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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Nothing to Protest

The best two words any of us get to say or write each day are “Thank you.” Thank you to everyone who reads this website, even if this post is the first one by me that you have ever seen: Thank you.

Yesterday, this website was viewed for the 40,000th time in 2016. About one month ago, the number of views this website received surpassed the number of views it received in all of 2015. Just under 34,000 views in 2015, and more than 40,000 in 2016.
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The Stylish Stylist

In 1926, Henry Watson Fowler published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, a book that has remained in print ever since. (The first edition and the second edition use Fowler’s sentences; the third edition, which was published in 1996, is a substantial rewriting of the classic and uses the Fowler name as a form of brand.) Fowler’s book is not a dictionary of definitions, like Johnson’s or Webster’s, it is a usage dictionary, an instructional manual for better using this beautiful tool we have devised called the English language.

Its entries give instructions on pronunciation, offer the pros and cons of employing a variety of idiomatic expressions, and argue again and again for simplicity in expression. Many style guides have followed—the MLA, the AP, the Chicago Manual—and each one is more useful in answering day-to-day questions about one’s writing than Fowler’s guide is, but none is as entertaining as his. His fight was a fight against cliché, obfuscation, and empty rhetoric. He fought for style, for clarity.

He fought against pointless rules. One might think from the description of his work that he is the reason for the commonplace rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. The opposite is true. In a two-page essay on the topic (two pages!), titled, “Preposition at end,” he writes:
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