Larkin’s World

‘Larkinworld’ at the Poetry Library, South Bank Centre

There’s something creepy about Phillip Larkin. By way of illustration, here are two personal anecdotes: when I first read Thomas Hardy’s poems I found myself looking for Larkin’s voice in Hardy’s work. Larkin’s appropriation of Hardy’s tone and style had been so successful that I couldn’t read the originals in their own right. Larkin had killed Hardy, and immediately, rather than words I saw the poet crouched over a corpse in a dark wood.  Larkin provides the image himself in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ (The Whitsun Weddings):

Later, with inch thick specs, 
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.

I saw the ‘cloak and fangs’. The second was a response to Phillip Larkin: Letters to Monica (2011), a collection of letters to his long-term partner Monica Jones, who he could never bring himself to commit to. After flicking through the book a couple of times I felt compelled to get it as far away from me as possible: Larkin’s long, mawkish musings gave off a peculiar reek of self-regard and cowardice.

That’s one Larkin. As DJ Roberts’ exhibition at the Poetry Library shows, there have always been others. Larkinworld finds a ‘robust and life-enhancing quality’ in Phillip Larkin’s poetry, using new works of art, cultural ephemera and Larkin memorabilia to illustrate the poet’s place in twentieth-century Britain. The walls are plastered with Blues lyrics. The display features postcards, pre-Raphaelite paintings, popular novels, a pin-up girl calendar, record sleeves etc.

This is all quite interesting – a fictional history of post-war Middle England, if you like. What I found most interesting, though, was how Larkinworld reinterprets the poems themselves. The centre piece is a large, red, neon sign, displaying the phrase ‘like an enormous yes’. The phrase comes from Larkin’s poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’, a eulogy for the American jazz saxophonist:

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood. 

Larkin understood the energy and aspirations behind pop music better than most. The directness and memorability of his poetry, famously, owes a lot a late re-discovery of Hardy (although the early Yeats influence is important, too). But I suspect these qualities also owe something to contemporary song lyrics, especially the love songs his mother is pictured poring over in ‘Love Songs in Age’:

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
    Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order.

Along with the simple, open language, Larkin’s poems also shares pop’s aphoristic quality: he says things about the world that people want to share with others. If you listen, you begin to notice lines in all kinds of unlikely places. U.S. alternative rock band The National’s most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me, borrows from both The Less Deceived and High Windows. The lines make the transition into lyric so well that no one seems to have noticed. As Larkin puts it in ‘Going, Going’, ‘things are tougher than we are’. (Matt Berninger intones the same line on ‘Heavenfaced’).

In the poem, Larkin undermines that statement as soon as he delivers it. England is not as tough as it looks, he says. It is about to be buried under ‘concrete and tyres’. It will be gone, soon. In ‘For Sidney Bechet’ the comparison with love is also qualified: ‘as they say love should’: should, but, implicitly, doesn’t. Even so, it is Larkin’s affirmations, not his qualifications, which stick. By rendering the poet’s ‘enormous yes’ in red neon, Larkinworld illustrates how much Larkin empathised with the kind of sentiments he professed not to feel.

with thanks to London Grip

Time Enough At Last

Following some disaster, only one man is left on earth. Faced with the prospect of a life alone, he finds a pistol and thinks about suicide. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, he stumbles across a huge library, with enough to keep him occupied – even happy – for years. He reaches for a book… and his glasses shatter on the floor.

This is the final scene of an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, an old U.S. sci-fi show. The episode itself, made in the 60s, is about nuclear war as much as solitude and literature. But it is the final scene that people remember.

The clip’s black humour lies in the pathetic contrast between the  ideal future the ‘Last Man on Earth’ thinks he has stumbled on – books, endless books, indefinitely – and the place where he ends up, scrabbling around on the floor for his broken spectacles. Our instinct is to read the thing as vaguely tragic. But if we want to empathize with Bevis, then I think we have to buy into his conception of literature as well. I take this to be something like: books are a private pleasureworlds into which we can disappear by ourselves – potentially forever. They are also a consumable: Bevis begins stacking up books into reading piles for every month of the empty future.

In the episode, Bevis is presented as a misanthrope who prefers books to people. The broken glasses are a form of punishment. Bevis misunderstands reading, too. Two things strike me as particularly important in this respect. The first is obvious: when we read, we become part of something bigger than us, a chain of experience. We might at some point want to intervene in this chain directly, by talking to a friend about an idea, or writing  something ourselves. Or not. What matters is the chain is there in the background, humming away quietly. This all ends when society does. The second thing may be more controversial. One of the underrated pleasures of reading is the bit when a piece ends – the moment you surface. (In fact, the same could be said for any kind of mental activity.) If Bevis had been left to read, books would have become his world and the illusion would never have ended. Knowing this, who would want to read at all?

There is something about blogging which reminds me of Bevis, alone at the end of the world, with ‘time enough at last’ to read but, in reality, no time at all. That said, blogs are places where there is time to write about what you want, in a form in which you want to write. In the spirit of Bevis piling up his books for the future, I will also link to things that I have written for other places.

West Dulwich