In his quiet, modest fashion, Philip Larkin has established himself as one of the six or seven best poets currently writing in English, along with his fellow Britons Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, the Irishman Seamus Heaney, and the Americans A. R. Ammons, James Merrill, and John Ashbery. Larkin’s first collection of verse, The North Ship (1945), showed an infatuation with William Butler Yeats’s verbal music, which he abruptly abandoned in the early 1950’s, converting instead to the autumnal-wintry terrain of Thomas Hardy, distrustful of complex gestures and mythic postures, stressing the narrow human limits of a nontranscendent universe. The Less Deceived (1955), Larkin’s next collection, stressed his newly rediscovered sense of a native English tradition of stepped-down possibilities and simple, discursive statements. He maintained his deliberate pace of issuing slim collections of his poems once a decade with The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). Asked about the sparseness of his poetic production by a Paris Review interviewer in 1982, Larkin contented himself with replying, “It’s unlikely I shall write any more poems.”
Required Writing contains not only the conversation with the Paris Review writer but also one with an Observer representative in 1979; together, these talks reveal much about a man who has devoted his adult years to constructing the persona of an intensely private person, affecting surprise that anyone should be remotely interested in whatever he might have to say, running himself down perhaps to build up the reader’s confidence in him. “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me,” he responds when questioned why he does not accept poet-in-residence invitations or read from his canon on the lecture circuit.
Philip Larkin was born in Coventry to the city treasurer, who could afford to send him to “public” (that is, private) schools and then to Oxford University. He characterizes his schoolboy career as “unsuccessful”: He was afflicted with extreme myopia, and an equally extreme case of the stammers, which lasted until he was thirty; listening to jazz and reading were his chief outlets. After he was graduated from Oxford in 1943, he wrote, in quick succession, his only two novels: Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), both dealing with ineffectual people leading desolate working-class lives in featureless provincial towns. Why did Larkin then stop writing fiction? “Novels are about other people and poems are about yourself.I didn’t know enough about other people, I didn’t like them enough.”
Larkin is too self-effacing to advertise the disciplined energy required to accomplish his writing in his spare time while working full-time as a librarian. He began in Birmingham’s municipal system (1943-1946), graduated to the library of the University College, Leicester (1946-1950), then Belfast University (1950-1955). Since 1955, he has been university librarian at Hull, heading a staff of more than one hundred, working a five-day-a-week schedule. In his interviews, Larkin defends the desirability of an author having a full-time nonliterary occupation, like Anthony Trollope. Yet he does drop his defenses by stating, “Sometimes I think, Everything I’ve written has been done after a day’s work, in the evening: what would it have been like if I’d written it in the morning, after a night’s sleep? Was I wrong?”
The clear implication is that Larkin’s spare-time writing routine deprived him of the opportunity to produce more poems, if not better ones. “I like [Hardy] because he wrote so much. I love the great Collected Hardy which runs for something like 800 pages.” Larkin, however, quickly assumes his mentor’s determinism to squelch any inner rebellion about his choice of life: Subsidies for authors are wrong; he could never have made his living from writing; he lacks the mind and temperament for teaching; people envy whatever they do not have; choice is an illusion; happiness is unlikely for most humans.
Will reading Larkin as critic help one read Larkin as poet? He assumes his sour, gruff façade to emphasize that his criticism and poetry differ distinctly in the motivation and attitude with which he composed them: His articles and reviews were produced on the request of editors, and he “rarely accepted a literary assignment without a sinking of the heart, nor finished it without an inordinate sense of relief.” Yet one can make a solid case for the proposition that Required Writing is, in significant respects, the prose equivalent of such hardheaded, hard-hitting, empiric poems as “This Be the Verse,” “A Study of Reading Habits,” and “Love.” Both Larkin’s poetry and his prose are characterized by economy, plainness, dry wit, precision, lucidity in style and disillusioned skepticism, parochialism, antimodernism, and pervasive sadness in substance.
The reigning god in Larkin’s critical pantheon is Thomas Hardy as poet. Larkin did not read him with understanding until he was twenty-five, but thenI was struck bythe sense that here was somebody writing about things I was beginning to feel myself.What...
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