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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‘Any Road Will Take You There’

George Harrison died twenty years ago today.

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For nearly a decade before his death, George Harrison had been working slowly on a new solo album while dealing with a cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatments, a remission, and then, a new cancer and its eventual metastasizing. He was also stabbed forty times in a house invasion about two years before his death.

So George Harrison’s late 1990s was a period in which the “material world,” as he once called the here and now, appeared to be a genuinely unpleasant place, one that no longer wanted him around, but he retained a sharp wit about it anyway. Asked about his attacker, Harrison said that he “clearly wasn’t auditioning for the Traveling Wilburys.” (The attacker suffered from untreated schizophrenia and was found not guilty of attempted murder by reason of insanity.)

Working on his music through all of this, Harrison finished enough tracks to have a rough cut of a full album, but he finally ran into the ultimate deadline when cancer was found in his brain and he was given weeks to live. He wrote out instructions for his son, Dhani, and musical collaborator, Jeff Lynne, and they produced his final work, the farewell album Brainwashed, which they released a year after his death, in 2002.
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A Year in the Rearview Mirror

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wincing away, the gold
Wind-ridden waves – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.
—Philip Larkin, “Long Sight in Age,”
The Complete Poems

* * * *
For me, the year that is about to end started inauspiciously. Two friends verbally included me in plans to attend a New Year’s Eve sober party that night, and each one forgot me, their promise, or the party. Perhaps each one forgot those things in that order, but by midnight the details were superfluous as were any apologies.

At a brunch the next day, all three of us were there, but no apologies were offered anyway. Perhaps that sums up everyone’s 2020 as we ring it out in gatherings smaller than last year’s parties or even alone (tonight makes a few consecutive years alone for your correspondent): “No apologies were offered anyway.”

The year that is about to open for business will not immediately offer new emotions or news that will change one’s day-to-day life, of course. The collective desire for tomorrow morning to bring something that we can only give ourselves—peace and togetherness—dominates the online conversations that I witness. The year we just experienced together in our collective aloneness, well, many people want to feel what it feels like to let something go; they want January 1 and the promise that that date represents to carry us away from this painful season.

We say that we are ready for something new, but it is likely that some of us said that very same thing last January 1, and something new is indeed what I experienced in 2020, again and again. This is true for many of us.
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