Larkin ascending

Nearly missed it; an intelligent, allusive, gossipy memorial of Philip Larkin by Martin Amis in the FT. A teaser for Amis’s forthcoming collection of Larkin poems. Amis aptly quotes lots of them in his article; which is, in part, what makes it such fun to read.

This is the key to Larkin: his frictionless memorability. To use one of Nabokov’s prettiest coinages, he is mnemogenic.

Extract from The Larkin puzzle – FT.com

Not pretty at all, I would say. But I know what he means: that there’s a sense in which you don’t remember Larkin’s verse, it creates memories in you. Amis proves this with snippets from lovely Larkin favourites (Aubade, Livings III, Mr Bleaney).

(But I don’t agree. It’s true that Larkin, like, say, Cole Porter, makes phrases that appropriate us. I’ve recently memorised The Whitsun Weddings, however, and found that although the flow is nearly irresistible, the vernacularity of the meter and the almost incidental way that unstressed words carry the rhyme make it all-too-easy to trip up on a collocation that is mine, not Larkin’s; and then to stumble over the recovery.)

Amis takes pleasure, as we all do, in the persistence of Larkin’s popularity despite the “PC” judgements, 10 years after Larkin’s early death, that dismissed him for his misogyny and “racism”. Today’s restoration, Amis says, is an “After” that is richer because of the puzzles provoked by—and remaining from—the revelations that went “Before”.

The poems are transparent (they need no mediation), yet they tantalise the reader with glimpses of an impenetrable self: so much yearning, so much debility; an eros that self-thwarts and self-finesses. This is what rivets us: the mystery story of Larkin’s soul.

Still, Amis, does continue to struggle with Larkin’s atrabilious character.

What follows is a personal assessment of Larkin’s character, and one that reflects a preoccupation that can fairly be described as lifelong.

What follows is, in fact, a further teasing out of the Larkin puzzle drawing on two or three possibly ambiguous annechdotes. Amis recounts his father’s (Kinglsey’s) “almost physical” love for Larkin, and the long-after-revealed discourtesy of Larkin in return. He shows Larkin’s bizarre coldness with a story of a visit to his parents’ household dispensing “tips” to the Amis boys. He discusses Larkin’s friendlessness and opaque sexuality with suggestions that his choice of lovers was inappropriate. He recounts a discussion with the poet at a party that appears to demonstrate an odd obsession with money (or at least “bills”) but may just indicate that Larkin was not terribly interested in Amis. He offers a surprising account of how an aborted Larkin novel “attacking” his life-long correspondent and once mistress (the “virile” Monica Jones) appeared soon after, transformed with Larkin’s tutelage, as Amis’s Lucky Jim.

There’s much more, too, that I enjoyed including a reminder of the towering good sense of Northrop Frye when it comes to the pretensions of lit.crit. and a tantalizing quotes from a previously unpublished, possibly unfinished, Larkin poem Love again

… but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element
That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

Larkin said of this poem:

It broke off at a point at which I was silly enough to ask myself a question, with three lines in which to answer it.

Whatever the answer was—assuming it was—we don’t have it.

I like the whole article so much that I’m only a little piqued by Amis’ apparent agenda, revealed by his repeated claim that Larkin is a “novelists’ poet” (Huh? Is Cézanne a sculptor’s painter? Is Wagner a mythologists’ musician? ) and supported by references to Larkin’s knack for cinematic phrases (a “scene setting phrase maker”, says Amis, making phrases).

Plausible criticism; but it also seems a slightly cheap attempt by Amis, the novelist, to appropriate Larkin on behalf of his new edition or perhaps on behalf of some other project to which he coyly refers:

…my final attempt to parse him will be in the form of prose fiction

Ok. I’ll bite.

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