Today in History: Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin, born on this date in 1922, was a librarian at the University of Hull in the north of England. He was also a major poet; thirty years after his death, he is consistently ranked among the top ten post-war English writers. Born in Coventry, he studied at Oxford University and became best friends with Kingsley Amis; he contributed to and helped edit Amis’ first novel, Lucky Jim, which launched Amis on his own legendary career in literature.

He accepted the position at Hull, far away from the London literary scene, in 1955 and he never left. He rarely saw London or Oxford, even more rarely spent time abroad, never set foot in Canada or America. In 1964, a television program profiled Larkin, who by then had published two novels and three volumes of poetry and was being ranked among the best writers of his generation. Asked about his affiliation with Hull, he replied, “I never thought about Hull until I was here. Having got here, it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, I think even its natives would say that. I rather like being on the edge of things. One doesn’t really go anywhere by design, you know, you put in for jobs and move about, you know, I’ve lived in other places.”

Even its natives?” Perhaps it is me, but that phrase rings odd. I lived for several years far away from home and, when asked about my new neighbors, co-workers, and friends, never said about my fellow Iowans, “Even the natives” think such-and-such about Cedar Rapids. It is the phrase of someone who built nests for himself but never a home.

He found himself in Hull the same way I found myself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: a job was offered and accepted. “One doesn’t really go anywhere by design.” Note the defensive tone of that last phrase, “I’ve lived in other places.”

The library grew into a world-class institution under his leadership: under him it installed the first computerized library circulation system in Europe. His reputation as a poet grew as well, although his body of work is a spare one: only a few dozen poems published in his lifetime. When he was offered the position of Poet Laureate, he declined it with his usual brutal honesty: he had not written anything in years and considered himself retired. It was an honor that he had coveted when he was writing.

His reputation was negatively affected by the posthumous publication of his private letters (his diaries had been destroyed, as per his last wishes); the librarian who did not see much of the world was revealed to be someone who did not like the world very much to begin with and thus was a man who shifted ever-rightward politically. In many of the letters he is ugly and racist, and readers were shocked. How could someone who wrote plain-spoken and yet beautiful poetry also write such brutal and angry paragraphs?

Every so often a paragraph like the following makes an appearance in his collected letters, and it makes the racism sound even more tone-deaf:

The American Negro is trying to take a step forward that can be compared only to the ending of slavery in the nineteenth century. And despite the dogs, the hosepipes and the burnings, advances have already been made towards giving the Negro his civil rights that would have been inconceivable when Louis Armstrong was a young man. These advances will doubtless continue. They will end only when the Negro is as well-housed, educated and medically cared for as the white man.

Perhaps as a writer of poetry meant to be read aloud, of a poetry of tone, even tone-deaf statements are statements that have a tone, are statements that need to be put down in order to be cast aside. He did not live long enough to offer an explanation, however, and racism is racism and ugly is ugly; just because I wish it was otherwise can not make it otherwise.

The poetry, his work, is plain-spoken, humorous, and often beautiful. In “Poetry of Departures,” from The Less Deceived, a volume published in 1955, he addresses the issue of not traveling anywhere. Of “not going anywhere by design.” The issue of why not to visit, not travel to, not live anywhere else. Why Hull, anyway?

Poetry of Departures
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

 
And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

 
He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

 
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.
Philip Larkin

Why live a “life / Reprehensibly perfect” by traveling the world merely to collect tchotchkes and excite onlookers when life is here anyway, no matter what one does? Let others do it.

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