The new Philip Larkin poem.

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Feb. 10 2003 2:46 PM

High Standards

Is the new Philip Larkin poem worthy of publication?

One of my all-time favorite photo captions appears in A Writer's Life, Andrew Motion's outstanding 1993 biography of Philip Larkin. It's a picture of Larkin's secretary, Betty Mackereth, in cat's-eye glasses and a hairdo that makes her head look as though someone has dropped a giant dinner roll on it. The caption reads, simply, "Betty Mackereth, 'loaf-haired', c. 1965" — a reference to the "loaf-haired secretary" of the Larkin poem "Toads Revisited." I became especially fond of the picture when I learned that Larkin and Mackereth had an affair 10 years after it was taken. The thought of Larkin, who once described himself, accurately, as "an egg  ... with goggles," and his loaf-haired secretary suddenly discovering a mutual attraction when both were in their 50s is delightful to entertain—if not too vividly.

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Motion believed that the affair, because it was convenient and free of drama, "could not provide [Larkin] with the creative tension he needed to produce poems." But recent events have proved otherwise. In June, someone poking around in a rubbish tip (the English can make even a garbage dump sound inoffensive) turned up a notebook containing drafts of two late poems and a freestanding quatrain no one had ever seen before: "We met at the end of the party/ When all the drinks were dead/ And all the glasses dirty:/ 'Have this that's left', you said." When a columnist for the Guardian sneered that the quatrain was, in fact, rubbish, and implied that it might not even be Larkin's, an elderly Betty Mackereth came forward with the complete poem, at which point all sneering ceased:

We met at the end of the party
When all the drinks were dead
And all the glasses dirty:
'Have this that's left', you said.
We walked through the last of summer,
When shadows reached long and blue
Across days that were growing shorter:
You said: 'There's autumn too'.
Always for you what's finished
Is nothing, and what survives
Cancels the failed, the famished,
As if we had fresh lives
From that night on, and just living
Could make me unaware
Of June, and the guests arriving,
And I not there.

When the poem was published several months ago in the Larkin Society newsletter, readers wondered where it had been all their lives. The poem is Larkin's handiwork, unquestionably. The rhyme scheme—alternating off-rhymes and pure rhymes—is a brilliantly conceived formal expression of the poem's conflict: Each stanza plays disappointment ("finished"/"famished") against reassurance ("survives"/"lives"). This tension culminates in the final line, which, by delivering a full rhyme but coming up one metrical stress short, seems to give both failure and fulfillment the last word. Members of the Society declared the poem "moving" and "fascinating." A Guardian reporter ate his colleague's words, calling it a "poem of high quality  ... imbued with Larkinesque sadness." One blogger suggested that it was "awfully sentimental of old Larkin not to have published this."

In fact, it was characteristically shrewd of old Larkin. He already had two girlfriends, and was constantly struggling to downplay the significance of each to the other. Publishing such an affectionate and plainly autobiographical poem would have required him to answer the question "For whom was this written?"—probably twice. The very month Larkin sent it to Mackereth—February, 1976—he finished the poem known as "Morning at last: there in the snow," which contains the stunning lines

. . . there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,

Not the candle, half-drunk wine
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.

Few would dispute that it's a better poem than the recently discovered one, but Larkin chose not to publish it, either—probably because it was written for Maeve Brennan, by then his lover of 15 years, and would have upset Monica Jones, by then his lover of a quarter-century. Readers would have to wait for the posthumous Collected Poems to learn of its existence.

It's also likely that Larkin simply didn't deem the recently discovered poem worthy of publication. One of the side effects of his perpetual disappointment was a hectoring perfectionism. He held his writing to a standard that would silence most poets, and there are reasons to suspect that "We met at the end of the party" failed to meet it — a couple of the rhymes, for example. "Summer"/"shorter" has "rhyme of last resort" written all over it. It's an unstressed rhyme on a syllable ("-er") that's also a common suffix—the sort of rhyme Larkin rarely permitted in his poetry. (When he did, the poem was typically a longer one with longer lines, heavier enjambment, and a more ambitious rhyme scheme—a poem whose structure concealed weak rhymes.) And where "shorter" is lazy, "famished" is labored—a rhyme that lacks the inevitability and absolute precision of Larkin's best rhymes. This is a poem about exhausted abundance, after all, not prolonged deprivation, and the evocation of "famine" seems out of place.

Larkin was known to spend months, sometimes years, on individual poems, taking them through dozens of drafts. He was also a meticulous keeper of notebooks, recording the dates on which poems were begun, abandoned, returned to and completed. No other manuscript or typescript version of this poem has appeared, which suggests that it might merely have been intended, as the circumstances of its discovery suggest, for an audience of one: a casual poem for Larkin's most casual lover.

Of course, even Larkin's casual poems make most of what's out there look like rubbish. When his CollectedPoems appeared in 1988, Larkin devotees were surprised to discover dozens of strong, previously unpublished poems. Why had he withheld so much perfectly good verse, they wondered—forgetting that it wasn't perfectly good verse that had won their devotion in the first place—it was masterpieces like "The Whitsun Weddings" and "Love Songs in Age." Others recognized that Larkin's parsimony was part of his appeal. "We waited for years for the next Larkin poem," Derek Walcott wrote in a 1989 essay for The New York Review of Books, "patient, because we anticipated its metrical perfection. In the meantime, we could always go back to those volumes we were beginning to know by heart from rereading."

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