Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Larkin's Blues: Jazz and Modernism

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Larkin's Blues: Jazz and Modernism

Article excerpt

The wonderful music that swept the world during the first half of this century . . . was of limited appeal, but that appeal was new and definite: a certain area of musical and rhythmic sensibility was being played on for the first time.

- Larkin, "Wells or Gibbon?" in All What Jazz

Russell, Charles Ellsworth "Pee Wee" (b. 1906), clarinet and saxophone player extraordinary, was, mutatis mutandis, our Swinburne and our Byron.

- Larkin, Introduction to Jill

Offering an explanation for the source of his poetry ("unhappiness") and the source of his popularity ("writing about unhappiness"), Larkin told an interviewer late in his career that deprivation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth (RW 47).(1) Although unhappiness is a state we readily associate with Larkin's poetry, deprivation as a description of the circumstance of his life doesn't quite ring true, perhaps because it is dictated by the alliterative echo of daffodils (and wit seems an inappropriate mode for expressing deprivation). Or perhaps it is because the post-biography-and-letters Larkin appears now to have indulged himself to a degree even exceeding the norm in that traditional triad of worldly pleasures wine, women, and song, what he termed in an unfinished poem "Drink, sex and jazz - all sweet things" (CP 154). Whatever the case, a more persuasive argument might be made that it was not the fact of deprivation but the musical and rhythmic sensibility of deprivation, the blues, which were for Larkin what daffodils were for Wordsworth. For Larkin, the "hallmark" of the blues was exactly their capacity to express the "solitary anguish" (AWJ 86) of the African-American's life of deprivation. His praise for the blues and for jazz in general - that is, the music for which the blues serve as foundation - is based, ironically, on an admiration for the sort of emotional honesty missing in the comparison with Wordsworth.(2) He characterizes the blues as "a kind of jazz that calls forth a particular sincerity from the player ('Yeah, he's all right, but can he play the blues?')," and he argues that the "Negro did not have the blues because he was naturally melancholy. He had them because he was cheated and bullied and starved" (AWJ 87, 224). The deprivation-daffodil parallel more aptly applies to the makers of the music to which Larkin was addicted and through which he experienced his privation secondhand.

It is perhaps decisive for Larkin's own version of jazz and the blues that his jazz sensibility was formed in adolescence. "I became a jazz addict at the age of 12 or 13," he remembers (Letters 416), so he might also have said, preserving the alliteration, that jazz was for him what juvenescence was for Wordsworth. At a time when Wordsworth was, by his testimony, bounding like a roe o'er the mountains, Larkin was entering his subscription to Down Beat and learning to play the drums. And while Wordsworth remembers the "very Heaven" of being young at the time of the French Revolution, Larkin's later reflection on his youth was that it was his particular bliss to have been young at the only time he could have experienced the pleasure of jazz. Had he died on 9 August 1922 instead of being born then, or had he been born a decade or so later, he would have missed it all (AWJ 28), since, he notes, jazz was the "emotional excitement" peculiar to one generation, his own, that "came to adolescence" between the two World Wars. "In another age," he suggests, "it might have been drink or drugs, religion or poetry" (Letters 416, AWJ 15). Or daffodils or revolution. Larkin's claim to have substituted jazz for the inspirations and excitements of other ages is something more than his characteristic philistine pose, even if it is also that. Jazz was, along with poetry, the great passion of his life ("In many ways I prefer it to poetry")(3) and his reader may well wonder about the extent to which the two passions intersect.

Larkin has given readers cause to think that the popular music of his time was a part of the climate in which his conception of poetry took shape. …

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