Reconsidering Philip Larkin.

Reading between the lines.
May 27 2004 4:00 PM

The Poet of Dirty Words

History takes a second look at Philip Larkin.

One of Britain's best-known modern poems cannot be quoted on American network television. The offending word arrives in the very first line:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
     They may not mean to but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
     And add some extra just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
     By fools in old style hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy-stern
     And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
     It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
     And don't have any kids yourself.

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The poem is "This Be the Verse," and its author, Philip Larkin (1922-85), is back in the news, thanks to a radical revision of his Collected Poems. By the time of his death, Larkin, a grumpy, publicity-shy librarian, had become an unlikely celebrity, a rabbity symbol for his readers' accumulated regrets, calling his own childhood "a forgotten boredom." For the first edition of Larkin's Collected Poems (1988), the editor, Anthony Thwaite, printed all Larkin's verse in chronological order, with published and unpublished, finished and unfinished, verse side by side. Already controversial in Britain, Thwaite's new edition instead reprints the books as Larkin published them during his lifetime, followed by verse that appeared in magazines, and omitting everything left in manuscript at his death. The new volume ought to help new and old readers make sense of this cantankerous, sometimes contradictory poet. It also shuts out some of his best poems.

A product of middle England's middle class, Larkin graduated from Oxford in 1943 hoping to make it as a novelist. Instead he fell into librarianship, moving from a small town's stacks to academic library work at Leicester, Belfast, and then to unglamorous Hull, where he stayed. He did publish two literary novels, Jill (1946), the tale of a shy undergraduate's self-defeating fantasies, and A Girl in Winter (1947), a bleaker book about postadolescent resignation. Success, when it came, came slowly, and only for his verse. The Less Deceived (1955) placed Larkin at the head of the class of modest, grim young English poets known as the Movement. (The Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn, who died this April, was once grouped with the Movement too.) With poems about slow trains, old boarding schools, and village World War I commemorations, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) made Larkin a poet of undoubted influence; High Windows (1974), which included "This Be the Verse," made him famous. (He later turned down the job of poet laureate.)

The same book made him the poet of dirty words. "Sad Steps" begins with the poet "Groping back to bed after a piss." The title poem opens: "Whenever I see a couple of kids/ And guess he's fucking her and she's/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm …" The Dutch painting in "The Card Players" depicts "Jan van Hogspeuw," "Dirk Dogstoerd" and "Old Prijck." "Vers de Societe" starts by rejecting an invitation to a cocktail party: "In a pig's arse, friend." Larkin published only nine poems after 1974; the longest, "Aubade," begins "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night." Few poets—not even Larkin's own model, Thomas Hardy (whose prolific output belied his gloom)—insist so profoundly on their antisocial bent. How could a poet so cranky find such a broad public—find himself not only admired, but embraced?

Such questions gained momentum after his death. Andrew Motion's 1993 biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life, showed that the man who depicted himself as lonely and sexually unfulfilled in fact maintained a complex, even duplicitous, heterosexual love life, with one long-term romance that began in Leicester, another in Belfast, and a third with his assistant in Hull. Larkin's letters revealed not only a collector of dirty pictures but a man whose right-wing opinions sometimes accompanied flagrantly racist language. Larkin's epithets joined Eliot's arguable anti-Semitism and Pound's undoubted fascism as fuel for the over-familiar debate: Can a bad man be a good poet?

We might add: Can a pornographer? Trouble at Willow Gables (2001), a volume that gathered his unpublished fiction, included false starts at a third literary novel. But what it got attention for instead was the title novella, a tale of hijinks, same-sex crushes, and mild BDSM in a girls' school. Larkin wrote Trouble during his last year at Oxford, sharing it only with close friends; its supposed author, "Brunette Coleman," also penned a sequel set in a women's college and a series of poems and essays about girls'-school life. British reviewers pannedTrouble as amateur porn—and disappointingly mild porn at that. In fact (as editor James Booth took pains to make clear), the "Coleman" oeuvre shows surprisingly diligent attention to the tradition of girls'-school fiction, aimed at women and girls (and certainly not pornographic), that flourished in the early 20th century: Larkin worked hard to master the genre, even as he steered his own entries toward the risqué.

These revelations would make any reader long for a sense of Larkin's career as a whole. Yet that is what neither the new nor the old Collected can provide. "Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!" one 1950 poem concludes: Readers of the new edition might echo those words. The new book lacks sad earlier gems such as "Autobiography at an Air-Station" (i.e., airport): "in the race for seats/ You're best alone. Friendship is not worth while." Also missing is the frequently anthologized "Love Again," Larkin's last (and most painful) expression of loneliness: That poem begins with the poet "wanking at ten past three," imagining his former paramour with her new partner, and tries to find out "why [love] never worked for me." The new book may not even reflect the poet's wishes—though some will surely argue that it does. If Larkin meticulously held some poems back because he thought them inferior, he may well have expected others—especially late poems like "Love Again"—to see print after his demise.

Yet the new edition has new virtues. By restoring the order of poems within Larkin's original books, the new Collected shows how Larkin chose to present himself, and hence how his cranky moments and contradictions make sense after all. From Willow Gables to "The Winter Garden," from slow-train England to Dirk Dogstoerd's Netherlands, each of his books reacts to the communities—of girls and women, of ordinary workers, vacationers, pubgoers—from which he felt excluded, communities he pre-emptively mocked (even swore at) but pursued, studied, admired, and envied anyway. The Whitsun Weddings,for example, opens with "Here," a generous description of Hull and its suburbs, then zeroes in on "Mr. Bleaney," the most famous and most depressing of Larkin's alter egos, a lonely bachelor in a rented room.

It should be no surprise that the man who wrote "The Importance of Elsewhere" wrote both to attract readers and to push them away, to justify his solitude and to assuage it. This author who feared commitment in his life sought to juxtapose charm and venom, sympathy and self-isolating acerbity, in all he wrote. And once you see those clashes within his books, you may well see them inside single stories and poems. The Coleman writings about girls schools let Larkin imagine himself at once "a real girl in a real place" (to quote one of his poems) and a jocular man writing for men. And within the poems, the swearwords balance out—or make emotionally possible—moments of transcendental acceptance.

A perfect Collected Poems of Philip Larkin would reprint all four of his books, followed by uncollected, and then by unpublished, writings, from undergraduate writings through the last papers; standard editions of several modern poets (such as Wallace Stevens) follow just that pattern. Instead, we have two different unsatisfactory books. (Rumor has it that in Britain both will remain in print.) With poems in Larkin's own orderings, the new edition makes the surest introduction to him. Yet to find the strength and pain of being Larkin undiminished, readers will need to track down the older book too.

Stephen Burt is a poet and critic and a professor of English at Harvard.

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