The Complete Poems. By Philip Larkin. Edited by Archie Burnett (Faber & Faber)

by John Boland

Irish Independent, February 11, 2012

When Philip Larkin died in 1985, he was England’s most loved modern poet. Then came Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the Selected Letters and Andrew Motion’s biography and suddenly Larkin was being denounced as a racist, porn-addicted misogynist whose tainted verse wasn’t fit to be taught in schools or colleges – as if art were only acceptable if created by someone who led a blameless life.

Prominent in a stone-throwing crusade that was both self-righeous and hypocritical (let he who is without sin, etc) was Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin, who described the letters as a “revolting compilation which reveals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became” – when, in fact, all that was revealed in Paulin’s outraged tirade was political correctness at its most posturing.

Yes, Larkin was guilty of racist remarks but these, though depressing, weren’t untypical of his time and anyway were only voiced in letters (to Kingsley Amis and other chums) that were never meant for publication. And yes, he kept a stash of soft porn, but that’s hardly a remarkable foible, either, for a single man of his age and circumstances.

But it was the charge of misogyny that was especially ludicrous. Larkin’s correspondence revealed his warm regard for many women friends, and if he was incapable of making a lasting commitment to his long-time lover Monica Jones, last year’s Letters to Monica also showed the depth of their devoted if volatile relationship and how much trust he put in her personal and literary judgments.

Happily, Larkin’s reputation is now restored as one of the few late 20th century poets who really matter – a poet who gives voice to all our misgivings about love and relationships, our awareness of transience and our fear of what’s to come, but who also celebrates the ordinary human decencies and the pleasures of being alive in verse of a rare grace, beauty and accessibility.

That verse is familiar to many from the three slim volumes that occupy the first ninety pages of this 730-page Complete Poems, which also includes hundreds of poems that the scrupulously rigorous Larkin never saw to fit to publish . The politically correct will deplore some of these (especially some squibs extracted from private letters), while many of the rest will only be of fascination to the dedicated Larkin scholar – though there are hitherto unknown gems here, too.

But the volume’s true interest lies in the 340 pages of commentary on each of the poems, which draws extensively on Larkin’s correspondence, much of it unseen until now. Here we learn that the Dolmen Press turned down Larkin’s first major collection, The Less Deceived, because, in the poet’s view, it was “too sexy” for the “priest-ridden crooked little lice.” The thumbs-down culprits on the Dolmen selection board, we’re told, were Thomas Kinsella and Sean White.

Of ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, which was written during his time as librarian in Queen’s University and which begins “Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home/Strangeness made sense”, he writes to a friend: “As a matter of fact, the mad Irish aren’t so mad, they can be very nice indeed…but one gets a bit sick of the really-quite-excusable local patriotism that continually recurs.”

The poem of Larkin that everyone knows is ‘This Be The Verse’, which famously begins “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,/They may not mean to, but they do”. Writing some years after it first appeared to his friend Judy Egerton he wryly predicts that it “will clearly be my Lake Isle of Innisfree. I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.”

The underlying note of self-deprecation comes through even more strongly in his putdowns of other poems commonly regarded as masterpieces. ‘Sad Steps’ is “pretty unoriginal, just another moon poem”; ‘Dublinesque’ is “pretty thin, in fact pretty bad”; ‘Cut Grass’ is “no good, of course”; ‘Aubade’ marks the “death-throes of a talent”; while he remarks of ‘High Windows’ that “I don’t think it very good” and of ‘The Old Fools’ that “I don’t know that it is so very good.”

If only the collected works of his detractors were one-thousandth as good as any two lines by Larkin.

…and what Larkin thought of them. Not every much in most cases.

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