Letting rip for love's sake

Thursday Book: REFERENCE BACK: PHILIP LARKIN'S UNCOLLECTED JAZZ WRITINGS, 1940-84 EDITED BY RICHARD PALMER AND JOHN WHITE UNIVERSITY OF HULL PRESS, pounds 19.99

"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

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?