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Summer 2013

What Are We Going to Do
About the New Philip Larkin?

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James Fenton

The Complete Poems
by Philip Larkin,
edited by Archie Burnett.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012,
$40.00 cloth.

It was never possible during Philip Larkin’s lifetime—he died in 1985—for his publishers to get together and produce a Collected Poems under the poet’s own direction. Larkin had certainly wanted such a volume, and Faber had made the necessary first step towards this end by acquiring the rights to Larkin’s first collection, The North Ship, which had appeared in 1945, and which they reissued in 1966.

But the Marvell Press, in the person of George Hartley (“the Ponce of Hessle,” as Larkin called him), was not to be coaxed into relinquishing its rights to the volume which first made Larkin’s name, The Less Deceived, which they had published in 1955 and which contains many now-famous poems, including “At Grass,” “Church Going,” “Toads,” and the poem from which the volume takes its title, in which Larkin remarks to a rape victim that she would hardly care that she was “the less deceived, out on that bed”—less deceived, he means, than the rapist who “Burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.”

Of this poem, which is called “Deceptions,” Larkin once wrote:

The more sensitive you are to suffering the nicer person you are. Hardy had it right from the start: “She, to Him” for example. As I tried to say in “Deceptions,” the inflicter of suffering may be fooled, but the sufferer never is.

We have reason to believe that Mrs. Thatcher—Baroness Thatcher, the Iron Lady—read this poem and that it stuck in her mind, because she once quoted a line from it: “Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.” And we are reminded by Archie Burnett’s new edition that this image was probably triggered by a passage in George Herbert: “My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart.”

The Less Deceived, then, is what interior designers would call a classic of mid-century modern. And it is one of the three chief pillars of any Collected Larkin, the other two being The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). Those who wanted during his lifetime to assemble their own Collected Larkin—and there were many—had these volumes on their shelves, together with clippings of “Aubade” and a very few other things they came across during Larkin’s last decade.

This was not a bad way to read Larkin. Indeed it still is a good way, and if you take the constituent items in reverse order it makes for the perfect introduction to the poet. You have to read “Aubade,” the meditation on death, and you have to read most of the two dozen items in High Windows—so you may as well read all of them. You move backwards through The Whitsun Weddings and The Less Deceived. And really now, if you want to, you can stop. You have read the essential Larkin, even if you have by no means read the Collected or the Complete. But if the question “Where did all this come from, and what else might there be there?” has its charms for you, then you will read The North Ship, which was an honorable first collection, much under the influence of Yeats and Auden. The more you like the mature Larkin, the more of a completist you are liable to be.

Completism has its rewards, and there are two poems in The North Ship, as reprinted in 1966, that stand out. One, “Waiting for breakfast while she brushed her hair,” was added by Larkin to the reprint, even though it was written in 1947, two years after that volume’s original publication. But otherwise it would have got lost. Larkin clearly thought that there was something in its presentation of the lover in the provincial coaching inn, looking down into the courtyard on a grey morning, waiting for his girlfriend to get ready. He thought it “says more about me than anything else (except ‘To fail’). The last line is ‘exactly me.’” The last line is “Part invalid, part baby and part saint?”

The other poem that stands out for me in The North Ship begins thrillingly, though with more than a dash of Yeats in the mix, but ends with an unwelcome unicorn in the last stanza—English poems of this period not seldom chucked in a unicorn when all else failed. Here’s the opening:

I see a girl dragged by the wrists
Across a dazzling field of snow
And there is nothing in me that resists.
Once it would not be so;
Once I should choke with powerless jealousies;
But now I seem devoid of subtlety,
As simple as the things I see,
Being no more, no less, than two weak eyes.

There is an awkwardness about the tenses—“Once it would not be so” is a way of saying “Once it would not have been so”—and there is a Yeatsian posturing about “Being no more, no less, than two weak eyes”; and the later “I can / Never in seventy years be more a man / Than now—a sack of meal upon two sticks.” But the unexplained image of the girl being dragged by the wrists laughing and struggling and pretending to fight, across a field of snow, is quite lovely, and Larkin’s meditation on a desire somehow to be that girl is strange and unresolved. After that, there’s not much for me in The North Ship—but that’s enough.

It is very strange that a poet whose key work lies in three rather short volumes should have caused such difficulties for his editors and such controversy among his readers. But the readers pay him the tribute of a sort of possessiveness and concern: they want their poet to look his best. And it’s hard for a poet to look good in his Collected Poems, if by “collected” we mean anything like “complete.” Most poets’ collected works will include things that would make the author cringe. Presented in untidied form, such gatherings remind me of nothing so much as those yard sales characteristic of recession America, in which families set out on their front lawns the contents of their closets and dens—the Frisbees, the old scooters, the clothes neither wanted nor needed, the dreadful joke presents—all in the hope of raising a little cash.

Painters are known to curate their oeuvre by means of occasional bonfires of botched canvases, and experience has taught us that the better the painter, the better advised he is to stand over that bonfire and make quite sure that what he wants burnt does indeed go up in smoke, and is not squirreled away by his admirers and assistants, whether through misguided motives of preserving the legacy, or by the thought of providing for their old age. Michelangelo, in the last days of his life, making a bonfire of his drawings and the cartoons for the Sistine Chapel, may horrify us now, but he was well within his rights. What an artist does with his property (as long as it is still his property) is his business. What executors and editors do is another matter, because their rights (if they have any) are to be balanced against a duty toward posterity.

I was told that Bonnard’s dealer destroyed a number of sketchbooks on the grounds that the triviality of their contents would add nothing to the artist’s reputation, but only detract from it. And a great deal of this sort of thing, this helpful-minded editing, must have happened over the years. It’s different from Samuel Palmer’s son destroying his father’s notebooks, or Ruskin cleaning up Turner’s reputation (if that is what he did) by destroying his sketches of low life. It is not like the holocaust of Blake’s manuscripts occasioned by the horror Frederick Tatham felt at the thought of all these epic poems and plays being inspired by Satan.

It’s more like a respectful act of cleaning up, the kind of respect for the dead shown by the act of body-washing. Not everything in the studio demands to be preserved, and some things are perhaps better destroyed. But of course the judgment of the executor is fallible. As I understand it—or as I was told the story—Bonnard’s dealer was right that the painter’s reputation would not be enhanced by the notebook material, disbanded and mounted as individual drawings, when it was never intended to be seen in this way. But of course I may be wrong. The destroyed works may have contained elusive clues to the artist’s work.

If I look at the old photographic catalogue of the posthumous atelier sale of Degas’s effects—which I do, from time to time—I feel absolutely convinced that all of this material should have been saved. Every piece of paper with Degas’s work on it is of great interest—I think. But I do not know if this intense feeling I have about Degas is not caused, in part, by some judicious act of editing on the eve of the sale. I have no way of knowing what was in the studio at the time of the body-washing.

A few years ago—to pursue the analogy before dropping it—some of the contents of the visionary English painter Stanley Spencer’s studio came up for sale, and I went to the auction house to see if there might be some slight work that I might be able to afford, and that might give me the pleasure of hanging a Stanley Spencer on my wall. There were, it turned out, many slight works, too slight, and as I went through the pile a depression began to sink in, and I began to think the worse of Spencer as a draughtsman. In due course, I came to a series of drawings he had made—no doubt when paper was scarce—on a roll of old-style Izal “medicated” toilet-paper. Unrolling this series of sketches released an evocative antiseptic scent of 1950s gents’ toilets—an association so depressing that it put paid to any residual interest I had in Stanley Spencer as an artist. Indeed I’ve hardly looked at his work since.

The moral is that Larkin’s admirers were not wrong: artists and writers need careful and sympathetic curating and editing, and the first, best way of guaranteeing they get this attention is for them to curate, to edit, themselves. That is why artists burn canvases. That is why writers are not always wrong to consign that tragedy to the flames. And that is also why conscientious executors whose job it is to sort through the accumulated rubbish of a study or a studio are not always wrong to go in there with a stack of bin-bags.

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see.

And while I am often glad to find that some touching relic—say, Wilfred Owen’s modest library at the English Faculty in Oxford—has been preserved, the fact is that we have now entered a phase when few writers’ libraries will or can be accepted by universities or public institutions. Better to call in the friends of the departed, and give them the pleasure of a choice from the books and possessions. Better to make that dispersal mean something.

As for literary remains, it is striking how different the fortunes of our great poets have been. Auden, who mismanaged his estate in other respects, got the right executor in Edward Mendelson, and has benefited ever since. Eliot, by contrast, half a century after his death, still awaits a satisfactory Collected Poems, not to mention a Collected Prose. And I often think that in the latter case there has been a whole generation that has missed out on Eliot’s uncollected prose, and that there must be much in it which would have engaged them, but that will be of diminishing interest in the future. I mean some of the social and religious writing. For my part I will happily sit down and read, when the Collected Prose appears in the near future, everything that Eliot wrote about literature and other arts. But his views on society do not interest me. Nor do Thoughts on Lambeth.

In the story of Larkin’s estate we find examples of both radical tidying up and extensive preservation. According to Monica Jones, his long-time partner, Larkin told her in his last days to make sure his diaries were destroyed. Jones followed his wishes, and Betty Mackereth, his secretary, took the volumes and fed them into the Hull University shredder. Assuming that Jones was not inventing these instructions (and I think it is a fair assumption: Larkin got very upset when he found that another girlfriend, Patsy Strang, had been reading them), one can hardly argue with what these two women did. But the case of the Collected Poems is not so clear. Larkin’s will instructed his executors to destroy his unpublished work unread. But it also gave them permission to publish what they wished. The legal word for a will which contradicts itself in this way is “repugnant.” Larkin’s will was repugnant in this sense. It doesn’t help anybody.

Before going further, we might, however, just ask, in a spirit of realism, what we actually want these collected volumes for. I’ve already said that an ideal introduction to Larkin would be to read his individual volumes in reverse order of publication. And this is the sort of approach I would recommend with several poets (though not always the part about the reverse order). First editions do not interest me as objects of monetary or fetishistic value. But crappy first editions (what the dealers call “good reading copies”—in implied contrast to volumes too beautiful or valuable to read) are now so easily available through Abebooks that it is not difficult to put together, say, a collection of Hardy’s poems as originally published, volume by volume. I did the same when I had an assignment involving reading systematically through the poetry of D.H. Lawrence—there are one or two volumes that will inevitably be expensive, but poetry feels much easier to read when you can hold a book without difficulty in one hand, slip it into a pocket, have it on the table as you eat. When I say to my students that they might consider approaching some of the poets whose work means most to them in this way, I am aware of eyes glazing over. Many do not intend to buy any sort of edition, but only read online. Still, I have a naïve optimism that some of the ones who love collecting vinyl LPs might see the charm in something as retro as owning a book. Nor do I mind if what I suggest to my students makes sense only to one person in the class. Don’t tax your digestive system; read poems in small batches.

The Collected Poems of the nineteenth century with their subtly discouraging use of Bible paper (so thin that it allows you to read twenty pages without having advanced perceptibly through the volume) were succeeded by other great impediments to enjoyment, such as the dreadful “Definitive” Kipling, the off-putting Hardy, and the one-volume, falling-to-bits Penguin Collected Lawrence. But all of these volumes were important as places to go in search of a given item, unreadable though they might be, to my way of reading.

The first Collected Larkin, edited by Anthony Thwaite in 1988, and quickly running through several editions, was a very different matter. Every poem began at the top of the page—so normally had a page to itself—and underneath it, in a single unfussy line, carried a date of completion, place of first publication if applicable, and (in abbreviated form, where appropriate) the name of the collection in which it had appeared. Because the poems were arranged chronologically, Thwaite was also considerate enough to supply an appendix with lists of the poems as they appeared in all the relevant collections, including the privately printed XX Poems, the Fantasy Poets pamphlet, and an unpublished typescript from 1947 called In the Grip of Light.

I have always liked this volume and thought it served its purpose well, but not everybody did. Some objected to the inclusion of 83 unpublished or hitherto uncollected poems as an unauthorized expansion of the canon. Others disliked the chronological order, arguing that each of Larkin’s published collections was deliberately arranged, and citing a jocular answer Larkin gave in 1981 to a question about whether he took great care in ordering the poems in a collection.

“Yes, great care,” Larkin had said. “I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls. I think ‘Lines in a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ is a good opener, for instance: easy to understand, variety of mood, pretty end. The last one is chosen for its uplift quality, to leave the impression that you’re more serious than the reader had thought.” So this is how Larkin had curated his three or four main collections. Why the same principle should be in operation in a Collected Poems I do not see.

There were, however, some mistakes in Thwaite’s first Collected, which Archie Burnett has listed in detail. Some of these are misprints, no doubt, some misreadings of smudgy typescript—perhaps Larkin did not change his ribbon as often as he might—I don’t know. Among these are some mistakes that are fascinating and insidious, because they do not read as mistakes. People spend the whole of their lives looking at this sort of thing in Shakespeare. Modern equivalents are less common, but you may remember a line in Auden which began as a misprint: “The ports have names for the sea.” What Auden had written was: “The poets have names for the sea.” But when he saw “The ports have names for the sea,” he liked it better than his own line, and so let it stand.

This misprint is in many copies of Larkin, but you’d never notice it. Here is the poem. It’s called “Breadfruit”:

Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are,
As brides to teach them how to execute
Sixteen sexual positions in the sand;
This makes them join (the boys) the tennis club,
Jive at the Mecca, use deodorants, and
On Saturdays squire ex-schoolgirls to the pub
By private car.

Such uncorrected visions end in church
Or registrar:
A mortgaged semi- with a silver birch;
Nippers; the widowed mum; having to scheme
With money; illness; age. So absolute
Maturity falls, when old men sit and dream
Of naked native girls who bring breadfruit
Whatever they are.

Larkin published this in Critical Quarterly in 1961, and, not untypically, trashed it in his correspondence, bitterly regretting having let the editor have it, “as it is just about the worst poem I have ever let get set up.” For my part I am glad it was not overlooked by the editors—it is a version of a much-repeated Larkin theme: the illusions we have in youth about sex get replaced with what to Larkin were the hideous torments of adult family life. The beautiful fantasy gets replaced by the sordid reality, the truth of the matter. And, by the way, if you are interested to know what the so-called Movement style was (with which Larkin and Kingsley Amis’s names were associated), this little item is a typical Movement poem: formally clever, disenchanted, as much a critique of reading as of life.

But these boys who dream of native girls who bring breadfruit as brides, in their Margaret Mead-ish way, are themselves the victims of a misprint. The lines should read:

Boys dream of native girls who bring breadfruit,
Whatever they are,
As bribes to teach them how to execute
Sixteen sexual positions in the sand.

The native girls don’t yet know how to do this. They need the boys to show them how. It’s a radically different fantasy.

But I’m glad Thwaite reprinted this characteristic poem, even if Larkin decided not to like it. It exists. It is part of Larkin’s history. It was even published.

Here is a more complex example of plausible misprints. It is a poem, possibly unfinished, written in 1955, called “Long Sight in Age.”

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
To long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves—all these,
They say, come back into focus
As we grow old.

This is a beautiful idea, expressed in a twelve-line lyric. How could we guess, though, that Larkin had, not “time put an edge / Round the last shape of things” but “time put an edge / Round the lost shape of things / To show them there…” Things regain their lost shapes. And then “The many-levelled trees, / The long soft tides of grass / Wrinkling away the gold / Wind-ridden waves”—I can see it, the wind riding the grass in waves that seem to wrinkle. But it’s not Larkin. It should be: “The long soft tides of grass / Wincing away, the gold / Wind-ridden vanes.” They are weather vanes, ridden by the wind, which come back into focus as we grow old.

Three unexpectedly wrong words in twelve lines is of course far too many, but such mistakes in Thwaite 1 were not frequent, and could easily be corrected, as most were corrected between printings. What could not be corrected without a new edition altogether was the editorial conception of the volume, the chronological ordering and the mixture of published with unpublished and uncollected work. To many poets—I should think to most poets—reading Thwaite 1, the picture of Larkin’s development as a poet was itself the chief fascination, and we did not mind successes and lesser works being placed side by side. But other readers did. The executors had manifestly ignored one part of Larkin’s will (destroy unpublished work unread). Now all this unpublished and uncollected material had been allowed to mess up the canon.

Under pressure from the publisher, Faber, Thwaite in 2003, fifteen years after Thwaite 1, brought out Thwaite 2, in which he followed Larkin’s arrangement of the four volumes, and then put the uncollected poems in two appendices. The first was for things that, though printed in magazines, didn’t get into any of the four volumes. The second is that touching group of nine poems written and published in the last, least fecund decade of Larkin’s life. This is where one finds “Aubade” and “The Life with a Hole in It” and “The Mower,” along with the occasional public verse that Larkin did well in his best lapidary style.

This second collected, Thwaite 2, is to me an unwelcome addition to the pile, because it fails to do what I think a Collected Poems should do—be the place where you know you will find what you are looking for. It is true that Auden’s Collected Poems failed to give the readers things they might be looking for, notably texts of “Spain” and “September 1 1939.” But this is not Ed Mendelson’s choice. Such poems were omitted because Auden definitely rejected them from his oeuvre, in an act of editing or self-curating that was itself controversial in its day. But while Auden’s wishes were known, and were followed in the Collected, Mendelson also brought out The English Auden, which is assembled on different principles, and includes both of the famous missing poems.

Thwaite 1 was clearly expected by Thwaite himself to be kept in print alongside Thwaite 2. But the reader would have to be rather attentive and savvy not to be bewildered at the discovery that there were two Collected Larkins, edited by the same man, and that the second contained fewer poems than the first.

For instance, there is a violent and unpleasant poem called “Love Again,” which is another late composition (written in 1979, two years after “Aubade”), and which evokes the humiliations of sexual jealousy. I once wrote of Larkin that in certain of his poems one has to pay, as it were, an ugliness tax—you start with something unpleasant or unpleasantly expressed, and then Larkin pulls off some beautiful effect. Larkin himself has expressed this dichotomy. He said that “every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful, and the beautiful ones true. I could go through my poems marking them as one or the other… When I say beautiful, I mean the original idea seemed beautiful. When I say true, I mean something was grinding its knuckles in my neck and I thought: God, I’ve got to say this somehow, I have to find words and I’ll make them as beautiful as possible.”

This is true of, for instance, “High Windows,” which begins as true (“When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm”) and then turns beautiful (“I know this is paradise // Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives— / Bonds and gestures pushed to one side / Like an outdated combine harvester, / And everyone young going down the long slide // To happiness, endlessly”). And it is true in the opposite sense in “Sunny Prestatyn,” which starts out with the pleasing image of the girl on the holiday advertisement, who is then mercilessly defaced, to be replaced by the ugly “Fight Cancer” poster. But “Love Again” has a particular brutality:

Love again, wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.

Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt,
Someone else drowned in that lash-wide stare,
And me supposed to be ignorant,
Or find it funny, or not to care,
Even…but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element

That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a kind 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.

Perhaps it never turns as beautiful as Larkin can elsewhere be, but it certainly becomes intriguing and suggestive. What is this thing that spreads through other lives like a tree but never worked for Larkin? It must be love, and the poem asks why this furiously jealous, drunken insomniac has never known love. Larkin writes about “Love Again” to the editor C.B. Cox:

I am afraid there is little hope for the poem. For one thing, it is intensely personal, with four-letter words for further orders, and not the sort of thing the sturdy burghers of Manchester would wish to read; for another, 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. Well, of course, anyone who asks a question by definition doesn’t know the answer, and I am no exception. So there we are.

In other words, the crucial problem with the poem is not the “too much information” in the first two stanzas (although that could be a difficulty with a genteel readership). It is the conclusion—the inability of the poet to say exactly why love “didn’t work for me.”

And here the reader looks in vain to the drafts of the poem, to search for clues as to what sort of violence a long way back and what sort of wrong rewards Larkin can mean. There are variants and crossings-out, but they deepen the mystery: “Perhaps it needs [greed or] other violence [than ownership] Other than [fruitless] end-stopped ecstasy, to bring rewards.” He seems to be saying here that sex alone, non-procreative sex, doesn’t bring the right rewards. But he is an odd person to be saying this, since he often elsewhere denigrates the rewards of procreative sex—“Breadfruit” being a case in point.

Whatever the thought that had eluded him, whatever the technical difficulty of fitting it into three lines, “Love Again” has exerted a fascination for many readers, and particularly, I think, for poets. Thwaite 1 thought it worth publishing. Thwaite 2 excluded it under overall terms of editorial policy. Archie Burnett, who puts in everything that Larkin completed, publishes it again. The Collected Larkin expands, contracts, and expands again hugely, so that with notes and apparatus the Burnett Complete Larkin exceeds 700 pages, of which a mere 90 pages are enough to accommodate the poems Larkin published and collected in his lifetime.

A further 220 pages accommodate uncollected and unpublished work, juvenilia, abandoned or rejected poems, and trivial items of a kind which Thwaite excluded deliberately from his volume because they were little squibs in the letters to friends, and Thwaite felt that they needed their context in order to be understood. Some are just jokes:

After drinking Glenfiddich
I say good rubbance to bad riddich.

Or playful asides:

The polyp comes and goes,
I can’t breave frew my effin nose.

Some are offensive. “How to win the Next Election” dates from 1966, and so is presumably written in the Conservative cause. It goes:

Prison for strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?

Trade with the Empire,
Ban the Obscene,
Lock up the Commies,
God Save the Queen.

This song, which Larkin sent in various versions to various correspondents, became known at once by word of mouth. And it presents a problem for his admirers, which is by no means unique. It’s the problem of entering the spirit of a sense of humor that has aged badly. Do we think that Larkin actually wanted to bring back the cat-o’-nine-tails? No, we don’t. Do we believe that he was a racist and wanted to kick out the “niggers”? Well, why’s he writing this kind of thing? Oh, he’s writing this kind of thing because the joke is to say the unsayable. This might not have been much of a joke, say, on the streets of Notting Hill, but within his coterie his friends would be able to know and judge exactly how little he meant of it—or how much. God Save the Queen? He meant it fervently. “Ban the Obscene”? Larkin himself pioneered the use of obscene language in serious poems, as we have seen. He can’t possibly have meant it. So what about “Kick out the niggers” again? What kind of complicity is he asking for? A sort of “This is a very funny idea, only one must not say so in public, what”? Is that it? Is that as far as it goes?

Nothing, I think, is harder to revive than the sense of humor of a coterie. Auden and Kallman wrote some things together that clearly had them in stitches, but the sense of humor was that of the gay coterie of mid-century America. Even gay people don’t get it now, any more than they would get the gay argot of the London underworld of the 1940s or 1950s.

My late friend Christopher Hitchens, in his memoirs, made the mistake of trying to revive the memory of a series of jokes that he and Martin Amis had developed, with which they could keep a dinner-table in stitches for an evening. I remember those evenings well, yet I could have warned Christopher that the jokes would struggle on the page. The reason was that the act Christopher and Martin had so lovingly developed depended on a repertoire of voices and facial expressions, as well as tricks of intonation which had become familiar to the audience, so that a single syllable, “Si,” or an exclamation—“Oh no”—could set people off.

The gags Larkin developed were both private and public. I find Larkin’s slang quite bizarre: “My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps…” “In a pig’s arse, friend.” Whoever said, “In a pig’s arse”? Well, the answer is that Larkin said it, not seldom. And because he put it into a poem, other people now say it as a way of referring to that poem. Larkin and Kingsley Amis egged each other on in this use of personal slang, just as Martin and Christopher later did. In both cases, the humor was very cruel sometimes, or comically heartless. Indefensible is one word for it—it was never intended to be defensible. To defend it would be to miss the point of it.

And if you say that what was designed for private amusement should just have been left private, you still have to deal with published and collected poems of Larkin’s such as “Posterity”:

Jake Balokowsky, my biographer,
Has this page microfilmed. Sitting inside
His air-conditioned cell at Kennedy
In jeans and sneakers, he’s no call to hide
Some slight impatience with his destiny:
“I’m stuck with this old fart at least a year;

I wanted to teach school in Tel Aviv,
But Myra’s folks”—he makes the money sign—
“Insisted I got tenure. When there’s kids—”
He shrugs. “It’s stinking dead, the research line;
Just let me put this bastard on the skids,
I’ll get a couple of semesters leave

To work on Protest Theater.” They both rise,
Make for the Coke dispenser. “What’s he like?
Christ, I just told you. Oh, you know the thing,
That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych,
Not out of kicks or something happening—
One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys.”

“Of course,” Larkin wrote to Monica Jones, “it’s about my favorite theme that people will never be unhappy again the way we are unhappy—we were born in the very tip of the shadow —Everything I write now seems to come back to this.” But “Posterity” has always struck me as a thoroughly vain poem, imagining your biographer and then destroying his character on the grounds that he can’t appreciate yours. And I think I always chiefly saw it as an example of English anti-Americanism, not untypical of its day. He has only to mention jeans and sneakers and Coke and semesters for his reader, he feels, to seethe with sympathy.

For some reason, though, I’d forgotten, or never been much struck by, the cool anti-Semitism of it. Jake Balokowski, who would rather be in Tel Aviv, is stuck writing about Larkin because of his in-laws’ devotion to money. As Larkin wrote to Monica Jones: “It gets in Yanks, Yids, wives, kids, Coca Cola, Protest, & the Theater—pretty good list of hates, eh?” Well, yes, it really does pack in the hates: the way the scansion asks you to say re-search instead of the English re-search, the spelling of Theater with an -er, and the “Yanks, Yids, wives, kids.” What are we to say about this? That he doesn’t really hate the Yids—it’s just part of his curmudgeonly old act, something he’s putting on for his girlfriend? Or it’s just like his pretending to want to chuck out the niggers—something said for effect, swathed in veils of irony? It needs one heck of a lot of swathing.

You might love Larkin’s poetry, you might love Larkin the man, as a difficult, impossible, incurably unhappy character. You can’t love Larkin as you might love, say, George Herbert—in full confidence that you will love everything about him. You have to, as it were, pause before you enter the room, to give him time to adjust his dress. You have to find a way of setting aside what is really, after all, reprehensible. You have to balance an appreciation of his painful honesty with his tricksiness and I would say his notable streak of dishonesty.

Archie Burnett’s editon, which I have been relying on for its remarkable commentary, is somewhat keen to point out the perceived shortcomings of other editors, Thwaite and particularly A.T. Toley, who did an edition of the Early Poems and Juvenilia. One feels obliged to point out that Burnett’s is a very difficult book to use. Amazingly enough, there is no way of getting from a poem directly to its note—there are no running page numbers for reference. You have to work out that the way to the notes is through the index of titles and first lines, where the second page number will be the one for the note.

And then—a small matter for a textual scholar, but a cause of unease for the reader—when it comes to telling where one untitled poem ends and another begins, you are on your own. There is no little typographic device to separate one of these unsorted, disparate exhibits from the next, and while the ambiguities involved may be only momentary or slight, it gives a dissonant effect to any reading. You always have to be prepared for a complete change of tone. For instance, on the same two-page spread as the Glenfiddich squib and “Kick out the niggers” and

I dreamed I saw a commie rally
And put my boot up Tariq Ali;
Them I shagged Vanessa Redgrave,
Waking only when the bed gave

you get


Clouds merge, the coast darkens,
Sunless barley stirs,
The sloping field alters
To weed-ribboned rock,
Waders and lichens.
The sea collapses, freshly.

A vacant park inland
Is roughened by wind.
Trees throng the light-oak chapel.
Storm-spots quicken round
A railed tomb of sailors.
The house is shuttered.

Embedded in the horizon
A tiny sunlit ship
Seems not to be moving.

O things going away!

And you must pause there and ignore what lies beneath the triple space, which is “The polyp comes & goes, / I can’t breave frew my effing nose.”

Such are the perils of completion. Such is the yard-sale effect. But it is strange that Burnett, who has done such a comprehensive job on both text and notes, and made such a contribution to our understanding of the poems as a result, should have produced a volume that is so obnoxious to use.

James Fenton, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, was the Oxford Professor of Poetry fron 1994 to 1999 and was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2007. He has also worked as a political journalist, drama critic, war correspondent, and playwright; his latest work for the stage is an adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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