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.