Serious Poetry Bum: Philip Larkin

Click to follow
EVEN before he met Kingsley Amis, Larkin knew that mentioning such things as 'the unconscious' in college would be likely to produce a chorus of Metro Goldwyn Mayer snarls. Once Amis had arrived at St John's it was out of the question - he had to settle for a world in which serious enthusiasms were coated with mollifying ironies, or buried altogether under layers of jokes. He did so happily enough, behaving - according to Amis - as 'an almost aggressively normal undergraduate of the non-highbrow sort, hard swearing, hard belching, etc, treating the college dons as fodder for obscene clerihews . . . (and) the porter as a comic ogre'.

His dislike of tutorial work grew week by week. 'We paid special attention to the Romantic poets,' Amis remembers. 'They all signed on as Bill Wordsworth and his Hot Six - Wordsworth (tmb) with 'Lord' Byron (tpt), Percy Shelley (sop), Johnny Keats (alto and clt), Sam 'Tea' Coleridge (pno), Jimmy Hogg (bs), Bob Southey (ds) . . . Shelley was singled out for a form of travesty in which nothing was altered but much added: 'Music,' began one of Philip's (parodies), 'when soft silly voices, that have been talking piss die, / Vibrates, like a . . . ' ' Another, longer send-up survives in a letter to Jim Sutton. Presented as 'the latest work of the brilliant new Post-Masturbationist Poet, Shaggerybox McPhallus . . . (whose) latest book of verse, 'The Escaped Cock', deals almost exclusively with problems of intense spiritual value, which are yet so universal in their application as to be ensured of a wide public', it is in fact a parody of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci':

And this is why I shag alone

Ere half my creeping days are done.

The wind coughs sharply in the stove,

There is no sun

To light my way to bed: the leaves

Are brown upon the icy tree;

The swallows all have left the eaves

Silently, silently.

Where rewriting literature could not satisfy them, Larkin and Amis took to defacing it. In an essay published to commemorate Larkin's 60th birthday, Amis recalled coming across Larkin's comment on the St John's library copy of The Faerie Queene. 'At the foot of the last page of the text he had written in pencil in his unmistakable, beautiful, spacious hand: 'First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it.' '

Amis tells us that he 'queried the uncharacteristically non-alcoholic language' of this, as well he might have done. A much more typical defacement was inflicted on Amis's copy of Keats's Poems, where beside the lines 'ethereal, flushed, and like a throbbing star / Into her dream he melted', from 'The Eve of St Agnes', Larkin wrote: 'YOU MEAN HE FUCKED HER'.

There were other sorts of writerly vandalism, too. They devised a game called 'horsepissing', in which certain existing words in a text were replaced by obscenities - and in their letters to each other, now and later, versions of the same thing appeared. Whenever Larkin found himself writing a sentence which included anything risky or double- entendre-ish, he interpolated wild phonetic whoops and yelps, or a Billy Bunterish 'Aaaargh, leggo my . . .' Similarly, it became their habit to dispense with 'love' or 'yours ever' as they signed off, and to provide instead a word or phrase about whatever happened to be preoccupying them at the time, with 'bum' stuck on the end of it. The habit lasted until Larkin died, and no one was spared: C H Sisson bum; Margaret Thatcher bum; Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry bum.

Amis refers to these things as 'sheer childishness', and so they were, in a way. Yet it's impossible not to see in them something other than simple high spirits. In their later work, Larkin and Amis develop their undergraduate snipings into a sustained barrage against pomposity. Even more important is the way their early desecrations anticipate the structure of much of their subsequent writing, and Amis's writing in particular. Their merely 'childish' defacements create a mocking sub-text below everything that is familiar and respectable, just as Lucky Jim (for instance) organises a great deal of its humour around the discrepancies between what can be said or shown in public, and what in private.