Philip LarkinPosted: March 5, 2011
I’m nearing the end of Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. Larkin’s essence is best captured in a description made by his longest-running girlfriend, Monica Jones, who decided that his tombstone should bear the word, “Writer,” not poet, and she’s so very right. Larkin started life wanting to be a novelist and wrote two good novels, before hitting a wall and ultimately abandoning two uncompleted novels. But his full-time turn to poetry continued the voice of the novels, in condensed, contained stories grounded in stripped down quotidian, demotic language, concerned with everyday life and, particularly, his personal fears and insecurities. His thousands of letters to his girlfriends and friends, in the reading, are close equivalents to the gist that makes up his poetry, by that I mean you often get exact glimpses of his poetic voice and are put in that place, in the states of mind, from which his poems arise. Aesthetically, he pushed romanticism out the door, but ironically the intensity of his art, and the body of the poems––the personae that they create––re-romanticized, if you will, his effort. He credits Thomas Hardy in his evolution, but there seems an unbridgeable gap between the two. Larkin’s language is post-modern, absolutely taken down to the bone. Hardy was still writing as if poetry needed to be beautified, something Larkin avoided. He wanted simply to give each word the space to live, individually and, finally, collectively. That esthetic is absolutely essential to his being able to write about what he does with such affect. I’m not sure, but maybe Larkin’s intention was never to devalue romanticism by avoiding it, but rather to renew it by rummaging around in hopes of finding it in the banality of life, to invest it with the seriousness it deserves in light of the recognition that ordinariness is all that we have. That is not to say that everything is ordinary, in the sense of routine. The point is also that all we have is what we get, as Larkin might say, and what we get is raw, unshaped, discrete, often quite beyond our control, so we must stand up to that face to face. Something along this line is touched on in his Paris Review interview:
Do you feel happiness is unlikely in this world?
Well, I think if you’re in good health, and have enough money, and nothing is bothering you in the foreseeable future, that’s as much as you can hope for. But “happiness,” in the sense of a continuous emotional orgasm, no. If only because you know that you are going to die, and the people you love are going to die.
Elliot said something perfect about Larkin, while remaining neutral: “He can make words do what he wants.” At any rate, I’m glad finally to have discovered Larkin. He gives me something I need––art made from within our time based on an interesting sensibility of thought within a common feeling or moment.