They Turn on Larkin

By Kissick, Gary | The Antioch Review, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

They Turn on Larkin


Kissick, Gary, The Antioch Review


Now that Philip Larkin has succumbed to the death he abhorred, that "anaesthetic from which none come round," one can see some real advantage to its dreaded sensory deprivations, for while Larkin may have failed to escape death's clutches, he has at least escaped the deadly clutches of his critics. Not even the most casual observer of the English literary scene can fail to have noticed that in the past few months many big guns have turned on Britain's best-loved poet. Ironically, it' s publications by friends that have prompted this zealous bombardment - first, last year's collection of Larkin's letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite (who edited Larkin's collected poems and once produced an adulatory anthology to celebrate Larkin' s sixtieth birthday), and now a biography by one of Larkin' s most ardent admirers, Andrew Motion. Motion rates Larkin as one of the greatest poets of our century, and anyone who has heard him read his own poems will know how much he treasured his association with Larkin (at the University of Hull), and how much he flattered him by poor imitation. But Motion' 5 admiration for Larkin may have blinded him to how damaging the truth appears to those less enamored. A mere scan of the index entries under "Larkin" provides a quick overview of what the fuss is all about. After HEALTH ("hypochondria," "giddiness," "agoraphobia") comes the often neglected SHYNESS AND GLOOM ("hermit of Hull," "stammer," "depression"). Under SEX one finds "homosexual inclinations," "lesbian romances" (he wrote two), "sexual log books," and "complains about expense." Under ATTITUDES AND OPINIONS there are "dislike of children," "loathing of abroad," "fear of death," "right-wing politics," and "racism." INTERESTS include "jazz," "smoking," "drinking," and "pornography." Such entries read like an ill-advised computer dating form; they certainly sketch a less than attractive personality. And this is why Larkin-bashing is now much in vogue. Suddenly, Larkin has become a man on whom it is embarrassingly easy to heap scornful adjectives. The question, as expressed by John Carey, chief literary critic of the Sunday Times, is simply this: "Do the revelations about Philip Larkin's life - his morose and confused relationships, his addiction to porn, his casual racism - blacken his reputation as a writer?"

On this, the critics differ, but all who've reviewed the biography, regardless of whether they've come to praise Larkin or to bury him, clearly revel in recounting the uncomfortable details - from his father' s figure of Hitler on the mantelpiece (it would, if wound up, salute) to his rant against Labour in a letter to Kingsley Amis: "Fuck the whole lot of them, I say, the decimal-loving, nigger-mad, army-cutting, abortion-promoting, murderer-pardoning, daylight-hating ponces...." Anthony Burgess, a defender, coyly titles his review "Not a Very Lovely Thing to Be" (an allusion to the Queen Mother's "Oh, what a lovely thing to be," when Larkin was introduced to her as Hull's "poetry librarian"). He calls Larkin a "drunken abusive wanker" whose poetry was, nevertheless, "the real thing."

Others have been less charitable. Brian Appleyard, in the Independent, brands Larkin as "repellent, smelly, inadequate." A.N. Wilson, literary editor of the Evening Standard, calls Larkin "The Old Friend I Never Liked," a "nutcase," and the meanest man he ' d ever met. Peter Ackroyd, of the Times, sees Larkin as a prematurely old man who armored himself in a "carapace of wilful ordinariness." In early poems such ordinariness was "a facetious way of pricking literary pretentiousness," but it soon became "a rancid and insidious philistinism," and the poems themselves, once forceful, subsided into a "drab monologue of misery and self-pity." And there were, of course, personal failings: a love life that was "a paradigm of indecision and deceit," and a now well-advertised racial and social intolerance. Such failings would "not necessarily prevent anyone from being a great poet as well, but in Larkin's case no such consolation was ever available. …

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