Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Birthday: "Nothing, like something, happens anywhere."


Philip Arthur Larkin, CBE, CH, FRSL (1922-1985)
Librarian, novelist, poet

Born in Coventry to the County Treasurer- a man who went to Germany to study their office methods and came home raving about how the Nuremberg Rallies were the best ticket in Europe- and a neurasthenic mother who- like many of that kind, enjoyed ill health to a very old age- Larkin was a stuttering boy with a taste for jazz.

He went up to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he was desperately unhappy in the freezing, depopulated wartime city until he met another future author, Kingsley Amis; the two became fast friends for life, exchanging writing ideas, gossip, racial slurs and right wing political tropes in letters for decades.

While pursuing unsuccessful relationships with undergraduettes, Larkin also tried the seemingly obligatory Oxford research into alternative lifestyles. The author Alan Bennett, reviewing a Larkin biography in 2003, reported,

For a time it seemed Larkin could go either way and there are a few messy homosexual encounters at Oxford, though not Brideshead by a long chalk, lungings more than longings and not the stuff of poetry except as the tail-end of ‘these incidents last night’. After Oxford Larkin’s homosexual feelings ‘evaporated’ (Motion’s word) and were hence-forth seemingly confined to his choice of socks.”

Graduating with a first in English Lit in 1943, Larkin landed a job as a librarian in a backwater Shropshire town, where he found his callings as a bookman and as a poet.  He found a publisher for his first novel in Reginald Caton, who liked putting out high-toned stuff as a front for his more lucrative softcore porn books; after the book did well, Caton asked Larkin for some poetry and the first of his four slender volumes came out in 1945.

Out from under the senior Larkins’ thumbs in a series of librarianships that took him to places like Belfast and Hull, Larkin embarked on a series of relationships with women, none of which led to marriage but- despite how he treated some of them- built enduring friendships. His mistresses, past and present- he had three going at once in the 1970s- took turns sitting with him during his final illness.

In 1955 Larkin was appointed librarian of the university in Hull. He proved to be an exceptional administrator at a time when the school and library were expanding dramatically; under his direction, it became the first library in Europe with a fully computerised catalogue. His work left him time to write, and the critical reception for his work grew with collections in 1955 and 1964. He was a very slow writer, producing only two to three poems a year, but his skill was great and his tone- was perfect for the straightened postwar times in Britain:

“Just as he encouraged the misconception that he had produced a meager body of work, so too did Larkin seek to present himself before the public in the disguise of a bluff, no-nonsense Englishman who just happened to produce now and then, by happy accident, as it were, an exquisite small volume of poetry. He refused to live the literary life of readings and lectures and college residencies—“I don’t want to go around pretending to be me” —and professed to be embarrassed by the fame which came to him in his middle years. This was not entirely a pose, although despite his image in the press he was no recluse, and at Brynmor Jones Library at Hull ran a large staff with skill and authority. He was, however, an insecure and deeply troubled man, selfish, calculating, essentially solitary—“I see life more as an affair of solitude diversified by company than an affair of company diversified by solitude”—and a womanizer who was at once predatory and timorous. He was also loving, gracious, loyal in his fashion, and hilariously funny.”

He appeared on television only once, did not learn to drive until he was 39, and lived in rented housing well into middle age. He turned down the poet laureateship and many times the number of honors he accepted. In the film casting of the time, he would have been played with the actor Richard Deacon, the humorless, long-suffering producer on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The aphoristic quality of his verse- “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”- and the famous opening lines of Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

-marked Larkin as a modern poet who rejected most aspects of modernism. His 126 columns as jazz editor for the Daily Telegraph, 1961-1971, marked him as a traditionalist in an increasingly bebop world, but not oblivious to what was going on around him, or unable to skillfully take its measure.

The Writer’s Almanac wrote of his public persona:

In a rare interview with The Paris Review, he declared his writing routine to be, “Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings.”

Larkin never married and lived alone, cultivating a curmudgeonly, glum persona. He once said: “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any — after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think? Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”

He claimed he only dreamed of being Poet Laureate as a nightmare, and when the offer came, he turned it down.

He died of throat cancer in 1985. His diaries were burned, but due to his dithery instructions to his literary executors, his reputation took a hit with the publication of his collected letters in 1992 and the first biography in 1993. They held him up as a casually racist,  right-wing misogynist whose taste for porn ran in the 50 Shades of Grey direction. Perhaps the cranky uncle front he cultivated so long and so well insulated him: he remains one of the most popular of British poets, as loved by the public as he is studied by scholars. In December 2016 his memory is to be honored by the placement of a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Related sites:
The Philip Larkin Society
The Paris Review, “The Art of Poetry, No. 30”, Summer 1982

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