Terry Kelly interviews Archie Burnett about editing the landmark edition Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems
Scottish academic Archie Burnett studied at the University of Edinburgh and later Oxford University, where he completed a thesis on Milton. He worked as a Junior Research Fellow at St John's College, Oxford, between 1974 and 1978, then as a lecturer and finally Professor of English at Oxford Brookes University from 1979 until 2000. With Christopher Ricks, he is currently Co-director of the Editorial Institute and Professor of English at Boston University, USA. He edited the Oxford editions of The Poems of A.E Housman (1997) and The Letters of A.E. Housman (2007). This interview took place by email in January, 2012.
Archie Burnett, in an earlier interview with About Larkin in 2008, you told me that you first encountered Larkin's poetry as an undergraduate. Do you recall which particular poem or poems first caught you eye; and what were your first impressions of Larkin's work?
I think the first Larkin poem I encountered was 'Church Going' in Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry, at Edinburgh in 1968-9. Thereafter I got to know The Whitsun Weddings, and I bought High Windows when it appeared. First impressions were of the poet's accessibility, the distinct voice (or rather voices), the technical mastery that didn't advertise itself, and of somebody having something to say.
You were lucky enough to attend a rare poetry reading by Larkin at St John's College, Oxford – the poet's old college, of course – in November 1974. Not only that, but you also met the poet briefly at a college dinner, finding him 'gentle, unassuming, and candid'. Again, do have any particular memories of his reading – such as the poems he selected or any comments on what he read – or of your brief encounter?
There's a full account of the reading by R.J.C. Watt: '"Scragged by embryo-Leavises": Larkin reading his poems', Critical Survey, 1.2 (1989), 172-5. Larkin read nothing from The North Ship ('because I think it's awful'), but his reading was impressive without trying to be so. It was particularly funny to hear him reading 'Vers de Societe' and 'Sympathy in White Major' (with 'craps' and 'in a pig's arse') in that cultivated accent of his. When I met him before lunch one day I asked him if he disapproved of Jake Balokowsky, and he said no, which I found hard to believe.
Faber and Faber first approached you to edit Larkin's poems in 2002, when you were in the middle of editing Housman's letters, eventually issuing a contract for the project at the end of 2007. You believe you were approached because of your editorial work on Housman. Given that you had no obvious 'track record' in the field of Larkin studies, did you have any doubts or misgivings about the size of the task?
After fourteen years of work on the edition of Housman's poems, in which I encountered so many scholarly difficulties, I am not easily daunted. Even the edition of Housman's Letters, which took ten years, was a comparatively easy task. I had been looking at Larkin's poems in Collected Poems (1988) before I started work in earnest, and I had convinced myself that they should at least receive a commentary. The work in all took about four years, one of which was a sabbatical.
I presume you acquired Anthony Thwaite's edition of Larkin's Collected Poems when it was published in 1988. As an editor, did you have any misgivings, then or later, about the wisdom of breaking up the careful 'architecture' of Larkin's three mature volumes with early, unfinished or inferior work?
I don't approve of splitting up published volumes, for the reasons I give in the introduction to my edition. The main reason is that the choice of poems and their arrangement within each volume are critical and creative acts on the part of the poet. I do, however, provide very full information on the chronology of composition and publication of all the poems.
In an email in 2008, you told me that you hoped your edition of The Complete Poems would 'bring people back to the poems, who were perhaps diverted towards the seamier side of the biography.' More than 20 years after the controversial Selected Letters and Andrew Motion's A Writer's Life, do you see your edition of The Complete Poems as part of that rehabilitation process?
It has always been one of the functions of scholarly editions to bring new attention to the writings and promote study of them. When Christopher Ricks published his edition of Tennyson in 1966, for instance, it didn't matter whether you liked Tennyson as a person: here was an edition that shed new light on the poems. Had Larkin not been the writer he was, it is doubtful whether there would have been a biography of him like Andrew Motion's, or Anthony Thwaite's substantial edition of Selected Letters. The poems are what count.
Following on from this, did you have any reservations in republishing a highly intimate poem such as Love Again – a poem removed from the most recent version of the Collected Poems in 2003 – or lines revealing the 'seamier side' of Larkin's personality, such as the salacious or racist verses, clearly meant for the eyes of like-minded male friends of the poet? (Such poems were dubbed 'playground snigger' in an otherwise highly favourable review of your edition by Fiona Sampson in The Independent, and their inclusion sparked some 'disquiet' for Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, joint literary executors of the Larkin Estate, in a letter of theirs published in The Guardian.)
Well, Larkin has many sides, and I'm an editor not a censor. I don't like some of his political gibes, in verse or elsewhere, though they strike me as mere outbursts rather than as anything seriously thought through, and I could live without the bunny rabbit verses. But these for me would be literary-critical, not strictly editorial, issues. Another consideration is quite simply that most of the verse you refer to was already in print. Some of the short verses included in the letters are funny and accomplished, others are not only light but lightweight. As an editor, I want to include everything: people will make their own minds up anyway. If you look at the volume of Ben Jonson's poems in Herford and Simpson's monumental Oxford edition, you will find many short epigrams and epitaphs and other light verses. A whole tradition of such verse, including limericks, would not survive if editors cut them out because they disapproved of them or dismissed them as being too slight. And I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had cut it all out I would have been criticized for doing so in an edition that purported to be complete.
In 2008, you indicated that your intention with The Complete Poems was 'to print everything, even uncompleted poems from the workbooks.' Clearly, this editorial brief changed at some point, given that you eventually decided not to publish complete transcriptions, which your introduction states would have proved 'much more costly.' Was it a mixture of financial, practical or editorial factors which persuaded you to only reproduce those unpublished or uncollected Larkin poems which you considered 'complete,' or which did not contain variant or inconclusive endings?
The main reason for exclusion of verse from the workbooks was incompleteness. I printed a few items, some of them already in print, that I thought might be complete, though I expressed doubts as appropriate. Some long drafts in the workbooks remain incomplete, and it would seriously distort what is there to print a readable plain text.
I believe your work on The Complete Poems started in earnest in 2007, when you visited the Larkin archives at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, the British Library and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Did you encounter any problems in transcribing Larkin's notebooks and typescripts or in the overall, editorial process?
I did not encounter any significant problems of transcription or in the overall, editorial process. Had I been attempting a complete transcription of the workbook materials, things would have been different. In particular, Larkin's scorings-out are often so heavy that it is well nigh impossible to read what has been scored out, and the apparatus for recording textual variants would have had to be very substantial indeed.
Your commentary on the poems is one of the strongest features of the new edition. Did you assemble the commentary as part of the transcription process or was it produced later?
I started with the commentary, trying to ascertain what might be involved and how large it would be. Thereafter, I developed it alongside work on the texts of the poems.
You allow three exceptions to your rule of excluding poems with uncancelled or alternative endings ('Compline,' 'Sting in the shell' and 'The poet has a straight face'). But why not make such an exception for a much more significant poem such as 'The Winter Palace'? (And could similar exceptions not have been made in the case of such unfinished poems as 'The Duration' or 'Letters to My Mind' ?)
I made these exceptions because the poems had already been printed without acknowledgement that they contained uncancelled alternative wordings. The textual source of 'The Winter Palace,' as I explain in my introduction (p.xix) contains cancellations and further inconclusive drafting that render it, in textual terms, not even a borderline case. Unless you are providing a faithful transcription, you can't print something the poet cancelled (as though he hadn't done so), and you can't print it as though there were no further inconclusive drafts.
Archie, you are quite tough on Larkin editor A.T. Tolley, citing his 77 errors in the published text of Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005), calling him an 'uncritical follower' of the original Collected Poems of 1988 and drawing attention to his shortcomings in several parts of your commentary. But can any substantial volume be completely blemish-free? (For example –- to play devil's advocate – you make reference on p.456 to The Card-Players, and Roger Day's assertion that the poem's rhyme scheme is abbacddcefeggh, which is questionable, if not simply inaccurate. Other Larkin commentators may raise other points of fact.) Frankly, should academics in glass houses tempt fate by throwing stones?