Pretending to Be Me

A new biography of Philip Larkin can’t face his flaws.

English poet Philip Larkin.
English poet Philip Larkin on June 29, 1984.

Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Maybe Philip Larkin wasn’t a jerk, but he certainly had a flair for the role. Take, for example, this oft-cited number from a 1970 letter to Robert Conquest:

Prison for strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?

In a new biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, James Booth does his best to present a warmer, kinder, more admirable Larkin, seeking in particular to defuse the kind of language Larkin used in his correspondence later in his life. The attempts are, unsurprisingly, unpersuasive, and, coming as they do in 2014, freshly disappointing. Regarding the ditty above, Booth claims, “The slogans are held up provocatively for examination.” In the book’s introduction, he lets in a little more concern, but not, apparently, his own. Sliding into passive voice, he intones, “It is to be regretted that, on rare occasions, Larkin used the words ‘nigger,’ ‘wog’ and ‘yid’ in writing to particular correspondents.”

But regret would still miss the point, much in the way of those PR statements that quietly wonder what harm was done: “If I hurt anyone …” As in those apologies to no one, and as in Larkin’s “regrettable” moments, these quick dismissals from Booth show no curiosity about anyone who might actually be those slurs. Regret, had there been any, would be for the harm that such words have done to Larkin.

Such awkward maneuvering seems to take a lot out of Booth. By the end of the biography, he tires of Larkin, as if frustrated with the poet’s refusal to collaborate in the clean-up job. It makes the book a strange career capstone for a scholar who devoted much of his academic life to studying the poet he knew for 17 years, when both were at the University of Hull. The deeper into Larkin’s life he goes, the more he retreats into bland summaries of the poems—all the poems, practically; including insignificant, unpublished throwaways. At its best, the treatment feels merely dutiful, and anyone learning about the poems through these synopses would likely end up wondering why so many loved them, and why so many (myself very much included) love them now.

Booth tries to insulate the life and poetry from the most pointed moments of bigotry, locating those primarily in the letters and blaming them primarily on Larkin’s correspondents, suggesting that they were merely unfortunate performances bred by Larkin’s considerate desire to cater to others. But in hiding so resolutely from Larkin’s limitations, in turning them into innocent and isolated performances driven solely by others’ prejudices, Booth blinds himself to the actual nature and purpose of Larkin’s performances, which are just as essential to the poetry as they were to the letters, and he ends up measuring the poetic achievement at the wrong scale, in terms that overinflate Larkin’s range, diminishing the poems’ actual value. At one point, he asserts that Larkin’s first mature collection, The Less Deceived, possesses a “range of styles, forms and emotions” that’s “more diverse than that of any other poet of the century.” At various others he claims that Larkin’s writing resembled or preceded the works of, among many others, Alice Walker and Ezra Pound. Neither assertion rings true.

Larkin, in fact, worked in small spaces and in an immediately recognizable pose, protecting his imagination from the stifling obligations he felt in the face of others. His shows—the ones in the poems just as much as the epistolary ones—made a large and overwhelming world manageable. They required a more-or-less homogenous audience and a more-or-less homogenous set of values, too. His personality seems to have been, to a large extent, a kind of jerry-rigged response to his awkwardness, and it’s a measure of his extraordinary inventiveness that his manufactured persona endeared him to so many who knew him in so many ways. The poems, at their frequent best, transform those same impulses into art with even greater skill.

Larkin’s great poems typically spend a long time in a pose that insists nothing is exceptional, their speaker least of all (even while generating stanzas of writing that unquestionably is), before redeeming their materials in a final line or two that suddenly lifts off. Take “The Whitsun Weddings,” where the passengers on the moving train, as it brakes, become “an arrow shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,” or “High Windows,” when the bitter images of the kids below gives way to a window above, “The sun-comprehending glass,/ And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

Andrew Motion, whose earlier biography—both more critical of and more sympathetic toward Larkin—will thankfully remain the definitive work, has written of the “number of moments” in Larkin’s work which “manage to transcend the flow of contingent time altogether.” Those moments rarely involved other people. Famously death-obsessed, Larkin seems to have craved such freedoms, but they didn’t come easily to him, probably for the same reasons he so needed them: Life scared him, too. Too long withheld from the company of people outside his family, Larkin sharpened his wit in learning how to please others, but as with so many who invest so much in performing, he rarely found pleasure in others beyond his ability to please them. Company exhausted him, even though he grew lonely in its absence.

Booth actually gets Larkin’s bigotry right, up to a point. It was very much for show—though he grew into the performance over the years, as it became more and more essential to the sheltering that at first kindled his creative work, and then eventually suffocated it, especially as the push for a more just world impinged on his comfort. But Booth fails to think about the ways someone must torque and narrow his imagination to thrill at the unlicensed power of saying something awful, to revel in the ways it delights one’s immediate audience, rather than feeling the presence of those it purports to describe—to never think, at least, What if someone else were to hear? And just as consequential, in spite of all the times Booth writes off Larkin’s worst behavior by blaming it on the pull of others, he never asks how Larkin’s poems might have been shaped and enabled by this same sense of audience.

The tendency to blame others for Larkin’s lapses gets especially unsavory when Booth starts blaming Larkin’s shortcomings on the women in his life. Larkin, who never asked for a defender against charges of misogyny, has found an unfortunate one in Booth. His new biographer scorns Larkin’s lovers throughout and frequently resorts to terms like “histrionic” in describing them.* He eventually goes so far as to claim that Larkin was charitable to string two women along for years—he would eventually add a third, his secretary—lying to each about the level of involvement with the other. Booth writes, “Neither woman wanted to be free of him. Both knew they would find no other partner so attentive and life-enhancing as he. Kindness did indeed require him to continue both relationships.”

* * *

By the first days of 1950, Larkin had, with “At Grass,” developed the poetic persona whose unmistakable voice would serve him until he descended into near-silence almost 30 years later, in 1977, after finishing “Aubade.” In those years, he wrote poems that rarely traveled far and often wore their apparent provincialism protectively—and often simply stayed at home. Larkin was the 20th century’s great poet of buildings and rooms understood from within—be they churches, hospitals, small apartments, hotels or the carriages of trains—and the larger world witnessed through the small, defended portals they provide. Though his poems typically move narratively through time, their most famous characters (aside from Larkin himself) are those he never met, as in the case of Mr. Bleaney, or couldn’t quite remember, as in the case of Dockery. Even his boasts are rooted in a defensive self-awareness, as in the title “The Less Deceived” (a phrase that is in fact shocking in the poem where it appears). His grandest statements arrive enclosed in a self-protective irony that shields them, by preemption, from foolishness: “Which he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,/ If only that so many dead lie round.”

Author James Booth.

Photo courtesy James Glossop/Guzelian

Larkin once said, famously, “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.” He also famously spent much of his artistic life pretending to be himself, creating a poetry and even, to some degree, a life, whose pretensions of humility made room for a suddenly, occasionally, unbuttressed grandeur, one that might otherwise have exposed him to ridicule from those who seemed more real to him than himself.

People are present in Larkin’s poetry, but often as a kind of exterior, especially at the beginning of a poem, an enclosing awareness of the potential for judgment or success. Writing about his imagined audience for his columns on jazz, he shows just how ambivalent that awareness was for him:

Sometimes I imagine them, sullen fleshy inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sellers of goods, living in 30-year-old houses among the golf courses of Outer London, husbands of ageing and bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” or the Squadonaires’ “The Nearness of You”; fathers of cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill, to whom Ramsay Macdonald is coeval with Rameses II, and cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons whose oriental contempt for “bread” is equalled only by their insatiable demand for it; men in whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small Tudor windows to Muggsy Spanier’s “Sister Kate”, or winding up a gramophone in a punt to play Armstrong’s “Body and Soul”; men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas; who drift, loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet.

There’s a willful blindness here, tucked inside of sympathy, wit, imagination, and scorn (as well as the fact that, in describing his audience this way, he’s actually playing to a very different audience, sacrificing one to please the next). It’s the same blindness that made it possible for Larkin to see. Seamus Heaney, a fan of Larkin’s, though a far warmer poet than him, once weighed in against “Aubade.” “The poem,” he claimed, “does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld; it does not make the Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all the odds. For all its heartbreaking truths and beauties, ‘Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called ‘the spiritual intellect’s great work.’ ”

It has never felt that way to me, though. I’m more inclined to agree with William Logan, who observes, “the poetry made something less petty out of pettiness”—though it didn’t always manage that, and there was much in Larkin that was worse than petty, as well as much that was generous and warm, too. Logan goes on, “One of the curiosities of Larkin’s poems is how cheerful they leave you—and it’s not the kind of cheer to be mistaken for schadenfreude.” I doubt that most feel cheered that consistently, but I do.

In all his sheltering, Larkin created a place, and that place didn’t always depend on blindness or cruelty, even though it was set against the same fears, fears he nursed for the entirety of his life, lest he be deceived. Larkin achieves a remarkable lightness in carrying into speech the weight of a misfit suffering, both social and spiritual—the chronic anxiety and unmoored disappointment some of us can’t help stitching into experience. The poems possess a strange subterranean sweetness, too, a nostalgia he articulates exclusively in the negative (“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere,” “your old name shelters our faithfulness”), as if only its negation could keep it perfect and whole—never professing to believe in it and yet, somehow, through the incredible ease with which he moves through small rooms, creating a place where some of the solitary among us can feel surprisingly at home. But unless we admit to the dangers of such safety, to the failures Booth tries so hard to erase, we can never see it altogether clear.

Correction, Nov. 7, 2014: This article originaly misstated that Booth used the word “hysterical” to describe Larkin’s lovers. He used the word “histrionic.” (Return.) 

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth. Bloomsbury.

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