A portrait of the poet as a painfully isolated man

August 22, 1993|By John E. McIntyre

PHILIP LARKIN:

A WRITER'S LIFE

Andrew Motion

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

524 pages. $35

A bookish boy with an overbearing father and a flighty mother who left him with an enduring horror of marriage grows up in Coventry, England. Myopic, solitary and stammering, he learns early to cultivate an inner life of the imagination. After Oxford, he becomes a librarian, rising to head the university library at Hull. He never marries, although he manages to carry on affairs with three women -- two of them co-workers -- at the same time. He drinks; he grows reactionary; he dies of cancer at the age of 63.

After his death in 1985, one of the women who loved him carries out his dying instructions to burn his journals. As she feeds them into the paper shredder, bits of entries catch her eye: "They were very unhappy. Desperate really."

There, bare and in short form, is the life. It remains to add that Philip Larkin, in spite of -- and in part because of -- these grim circumstances, was also one of the foremost poets in English in the second half of this century.

But before the work, the life. It was, as Larkin's colleague, fellow poet and friend Andrew Motion comments dryly in the introduction to this biography, not "a life much diversified by event."

We have the details, set forth clearly: home in Coventry with its "atmosphere of clenched irritation which clouded the whole experience of childhood," the series of poky rented rooms where Larkin lived, the distinguished career as an academic librarian (though Larkin once confessed to a colleague at Hull that he had read the whole of "War and Peace" during University Senate meetings), the lifelong passion for jazz, the friendships with writer Kingsley Amis and others, the love affairs with Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan that both sustained and tormented Larkin.

The tone is detached and even-handed, intimate but undeceived. If you are to have your foibles exposed, it might as well be by someone with Mr. Motion's sense of language and tone.

Here, for example, is Larkin on vacation: "For Larkin to reckon a holiday successful, it had to surprise him with a few pleasures and confirm his view that leaving home was always a mistake."

There is an unflinching examination of the violently reactionary and racist tone of the letters that have caused an uproar since their publication in England: "He meant everything he said, but he turned up the volume to the point at which his voice began to distort."

Ultimately, the life leads always back to the work, for the sake of which Larkin maintained a painful isolation for most of his adult life. The themes one can trace through the poems -- that "life is first boredom then fear," that "love dies whether fulfilled or unfulfilled," that we find ourselves "bound to the here-and-now while longing for transcendent release" -- also thread the life, from which they are developed and transmuted into universality through poetry.

Look at the conclusion of "An Arundel Tomb," written after Larkin saw in Chichester Cathedral a monument to the Earl of Arundel and his wife, and became entranced with the image of the two marble figures lying side by side, holding hands. His poem concludes:

Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true;

0$ What will survive of us is love.

Although the last line is threatened with capture by people to whom poetry is something to be sewn on a sampler, the whole stanza, particularly with those two crucial "almosts," shows the undiluted Larkinian complexity: that there is a vision of transcendent beauty and wholeness, that it is inaccessible to us, that we cannot do without it.

What Mr. Motion accomplishes is to show how much Larkin's weaknesses were also part of his strengths, how his pain and isolation (and even his mean-spiritedness and stinginess) contributed to the accomplishment of the poetry, in which Larkin "tackles the big, central issues of ordinary life in the language of ordinary speech, and makes them numinous."

Against that strength, the weaknesses of this book are of little account. We could complain that we are told more often how entertaining a friend and companion Larkin was without being shown it (there could be more than the brief image of Larkin's cavorting about a room to jazz, sloshing the contents of a large gin and tonic). We can see that Mr. Motion's theory about the need for certain kinds of emotional tension with his mother or his lovers as necessary for Larkin's poetic creation is suggestive without necessarily finding it conclusive.

By the end, we have a rounded picture of a life that enabled Larkin to write "memorably about familiar disappointments, and lyrically about the endless struggle of the human spirit to rejoice," speaking in his poems "exactly as he . . . believed art should: helping people endure life, as well as enjoy it."

+ What remains of him is art.

Mr. McIntyre is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk.

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