By-the-letters look at edge and essence of poet Larkin

December 26, 1993|By John E. McIntyre

Title: "Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985"

Editor: Anthony Thwaite

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 791 pages, $40 Reading other people's published letters has all the pleasure of eavesdropping with none of the hazard of being caught:

"Funny being fifty, isn't it? I keep seeing obits of chaps who've passed over 'suddenly, aged 55', 'after a short illness, 56', 'after a long illness bravely borne, aged 57' -- and add ten years on, what's ten years? Compared with eternity aaaaaaaaooooooooghghghghghghg ah gets tuft. No, it doesn't bear thinking about. Lucky I've got a bottle of Smith's Glenlivet handy."

Thus the British poet Philip Larkin wrote to his old school friend, the British novelist Kingsley Amis, in the summer of 1972. And thus the mixture of grumbling, mordant reflection, American slang and onomatopoeic groans, grunts, snorts and belches that tinges Larkin's letters over a period of 45 years.

In the 1950s, Larkin was one of a group of young poets who came to be known, rather arbitrarily, as "the Movement." He scorned Eliotan allusiveness and Modernist obscurity, struggling to create the poem that is "a highly professional artificial thing, a verbal device designed to reproduce a thought or emotion indefinitely; it shd have no dead parts, & every word should be completely unchangeable and unmovable."

After a notable career built on four slim books of verse produced at intervals of a decade, and an equally successful career as a librarian at the University of Hull, Larkin died in 1985, beloved by the reading public, laden with poetry awards and honorary degrees, honored by the Crown.

Now, with the publication of Andrew Motion's unflinching biography last summer and this volume of 700 letters (selected from several thousand), the darker sides of the poet's character have come into view.

We have:

* The hostility to family life: "Sorry! This weekend I am fulfilling a longstanding compulsion to attend my little filthy niece's PANTOMIME -- you've no idea of what goes on among those households."

* Or this: "Life is a funny business. The only way of getting shut out of your family is to put your neck into the noose of another one."

* The professional animosity: "At Ilkley literature festival a woman shrieked and vomited during a Ted Hughes reading. I must say I've never felt like shrieking."

* Self-pity wedded to misanthropy: "One wakes up wanting to cut one's throat; one goes to work, & in 15 minutes one wants to cut someone else's -- complete cure."

* The unending stinginess and the occasional flashes of cruelty, as in this remark in a letter to one woman about another with whom he had been affectionate: "Wish I had some of the money back I spent on her, and the time. . . ."

* An undergraduate enthusiasm for obscenity that remains throughout his life, an abiding interest in collecting pornography, an unregenerate distaste for foreigners manifested in increasingly strident racist epithets -- no example of which is quite fit for citation here.

Britain, which once gave us Angry Young Men, appears to have gone over to the production of Nasty Old Men.

So why bother?

One answer is that Larkin is a major poet of our time, and we have a natural interest in observing how circumstances and personality interact to produce moving verse.

The other, and more compelling, is that the picture of the man we find in the correspondence is more complicated than the easily identified negative elements.

Larkin's character was leavened with self-mockery: ". . . think of me as A. E. Housman without the talent, or the scholarship, or the soft job, or the curious private life. . . ."

Writing to a photographer, he described her portrait of him thus: "And then my sagging face, an egg sculpted in lard, with goggles on -- depressing, depressing, depressing."

He also had a refreshing gift for honest and candid praise, as in this remark to a fellow poet: "I wish I had your talent -- I shouldn't use it in your way, but I wish I had it."

And he had a gift for transmuting mundane irritations into a zestful grumbling that must have been a delight to receive:

* "On Tuesday I have to address the freshers [freshmen] on 'Books' ('How to Kill, Skin & Stuff Them')."

* "If you were in university life you would be familiar with the phrase 'crushing teaching load' -- i.e. six hours a week six months a year."

* "Before that, I was sponging the sitting room walls: antidote to being fed up. They're now all smeary like endpapers. I dreamt I dwelt in marbled halls."

* On buying a new briefcase: "So in the end I 'settled for' a Gothic black, with plenty of straps, & a window for a visiting card, wch looks rather like the case of a minor Reichsminister in about 1931, full of documents bearing the Imperial eagle & flagellant pornography covertly purchased on the Alexanderplatz."

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