Philip Larkin at 100: ‘We all hate home’

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.
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Me, a One-Hit Wonder

The photo above shows it, the moment in which my life did not change. I may desire the sensation of a life-altering fame, but I know that one semi-viral tweet only serves to remind one that that sensation has not yet been felt in this life. Is it possible to desire something that one has not experienced? Is “desire” the correct word here?

Anyway, a tweet of mine tossed off last night with insouciance of a man who knows nothing about insouciance was liked 750 times (so far) and re-tweeted more than 130 times, and viewed/read/chuckled at (I hope) more than 200,000 times in under twenty-four hours. This is worth a post here if only because my average Twitter engagement is usually 200,000 times smaller than that.

Some of you may be acquainted with the feeling. Some of you may have watched one of your tweets fly out of the nest and somehow attract attention from hundreds of thousands of other Twitter-nests. This is my first time. In thirteen years on Twitter, ten with the current account, this is the first hit tweet. And nothing has changed for me: I am as annoyed or not annoyed by the world and most of its denizens as if 200,000 pairs of Twitter-eyes had not alighted on my one-liner.
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12 Years: A Hollywood Ending

L

ife has a certain quality or property quite inimical to fiction. It is shapeless, it does not point to and gather round anything, it does not cohere. Artistically, it’s dead. Life’s dead.

 

Only artistically that is. In down-to-earth realist and material terms, of course, life is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and has everything to be said for it. But then life ends, while art persists for at least a little while longer.—Martin Amis, Inside Story, page xix

The annual end of June and start of July is a calendrical territory laden for me with reflective moods and a bit of wonder at how I am still here at all. Twelve years ago at this time, one chapter in my life concluded and the next one opened, except I was unaware of this on July 15, 2010.

I was in the shapelessness of my life, of life itself, and whatever narrative powers I may have summoned to give it shape had long been dormant. I drank on July 15 and I did not drink on July 16. In my memory of this moment, this may as well be represented with the sound of a door slammed shut—or slammed open, to be more correct, as life, my life, has opened with possibilities ever since—but in the experience of the moment, there was no difference between the two days.

My last drinks were of the quietly desperate sort: Because I was unemployed and had no money to my name, I had no full bottles of alcohol in the room I rented back then. I also did not have any food. The evening of July 15 was spent in a dig through a garbage bag of “empties” in the hope that a shot glass or two might be filled with the drips and drops that empties sometimes yield. Like water from a sponge that isn’t a sponge at all.
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