Philip Larkin was the first poet I understood. He wasn’t the first poet I could write a reasonably coherent college essay about (that was probably George Herbert), nor was he the first poet whose poems I memorized (Vachel Lindsay, although in fairness, I was twelve). But Larkin was the first poet whose sensibility I felt I grasped in most of its dimensions: he appeared not as a blueprint, but as an actual structure. And a very peculiar structure at that. When I think of Larkin, I imagine a cathedral filled with cheap gray metal desks, or possibly a strip mall with a belfry. Indeed, Larkin combines so many opposed elements of lyric tradition and modern consciousness that he comes close to being the writerly equivalent of a folly—and he has a folly’s ability to seem simultaneously monumental and embarrassingly personal.
Yet people still often describe this complicated figure in one of two fairly straightforward ways. The first is to claim that Larkin is a wry poet of good-natured grumbling and resolute sanity, a portrait that has the virtue of being so inaccurate as to form a likeness in negative. The second way, which became more prevalent after Andrew Motion’s dirt-dishing biography was published, is to claim that Larkin was a nasty man whose poems are filled with secret nastiness that reveals the fundamental nastiness of … well, something really nasty. Great Britain, maybe. (I’ve written about some of these issues before; you can read further here, if you’re curious.)
Maybe it’s enough to say that Larkin—like Stevie Smith, like Bishop—is the kind of poet we seem bent on reducing, in part because he often seems desperately eager to contain something about himself. One of the more interesting perspectives on Larkin appears in an essay by Donald Justice from 1995. Justice’s nominal subject is Larkin’s short yet masterful poem “Coming,” but the real topic is exactly this kind of restraint:
It has been claimed for Larkin that he was never sentimental, never brutal. But the truth is that I find him both sentimental and brutal, though in different poems, or in different parts of the same poem … Irony, diffidence, skepticism, wit: not all of these together are enough to keep out a certain unreasonableness of feeling—the sentiment, the sentimentality—that keeps rising up out of Larkin’s poems. Actually, it is what saves them. Doesn’t everybody really know this?
Everybody doesn’t know it, actually. Even now.
Larkin died in December of 1985, right before the Winter issue of The Paris Review came out. There isn’t much Larkin in the poetry from this issue, although there’s some charming post-romantic work from Stanley Plumly and some Gritty Urban Angst ® from Jim Carroll. But there are little hints of Larkin in a few places. Take the end of this poem from Robert Shaw, about two lovers having one of their final conversations on a pay phone (ah, the pre-cell era!) while the rain starts to fall first in one party’s location, then in the other’s:
… in a minute or two
I saw a few sprinkles,
confirming the proverb,
you might say, about
the just and the unjust.
But only just.
The wit at the end recalls Larkin, as does the focus on guilt and failure. But the poem misses what Justice calls Larkin’s “great chancy leaps,” his uncanny maneuvers from register to register. Oddly enough, the most Larkinesque moment in this issue occurs during the “Art of Fiction” interview with Robert Stone:
That [Stone’s combination of immediacy and philosophical distance] would account for the shifting levels of your rhetoric, which plays the colloquial against high ornamentation. The effect is a constant tone of irony.
Irony is my friend and brother. “To know true things by what their mockeries be.” There’s only one subject for fiction or poetry or even a joke: how it is. In all the arts, the payoff is always the same: recognition. If it works, you say that’s real, that’s truth, that’s life, that’s the way things are. “There it is.”
This is what motivates Larkin as well, and it’s why his first mature collection is called “The Less Deceived.” If you know that your writing comes from “a certain unreasonableness of feeling,” then you may find yourself thinking constantly about what would be reasonable. You may focus on seeing things—seeing “it”—clearly. In Larkin, “it” is constantly being reduced, framed, put in its place, and yet “it” keeps bursting forth. Until there it is, as if it has always been there and could never be anywhere else.
David Orr is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and the author ofBeautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. He will be blogging from time to time about poetry from The Paris Review’s back issues.