Monday, 13 February 2012
Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems - review by Terry Kelly
The Complete Poems, Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett, Faber
and Faber, 768pp, £40 (hardback)
When Philip Larkin sent fellow poet Robert Lowell a copy of High Windows in 1974, his inscription read: ‘From a Drought to a Deluge’. The phrase can be read as either literary self-deprecation or – given Larkin’s naturally spiky nature and dislike of Lowell’s poetry – a thinly veiled Larkinesque rebuke for what was widely seen as the American poet’s prodigious, almost profligate output. (Lowell had published three collections in 1973 alone.) When Lowell’s bulky Collected Poems eventually appeared in 2003 it ran to almost twelve hundred pages. How ironic, then, to watch Larkin’s posthumous oeuvre similarly swell to almost Lowellian proportions in the quarter-century since his death. A substantial Collected Poems, edited by Larkin’s literary executor Anthony Thwaite in 1988 (reprinted with revisions in 1990), was followed by the highly controversial Selected Letters (1992); Further Requirements (2001), a collection of miscellaneous prose; Trouble at Willow Gables (2002), a book of early fiction; then a reordered and slimmed-down Collected Poems (2003); Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005); Letters to Monica (2010); and last year’s Poems, a long-overdue selection edited by Martin Amis.
Now, leading the heavyweight Larkin division is noted Housman scholar Archie Burnett’s fabulously annotated and much-anticipated edition of The Complete Poems. Once a neatly populated English village, Larkinland has been swollen by the literary equivalent of rapid urban growth since the poet’s death in 1985. Larkin famously said, ‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’ but his post-mortem output has looked anything but deprived.
Despite the wealth of Larkin material which has appeared over the last twenty years or so, it is arguable that his literary reputation still rises or falls on precisely three mature poetry collections, none of which reach fifty pages. Once described by Clive James as ‘thin as blades’, those precisiontooled volumes – The Less Deceived (1955),The Whitsun Weddings (1964)and High Windows (1974) – were meticulously ordered and orchestrated by the famous librarian-poet from the University of Hull. He commented on his poetic architecture in the following knockabout terms: ‘I treat them like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls.’ As far back as 1988, however, the poet and critic, Ian Hamilton, expressed concerns about the incremental growth in posthumous Larkin. In his perceptive review of the original Collected Poems he wrote:
The beauty of Larkin’s three grown-up books, or one of their beauties, is that you can open them at any page and find something that only Larkin could have written. And even his most light-weight pieces are consummately ‘finished’ – there is nothing slovenly or make-weight or derivative. With this Collected Poems, there is an almost fifty-fifty chance that ‘any page’ will reveal lines which you’d swear could not possibly have sprung from Larkin’s pen.
As the poet himself said about a teenage university friend in ‘Dockery and Son’: ‘Why did he think adding meant increase?’ Early Larkin affords tantalising glimpses of the later, unforgettable mature work. But it is more usually a poetic pot-pourri, a literary mixing of the likes of Eliot, Auden, Yeats and even Dylan Thomas before the poet’s life-altering encounter with Hardy’s gloomy lyrics. For the most part, Larkin’s apprentice work employs the rather hackneyed furniture of Romantic verse, with lots of solitary musing on the moon, clouds, the sea, rain, wind and so on. But he was undoubtedly a skilful imitator, immersing himself in the bleak, prophetic, Audenesque landscape throughout much of the 1930s and early 1940s. This poetic austerity was eventually supplanted by the Yeatsian fever, which imbued his work with a more bardic tone. Larkin explained how he became hooked ‘out of infatuation with his music’. Ploughing through the tyro work, however, one is apt to agree with the critic Peter Conrad, who noted how the reader ‘[wants] Larkin to grow old as quickly as possible, so that he can write the poems that really matter’.
Archie Burnett’s landmark edition, several years in the making, provides the most comprehensive picture to date of Larkin’s poetic development and overall literary achievement. Setting out his critical modus operandi in his introduction, Burnett explains that he has included those poems which Larkin ‘completed’ or which are ‘self-contained’. This means that short, satirical or even scurrilous verses from his letters make the cut but not incomplete poems of arguably greater inherent literary value. This also means the exclusion of fragments, drafts or verses with uncancelled alternative endings. (Such an editorial move can prove contentious – as Burnett admits – in the case of the late and quite haunting poem, ‘The Winter Palace’, of which more later.)
The pursuit of editorial accuracy is one of the main reasons given for this weighty volume by Burnett, co-director, along with literary critic, Christopher Ricks, of the Editorial Institute, and Professor of English at Boston University, USA. He is also the acclaimed editor of the definitive volumes, The Poems of A. E. Housman (1997) and The Letters of A. E. Housman (2007). While noting ‘a scattering of errors’ in the original Collected Poems in 1988, Burnett does not spare the rod with fellow Larkin scholar, A. T. Tolley, for the editorial standards the latter applied to his Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005). He highlights ‘72 errors of wording, 47 of punctuation, 8 of letter-case, 5 of word-division, 4 of font and 3 of format’. Tolley is also chided as ‘an uncritical follower’ of the original Collected Poems and repeatedly scolded for editorial carelessness. To some, this will smack of academic pointscoring but scholarly accuracy is one of the touchstones of this meticulous volume. Burnett maintains an editorial laser beam on his prime sources – chiefly, Larkin’s workbooks and typescripts, mostly stored in the archives at Hull, London and Oxford. The dating of Larkin’s poems is corrected so as to indicate the complete process of poetic composition rather than simply the point at which a particular poem is brought to some state of completion. The volume also represents a first in printing variant wordings for Larkin’s typescripts and manuscripts, late in the composition process, plus some previously unseen work.
Apart from representing an unprecedented Larkin poetic storehouse, the other glory of The Complete Poems is Burnett’s dazzlingly detailed commentary, running to more than three hundred and thirty pages. Easily capable of being a stand-alone critical volume for Larkin scholars, the commentary incorporates everything from the poet’s comments on individual poems to relevant historical details, people and places, echoes and allusions and linguistic usage. Burnett will often employ relevant details to contextualise a poem, without, as he stresses, attempting to say what the poem actually means. But some Larkin poems are unarguably drawn from the facts of his life. For example, ‘An April Sunday brings the snow’, is inspired by the death of the poet’s father, Sydney Larkin, of liver cancer, on 26 March 1948: ‘Behind the glass, under the cellophane,/Remains your final summer – sweet/And meaningless, and not to come again.’ Burnett records the fact that plum trees grew in the back garden of the Larkin home at 73 Coten End, Warwick; he quotes a contemporary letter by the poet on his father’s death; he refers to both Vernon Watkins and Housman on plum blossom; and he highlights a possible allusion to George Herbert’s ‘Love III’, spotted by the critic John Carey.
Ever the disinterested editor, Burnett is careful not to get drawn into the crossfire between traditional critics and theorists. Rather, he believes that ‘the editor’s duty ends with providing the reader with information that has some bearing on the poems, and it is for the reader to assess the pressure of that bearing’. He also concedes some ‘overlap’ between what went into the making and meaning of certain Larkin poems.
While Larkin enjoyed parading an anti-literary persona and a boorish dislike for what he sneeringly called the referential ‘myth-kitty’ school of poetry, his work is in fact often a ventriloquial literary echo chamber. A skilful pasticheur, Larkin’s early work evinces the influence of Eliot (‘Stanley en Musique’, 1939), Auden (‘Watch, my dear, the darkness now’, 1939), Dylan Thomas (‘The Returning’, 1942) and Yeats (much of his first book, The North Ship, published in 1945).
One of the inevitable outcomes of The Complete Poems will be to reveal the post-war, Parnassian Ron Glum of twentieth-century English verse as, in fact, something of a literary aesthete. The early Larkin was an accomplished poetic mimic and, while only noting specific literary allusions and references – Housman included, Burnett concedes ‘that many more traces of allusiveness remain to be uncovered in Larkin’s poetry’. Before the late 1940s, however, readers will mostly search in vain for the distinctive Larkinesque ‘voice’ in the book’s wealth of early work. 1946 was the year Larkin experienced a liberating literary ‘conversion’ from Yeats to Hardy after reading the latter’s ‘Thoughts of Phena’ (‘Not a line of her writing have I,/Not a thread of her hair’). Until that point the apprentice poet was still capable of writing, without much visible irony, about ‘the unmeasured sword/Rising from sleep’. While there are poetic dry-runs for what Martin Amis in 2011 defined as the ‘frictionless memorability’ of the mature work, the real Larkin was still mostly elusive.
Between 1945 and 1946, however, Larkin’s distinctive poetic identity begins to emerge, initially in lyrical fits and starts but eventually across whole poems. Several Larkin scholars have identified ‘Going’ as one of the turning points towards canonical Larkin. A gnomic, puzzling poem originally entitled ‘Dying Day’, noted Larkin critic, James Booth, calls it ‘a belated Imagist poem’. Burnett’s commentary tells us it was drafted between 15 December 1945 and 23 February 1946. ‘There is an evening coming in/Across the fields, one never seen before,/That lights no lamps.’ Larkin’s literary quiddity is no easy thing to define but it partly involves the merging of plain diction with great poetic resonance. The authorial voice is by turns direct and rhetorical, afflatus often rising from the quotidian, as in the famous conclusion to ‘High Windows’ – ‘the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’ – or the earlier ‘Going’: ‘What is under my hands/That I cannot feel?//What loads my hands down?’
Reviewing the original Collected Poems (1988), poet and critic, William Scammell, defined Larkin’s mature voice as ‘every bit as assertive as Yeats’s, stuffed with X is Y formulations ... but the assertions are bedded in empirical low-life detail, hedged round with qualification, in both senses’. Although Scammell believed that ‘rapture wasn’t Larkin’s style’, a sense of Lawrentian ‘rapture’ certainly informed another poem signalling the emergence of the mature Larkin style. Drafted in September 1946,‘Wedding-Wind’ was rated by the famously self-critical Larkin. He told his long-term girlfriend, Monica Jones, in 1950 that it was ‘the best’ of a batch of six poems he had sent her. Burnett’s ever-helpful notes also suggest that it was ‘Wedding-Wind’ to which Larkin was referring in 1973, when he commented: ‘I wrote my first good poem when I was twenty-six.’ Burnett’s commentary also tells us that Larkin felt Lawrence’s The Rainbow may have influenced his only poem with a recognisably female speaker. The poem may also be unique in the Larkin canon for its unalloyed sense of joy: ‘Can even death dry up/These new delighted lakes, conclude/Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?’ Both ‘Going’ and ‘Wedding- Wind’ would later be included in The Less Deceived, Larkin’s first mature collection.
For Larkin devotees, one of the chief pleasures of The Complete Poems is tracing the emergence of one of English poetry’s most distinctive poetic voices. But this can prove a frustrating business, as the book’s wealth of immature work reveals the early Larkin often possessed literary feet of clay. We witness a long poetic apprenticeship, with genuine foreshadowing of later literary quality being generally outweighed by frequent tonal wobbles and whole poems which miss the mark.
While the ideas and poetic ambience are often present and correct, what is missing, crucially, is the later pin-sharp poetic memorability,that distinctive Larkinesque quality which Martin Amis defined in his introduction to 2011’s selected volume as ‘instantly unforgettable’. For example, ‘Unfinished Poem’, written between 1951 and 1953, reads like a rather wordy and overly philosophical dry-run for the later and much-anthologised ‘Mr Bleaney’, completed just a couple of years later: ‘I squeezed up the last stair to the room in the roof/And lay on the bed there with my jacket off//... That was a way to live – newspaper for sheets,/A candle and spirit stove, and a trouble of shouts/From below somewhere, a town smudgy with traffic!/That was a place to go, that emaciate attic!’ (There is probably a thesis to be written about the links between Larkin’s poetic creativity and the rented accommodation where he lived until 1974, the year his final collection, High Windows, appeared.) Similarly, ‘Hospital Visits’, also dating from the early 1950s, explores subject matter familiar to Larkin readers, particularly in such later expansive meditations on mortality as ‘The Building’, but the earlier poem struggles to get into second gear. Apart from containing much early work, The Complete Poems reprints not /only The North Ship and Larkin’s three iconic mature collections but also restores to the canon poems published in the original Collected Poems, edited by Larkin’s literary executor Anthony Thwaite in 1988. These were later omitted from the rejigged Collected Poems of 2003 on the grounds they were not published during the poet’s lifetime. Readers can therefore welcome back such essential poems as the late and inconsolably desolate ‘Love Again’ (which Blake Morrison called ‘Larkin’s last great poem’); ‘An April Sunday Brings the Snow’; ‘The Dance’; ‘When First We Faced, and Touching Showed’; ‘Morning at Last: There in the Show’; ‘Mother, Summer, I’; ‘The Little Lives of Earth and Form’; ‘The View’; ‘Long Lion Days’; and the recently emerged, ‘Dear Jake’ (a kind of 1976 critique of Larkin’s earlier poem, ‘Posterity’). There is also ‘We Met at the End of the Party’, which is possibly addressed to Larkin’s secretary, Betty Mackereth, with whom he had an affair.
However, owing to Burnett’s editorial decision to exclude fragments or poems with variant or unresolved endings, some later and potentially /interesting and longish drafts, such as ‘The Duration’ and ‘Letters to my Mind’, are omitted. Out, too, goes ‘The Winter Palace’, a poem from 1978, known and cherished by many Larkin readers since its inclusion in the original Collected Poems. Even Burnett admits he excluded the poem ‘not without regret’ but concludes that ‘Larkin did not finish work on the poem’. Readers will nonetheless search in vain among the apprentice work for a poem with such a haunting final couplet: ‘Then there will be nothing I know./My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.’
While editorial consistency is to be applauded, the result is that interesting poems are jettisoned. At the same time, poems that make the grade on the grounds of their literary ‘finish’ include such notorious extremist doggerel as ‘How to Win the Next Election’ (‘Prison for strikers,/Bring back the cat,/Kick out the niggers,/How about that?’); barbed literary squibs; salacious stanzas; and unpleasant class caricatures (‘I want to see them starving,/ The so-called working-class’, or ‘Sod the lower classes,/Kick them up their arses’). This is one case where a degree of editorial flexibility would have reaped benefits for Larkin completists. (Oddly, Burnett decides to print ‘The Dance’ – a long, introspective poem, drafted between 1963 and 1964, which ends mid-sentence, conceding in his commentary that it ‘remains unfinished’.) Larkin devotees, of course, want everything the man wrote. It would be churlish to dwell on the occasional omissions. While it is principally aimed at those same devotees and literary scholars, Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems is a landmark volume, a wonder-book of verse by one of the art form’s best practitioners of the last hundred years.
This review originally appeared in The London Magazine: