The dreary laureate of our provincialism: Here is Larkin, a minor poet raised to undeserved monumentality

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The Independent Online
EVEN before the latest revelations emerging from Andrew Motion's biography, it was easy to make a case for disliking Philip Larkin to the point of revulsion. So much in the life, and quite a bit in the work, exudes a repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity. 'Hard-swearing, hard- belching' was how his friend Kingsley Amis remembered him as an undergraduate, and in his prose, most particularly his letters, the cracked bell of his dreary, predictable, damp, reductive misery tolls relentlessly. At their worst the poems simply add rhyme and scansion to this drab tocsin - 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . .' At their best . . . well, what did they do at their best? What did Larkin mean and why is this provincial grotesque now so adored, edited, biographied and generally elevated to the highest ranks of Eng Lit? Larkin is, Motion tells us, one of the great poets of the 20th century and his voice became 'one of the means by which his country recognised itself'.

Of course, any defence of Larkin the poet must first discard the taint of Larkin the man. Certainly many liked, even worshipped him, but to the objective eye he seems to have been almost wholly repulsive, even in the recollections of close friends like Amis. Many artists - Samuel Beckett, Gustave Flaubert - have adopted a personal pose of extreme pessimism and loathing of the world, but none has done so with quite such a grinding focus on littleness and triviality as Larkin the man.

Beckett's depression was very funny and very profound, Flaubert's illuminated by an angry genius, but Larkin's was seldom more than grimly inward and futile.

'The beautiful flowers of his poetry,' admits Motion wistfully, 'were already growing on long stalks out of pretty dismal ground.'

Yet few of us would have had the ghastly Mozart round to dinner twice, however much we might have loved his music. Artists are not necessarily nice. Political correctness is of no use here, for, in truth, vicious misanthropy, fascism and sexism are more often the accompaniments of genius than benign multiculturalism. Knowing the life may cast light on the art, but we can almost never hope for a strictly linear equation: good/nice artist equals good/nice art. Grotesquely to misquote Oscar Wilde: that a man is a bilious racist apparently possessed of a horribly deformed sexuality is nothing against his poetry.

But there is a non-linear life/work equation with Larkin, an equation that does establish his position as a major post-war British figure. What it cannot do, however, is establish him as a major British poet.

The first point is that he is immensely popular, about as popular as it is possible for a poet to be these days short of becoming Pam Ayres or Maya Angelou. His books - even the 20 volumes of his letters - sell prodigiously and the directness of his verse is a gift for any English teacher struggling to teach modern poetry that seems, elsewhere, to be dominated by an aesthetic of meaninglessness. At this level, at least, he is unquestionably the leading contender for the title of our 'great' poet.

This popularity is not an accident. Almost from the beginning Larkin was determined to oppose the view, expressed by T S Eliot, that 'poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult'. For Larkin, Eliot's elitism was part of a literary conspiracy between poet, critic and academic, designed to annex the art of poetry and remove it from the grubby attentions of the masses. Popularity was, for him, an artistic imperative.

In the immediate post-war years such a reaction was precisely in tune with a significant and vociferous element in the national psyche. England and Englishness had prevailed over something nasty in Europe - more to the point, they had prevailed over something modern and nasty. The war appeared to prove that the sturdy provincial values of England were a match for the international industrialism of Germany. It was time to return to a solid, brass-bound, English common sense, perfectly accessible to the solid, brass-bound yeomanry.

It is this conviction of the virtues of our domestic ordinariness that still underpins the appeal of Larkin. The ideal of English common sense remains as potent in our rhetoric as does the ideal of 'the dream' in America. It is the oaken heart of Europhobia and the greensward upon which frolic the more sentimental Thatcherites. After all, there is still something nasty in Europe whether it is the Bundesbank, Jacques Delors or post-structuralist literary theory.

When the doctrine of common sense is employed, it is usually accompanied by a scornful rejection of foreign over-sophistication, incompetence and sinister plotting. All of those, of course, are qualities associated with modernism, an artistic movement described by that arch proponent of common sense, Professor John Carey of Oxford, as no more than a 'determined effort . . . to exclude the masses from culture'. This is about as true as saying that Comic Relief was a brilliant marketing device for red plastic noses. From an insanely narrow perspective, it was, but who wants to be insanely narrow?

Yet, unfortunately, common sense in Larkin does not quite produce the desired effect of dappled sunlight and drowsy summer evenings. Little England and her homely virtues had her laureate in Sir John Betjeman. But Larkin's littleness centred upon a provincialism that was almost vicious - he liked churches and the life of English towns, but only grudgingly. And his fulminations against abroad and foreigners in general are as genuinely part of the man as are Church Going and High Windows.

The perverse truth about this compounded misery was that, in impulse if not in execution, Larkin was a modernist. His 'common sense' told him that, stripped of its myths and illusions, life was a senseless decline towards death. It was the same insight that modernism confronted. But the modernists had tried to stitch the culture back together in the light of this sense of meaninglessness. For Larkin, this was an obscurantist futility. The 'truth' lay in an ordinary, universal suffering of banal frustrations occasionally illuminated by shafts of an entirely unconvincing transcendence.

'This is the most difficult thing we have to learn about life,' he wrote, 'that nothing is absolute, that it is only we who are in love, or miserable, or about to die.'

Others, throughout history, have learnt precisely the opposite, and Larkin's gloom is as much a form of faith as the happiest, clappiest Christianity. But that was the man and, for him, the best that poetry could hope to do was crystallise the passing sensations of such a lonely existence. The gesture of the life was a turning of the back, a shrugging of the shoulder, an irritable 'why bother?'; the art was a consoling balancing act, a remote radio signal from the distant planet of Hull that, at least, we were all in this loneliness together.

And this, far more than Ted Hughes, is our contemporary laureate. He is, as Motion says, one of the means by which the country recognises itself. He is a hero of many factions. Soft-left literary types like him because of the precision with which he embodies a certain view of post- war Englishness and, presumably, because of his accessible, populist rejection of the high and dry conservatism of the great modernists. The Thatcherite right likes him because he liked her so much and because he seems to fit with its fantasy of English literature as a pure, clear common- sensical flow. Even the Americans like him for providing them with more consoling evidence of the sad but occasionally picturesque decline of England.

His enemies are the politically correct, the straight modernists and the cultural dissidents. The truth - all right, my truth - is that here is a sporadically excellent minor poet who has been raised to an undeserved monumentality by the ease with which he appears to make a cultural and historical point. So much of what was modern did become frightening, remote and inhuman that we cling to this fragment of anti-modern modernity in sheer gratitude. So much of what is new is transnational and characterless that we cling to this cantankerous slice of provinciality as reassuring evidence of local flavour. But this is not enough. Great art has always been more than a passive embodiment, an endorsement of the familiar and the obvious. Larkin is a fine monster, but he is also a drab symptom of a peculiar contemporary national impulse to refuse all ambition, to snigger and skulk defensively at the first sign of 'difficulty'.

----------------------------------------------------------------- The Winter Palace ----------------------------------------------------------------- Most people know more as they get older: I give all that the cold shoulder. I spent my second quarter-century Losing what I had learnt at university And refusing to take in what had happened since. Now I know none of the names in the public prints, And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces And swearing I've never been in certain places. It will be worth it, if in the end I manage To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage. Then there will be nothing I know. My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow. 1 November 1978. Reprinted from 'Philip Larkin: Collected Poems', edited by Anthony Thwaite, the Marvell Press and Faber & Faber. -----------------------------------------------------------------

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