Letting rip for love's sake


"OH FOR Christ's sake, one doesn't study poets! You read them and think: `That's marvellous, how is it done, could I do it?... First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God." Thus, unmistakably, Philip Larkin, interviewed by The Paris Review in 1982. By this time he was writing very little. His last substantial poem, the magnificent, terminally bleak "Aubade", had appeared five years earlier and since then poetry seemed to have abandoned him.

Strong as ever, though, were the flashes of celebratory conviction, lit by nostalgia and perhaps a residual spark of hope. No poet is more sure of his ground than the poet who can't feel it moving under him any more. What he knows is that his vanished inspiration "is for others undiminished somewhere". I don't believe that Larkin was resigned to his own silence, but if he was then the resignation certainly seemed to intensify his expressions of belief in the pleasure principle and his impatience with the swank of obscurity in all the arts.

When jazz came up in that same interview, the predictable question "Why do you mistrust the new?" was prompted by that well-known introduction to the collection of his Daily Telegraph record reviews, All What Jazz?. After a brief reprise of his familiar views on the ugliness of "modernism" and the wrecking of jazz through bebop's shift from the diatonic to the chromatic scale, the apparently disenchanted enthusiast again let rip in the name of love: "If I sound heated on this, it's because I love jazz, the jazz of Armstrong and Bechet and Ellington and Bessie Smith and Beiderbecke. To have it all destroyed by a paranoiac drug-addict made me furious. Anyway, it's dead now, dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing. We can only treasure the records. And I do."

Poor old anorak Larkin, might be the impression given to anyone who had not read the reviews. There he is, alone with his gramophone, muttering an embittered mantra - Picasso, Pound and paranoiac Parker - as he puts on another vinyl, four beats to the bar and no messing. Glorious Storyville, shameful Birdland.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as this marvellously readable gathering of jazz-book reviews, reports to publishers and other items reminds those of us who never fell for the image of Larkin as a lugubrious square - any more than we did for his claim in All What Jazz? that, as a record reviewer, he had set out to be the equivalent of those "old whores who had grown old in the reviewing game by praising everything".

This was surely mischievous self-deprecation. As Alan Plater says in his foreword to Reference Back, Larkin was "a grown-up critic in the true sense of the word, seeing praise as a crucial area of responsibility". While this is evident throughout the book, he can never bring himself to surrender entirely to the uncritical responses of fellow jazz writers, or overlook their lumpen prose.

Typical is his reservation about The New Yorker's mainly admirable Whitney Balliett. While relishing his gift of making his style as vivid as the music (so often Larkin's own achievement), he becomes impatient with the "reportage school of criticism" Balliett represents. "He has no blind spots. As Arnold Bennett said of Eddie Marsh, he's a miserable fellow, he enjoys everything."

As an informed enthusiast, with the courage of his own blind spots, Larkin has an engagement with the music rather than a scholarly detachment or a fan's gush. He doesn't study jazz, he listens to it then writes, whether about its practitioners or its chroniclers, with wit, eloquence and judgement.

Reference Back is so full of good things that the editors enticingly devote a page of their introduction to a mini-anthology of those "glancing blows, thrown away en passant", as Alan Plater calls them. It is these, however short, that will delight the general reader. They show the "poet at work" and often involve a literary cross-over explained, where necessary, in the exemplary notes. One of my favourites comes in the review of a book of jazz photographs where "Mr Condon's growing resemblance to Miss Ivy Compton-Burnett" is noted. Pure Mr Alan Bennett, that.

This is a treasury to relish; an essential addition to the Larkin canon. When it comes to the cut-off point, the arrival of what he finds the "new inherently hostile Negro in-music of the Forties", it is impossible not to see Larkin's response (as in a 1969 review of two books by the then Leroi Jones) as that of the old-fashioned jazz lover for whom "what was happy entertainment is now harsh didacticism". But his engagement even here is honest, intelligent, culturally aware and far from the mouldy- fig, back-to-the-Delta scorn one sometimes feels his detractors would like it to be.

John Mole

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