, disabused, savage, understated, funny, brutal, subtle, the antithesis of Roethke's Open Houses and Rich's engagements, these are the supreme ordinary language poems, poems of desperate clarity and restraint and besieged common sense. And what they mostly say is, be beginning to despair, despair, despair. If Roethke is the poet of roots and shoots and sheath-wet beginnings, Larkin's the expert on ending up. (p. 398)
Twenty-four poems in ten years: that's a little better than one every six months. But as Virginia Woolf said of Milton, it's what's not written that counts too, it's the depth at which the options were taken, the commitments made, the decisions not to publish. What we do get in High Windows is much in little. These compressed, elegant, laconic poems are a little like the windfall apples Anderson described in Winesburg. Raunchy looking, they contain secret pockets of sweetness that do you more good than the shiny waxed stuff in the supermarkets. (p. 399)
Larkin is tough, even brutal, but also he's subtle and tender. Very much the poet of limitations, of wry, coerced common sense, he nonetheless turns on you...
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[After "Jill" and "A Girl in Winter," Larkin's fiction] stopped dead. As Larkin has ruefully explained, he waited for more fiction to come—but it never did.
Why? Well, the two novels we have provide what clues there are. In this respect "Jill" (1946) is the less significant book. It is less significant because anyone could have written it—or, to put the point more exactly, it needn't have been written by Philip Larkin. Blending fantasy and self-absorption in the usual first-novel style, it recounts the gaucheries of a furtive, owlish working-class boy during his first term at Oxford: the hero's queasy sense of social inferiority, his emulation of a dissolute roommate, and his own graceless erotic...
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Never having felt quite comfortable with the various notions of poetry derived from others, [in the late 1940s Larkin] realized that he could depend on his own feelings for the appropriate manner in which to present such material. He learned from Thomas Hardy that his own life, with its often casual discoveries, could become poems, and that he could legitimately share such experience with his readers. From this lesson has come his belief that a poem is better based on something from "unsorted" experience than on another poem or other art.
The technical key to such poetry is, of course, clarity, while its bane is obscurity. (p. 27)
Larkin's views on art and literature match very...
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