When asked in an interview with Ian Hamilton for London Magazine in 1964 how he would characterize his development as a poet Philip Larkin answered, "I don't think I want to change; just to become better at what I am." Similarly, in a 1972 radiobroadcast celebrating his fiftieth birthday he said, "There's a great pressure on writers to Šdevelop' these days. I think the idea began with Yeats and personally I'm skeptical of it."
This fastidious sameness was one of Larkin's biggest traits and expressed itself in a number of ways in his life and art equally. He loathed "abroad" (same place), and never wed (same marital status). He was the librarian of the University of Hull, England, from 1955 until his death in 1985 (same job), and wouldn't brook foreign-language poetry (same tongue). He even saw the same girl, Monica Jones, for most of his life. Conservative in politics and poetics alike¨his favourite politician was Margaret Thatcher, his favourite living poet, John Betjeman¨Larkin hated change.
This aversion (one spots the fear of death peering out behind it) inspired a great many of his most moving poems. There's the joy he blurts out at the sameness of seaside scenes in "To the Sea": "Still going on, all of it, still going on!" And the almost prayerful utterance he makes at the end of "Show Saturday", a poem about country fairs: "Let it stay hidden there like strengthÓLet it always be there." And this compressed paean to the proven, tried and true, taken from his 1949 "Modesties":
Thoughts that shuffle round like pence
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense,
And of course, immaculate consistency was not only a subject of Larkin's poetry: beginning with The Less Deceived in 1955, his poems were consistently good.
Sameness is also the keynote of Larkin's recently released second collection of miscellaneous non-fiction, Further Requirements. Much like its 1983 predecessor, Required Writing, the 367-page volume amasses 138 pages of statements, interviews, broadcasts and forewords, with wide-ranging reviews of poetry, fiction and non-fiction rounding out the book's back half. Absent from this collection are Larkin's jazz writings, exhaustively published elsewhere. But whereas Larkin put the first collection together himself (the last book he would publish in his lifetime), this one was edited by Anthony Thwaite, who also gave us Larkin's collected poems and selected letters. Despite Larkin's having passed them over initially, however, these pieces give no sense of being his dregs: they are as burnished and penetrating as anything he has published. And throughout we find him rehearsing positions no less convincing for sounding by now familiar. There's Larkin the modernist counter-revolutionary:
We've had a period of rather intellectual verse, we may now be experiencing a period of unpretentious personal poems.
What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I do rather lay at the door of Eliot and Pound.
Closely bound up with this, there's Larkin the champion of Betjeman, which at times I admit takes on the surreal quality for me of Robert De Niro extolling Bruno Gerussi ("Nick" from "The Beachcombers") for his acting ability:
Eliot took poetry away from the tradition, and Betjeman brought it back.
What exactly is John Betjeman? Surely one of the rare figures on whom the aesthetic appetites of an age pivot and swing round to face an entirely new directionÓIf the spirit of the first third of our century was onwards, upwards and outwards, the spirit of Betjeman was backwards, downwards and inwardsÓThe chief significance of Betjeman as a poet is that he is a writer of talent and intelligence for whom the modern poetic revolution has simply not taken place.
(Bear in mind that the most recent Oxford Book of English Verse contains two poems by Betjeman, covering about a page, as compared to ten by Larkin, on five pages.)
There's Larkin against the myth-kitty:
It may be objected that one cannot derogate literature by calling it literary, but alas, one can. To be literary means to receive one's strongest impressions¨one's subject matter¨secondhand from literature instead of firsthand from experience, and to set it down in terms and styles that have already lost their freshness by being used by someone else instead of thinking up your own.
And Larkin against obscurity:
Deserted by the tide of taste, the modern movement awaits combing like some cryptic sea-wrack; obscurity, as the general reader has always known, is its definitive characteristic, an obscurity unlike previous types in being deliberate and unnecessary.
There's Larkin on the primacy of content:
Yeats presumably couldn't write about a mucked up seaside poster on a railway station; but as soon as you begin to see your own subject, then style is nothing. You find your style. The influence of another poet is not primarily on the choice of words, but on the choice of subject.
And Larkin propounding his theory of poetry as emotional conduit:
To me, now as at any other time, poetry should begin with emotion in the poet, and end with the same emotion in the reader. The poem is simply the instrument of transference.
Do we call the sonnets of Shakespeare Šmere personal emotion'? No: the only meaning I can attach to the phrase is this: mere personal emotion is emotion which, despite all the poet's efforts, remains personal to him without becoming personal to us. We understand him to be in the grip of some emotional experience, because he tells us so, but his poem fails to bring it home to us, and we therefore register this failure by saying Šmere personal emotion'. Well, all right, but I think it enormously important for us to recognize that what has failed is not the poet's emotion but his technique. What we should be saying in other words is Šmere incompetent writing.'
All this makes for great reading. If the book drags anywhere it's in the reviews section, which suffers from an editorial emphasis on completeness over fun. Only this could account for the many pieces, several less than a page in length, on forgotten books by unknown authors. This section is further marred by a number of maddening gaps. Larkin weighs in on Plath, Lowell, Merwin and Wilbur¨but not on Frost. He repeatedly mentions Yeats, and looks at The Oxford Anthology of Irish Verse¨but refers only glancingly to Seamus Heaney in a review of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry as being "a left-footing John Hewitt." And CanLit lionizers might take umbrage at this: Larkin writes on Irish, Scottish, Welsh, American and Ausie bards¨but on none of our nearest and dearest. The only Canuck book covered is a critical study of Joyce by Hugh Kenner.
But this may not have been an oversight. For the main success of this collection is to remind us that when a poem is a boring pretentious salad of chopped prose that disgruntles and disheartens, it is not poetry's fault, but an individual poet's failing. Just as the great achievement of Larkin's sturdy verse¨with its unassuming program of metre, rhyme, feeling and readable speech¨is to insist that the usual tools of poetry stand in no need of radical reinvention, but only skilled use. ˛