Philip Larkin, Part I: the Sad Man

Modern poets who are popular and first-rate, who are read by people who read poetry and by those who normally don’t, who are conservative but appeal to both Left and Right, and who write in traditional rhyme and meter rather than free verse, are, to put it mildly, rare and unusual beings.

Enter Philip Larkin, British subject, who died in 1985 at the age of 63. He was a contemporary of Ted Hughes (who married Sylvia Plath -- ’nuff said), and Thom Gunn (who moved to San Francisco and became California’s poet laureate of motorbikes and gay bath houses). In Britain, where Larkin was named the greatest English writer (not just poet) of the post-war period, the 25th anniversary of his death is being treated as a very big deal. The question before the panel is: Why?

Here’s a theory. We are in difficult times and the common perception, fair or not, is that too many poets are disengaged from ordinary life. Not so Larkin, who told his publisher he hoped people would talk about his poems in pubs. Although he never pretended to be a “man of the people,” his poems rarely stray far from what most of us think and worry about. Such as:

  • Sex (Other people having it, mostly): “High Windows.”
  • Money (Should have invested better): “Money.”
  • Work (The old 9-5): “Toads.”
  • Unemployment (Dreaded): “Toads Revisited.”
  • Faith (Not much -- unfortunately): “Church Going.”
  • Aging (Teenagers, thickening waistlines):  “Afternoons.”
  • Shopping (Women, clothes, dreams of romance): “The Large Cool Store.”
  • Selfishness (No, I don’t want to come to your damn party): “Vers de Société.”
  • Marriage (What do you say to someone you’ve lived with half your life that’s both honest and kind?): “Talking in Bed.”
  • Screwing up big time (And ending up fucked): “Mr. Bleaney.”
  • Modern world (Everything’s going to Hell): “Going, Going.”
  • Love: (“In everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love”): “Faith Healing.”
  • Death (And you thought Hannibal Lecter was scary): “Aubade.”

Another theory is Larkin’s ability to nail a subject (and his poems always have subjects), even when it’s as large as the mystery of life itself. Take the deliciously haunting “Days”:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

In life, Larkin ditched the priest and feared the doctor. Despite the realization that days “are to be happy in,” he wrote obsessively about Death, Disappointment, and Failure (his Three  Muses). A lifelong bachelor (and not a handsome one, either), he left no heirs, no surprise when you consider the opening quatrain of his most infamous poem, “This Be the Verse.” Once you’ve read it a couple of times, it’s hard to get it out of your head.

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.

To say that Larkin saw the glass as half-empty would be an insult to his eyesight, even if he did wear prescription lenses so thick they looked like goggles strapped to a bald head. The glass was mostly a quarter full, and there must have been times when it was bone dry. His output was slim. Like the similarly frugal American poet Elizabeth Bishop -- or to take a pop culture counterpart, Leonard Cohen -- he was a perfectionist willing to slave over a poem for years before presenting it to the public.

But he had a profession, as university librarian at the University of Hull, a city in Yorkshire whose most obvious rhyme is -- inescapably -- “dull.” His was not a minor job (he was considered one of the best librarians in Britain), and it kept him from having to teach workshops, chase grants, and cozy up to powerful editors.