Philip Larkin, born one-hundred years ago today, was a librarian at the University of Hull in the north of England. Some may celebrate him for that job—he was a great librarian and administrator and oversaw the library’s expansion—but most celebrate him for his poetry.
He was a major poet; thirty-seven years after his death, he is consistently ranked among the top ten post-war English writers by other writers. His name tops most contemporary polls as Britain’s favorite poet. Many of his lines live on in our hearts and memes: “Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love,” from “An Arundel Tomb” is quoted on his plaque in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey:
Born in Coventry, he studied at Oxford University and became best friends with Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest; he contributed to and helped edit Amis’ first novel, Lucky Jim, which launched Amis on his own career in literature.
In 1955 Larkin accepted the position at Hull, far away from the London literary scene, and he never left. He rarely saw London or Oxford, even more rarely spent time abroad, never set foot in Canada or America. His summer vacations were usually further north from Hull: annual summer weeks with one girlfriend, Monica Jones, at her cottage in Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, other trips to Scotland. Even his lifelong friendship with Amis was a largely epistolary one: at Larkin’s funeral in 1985 near Hull, Amis was heard to mutter more than once, “Why have I never been here?”
In 1964, a television program profiled Larkin, who had by then published two novels and three volumes of poetry and was already 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 just me, but that phrase rings odd. I lived for several years far away from New Paltz, NY, which I consider home, and when asked about my new neighbors, co-workers, and friends, I 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. Even someone who lived in that nest for decades.
He found himself in Hull the same way I found myself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: a job was offered and he accepted it. “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 he considered himself retired. It was an honor that he had coveted when he was younger. He was barely sixty at the time.
His reputation was negatively affected by the posthumous publication of his letters (his diaries had been destroyed, as per his last wishes); the librarian in Hull 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 letters, though, and it makes the racism elsewhere sound even more tone-deaf and uglier:
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.
He loved American jazz, so that love perhaps gave him some insight into the other side of his own perspective.
“Perhaps.” “Perhaps” is not a word one wants to use or see in a biography or even a modest biographical tribute as this one. With his diaries gone (and who knows: those pages may have revealed even more hateful thoughts), his letters and his poems stand mostly in opposition to each other. His poetry is often humanistic and warm-hearted, even though it comes through a frequently grumpy persona. That grumpy warm-heartedness is what most readers, including me, celebrate in his work; the dichotomy with his letters elicits a fascination with his biography. And we haven’t mentioned his complicated love/romance/relationship life of overlapping triangles!
Perhaps as a writer of poetry that uses a plainspoken tenor for many of its effects, of a poetry of tone, even tone-deaf statements are statements that have a tone, are statements that need to be put down on paper, to be heard in a way, in order to be cast aside. He did not live long enough to offer an explanation, to cast them aside, however, and racism is racism and antisemitism is antisemitism; just because I wish it was otherwise can not make it otherwise. “Perhaps.” Perhaps his poetry is as moving as I find it to be because it escaped from a quietly angry man.
Larkin’s childhood was grim: his father Sydney was a Coventry civil servant who was a Nazi enthusiast even after Coventry was bombed by Germany in the Blitz. He brought young Philip to Nazi Germany twice in the 1930s. Philip knew no German, so the one person he could communicate with on those vacations was his father, whose enthusiasm for what they saw may have given young Philip his only lived experience of the word “smitten.” Vacations may never have felt like an escape from or to anything. His mother, Eva, was an anxious codependent. Home was not where the happy heart was, for Larkin, but there could be no easy happiness found abroad, either.
The poetry, his work, is often direct, 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,” as I quoted above. He comically addresses 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,
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
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” in travel around the world merely to collect tchotchkes and excite onlookers when life is here anyway, no matter what one does? Let others do it.
Where is here, anyway? Somewhere between the thought that one detests one’s room and its good books and perfect order and the “flushed and stirred” feeling at the notion of escape and the subsequent rejection of “artificial” escape; somewhere in there is where here is. “Here” is a moment, not a place. “Here” is a flickering thought. That thought is reprehensibly perfect because it can not be found, captured, or created yet it exists. “There” was simply everywhere for Philip Larkin.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-second season:
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