Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Always Philip Larkin

READING JAMES BOOTH’S cloddishly entitled Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love so that I might review it for the New York Times Book Review, I was glad to find that the only sane view of Larkin is once again becoming standard, after too long a period in which there have been serious debates about how so disturbed a psyche could have produced such serenely integrated poetry. (Some pundits resolved the question by announcing that Larkin’s poetry was never really much good at all, but luckily their witless views did not penetrate as far as the high schools, where children continued to be told, correctly, that some of Larkin’s poems were as good as anything they were ever likely to read.) But for once, while working, I found myself a bit short of the necessary books. Over the years I have accumulated all the individual collections of Larkin’s poetry plus both versions of the Collected Poems (one version preserves the ordering of the individual volumes while the other version arranges everything chronologically) and I was laboring under the misapprehension that I had enough to go on. Now, reading Booth’s treatise, I realized that I needed The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett. There were scholarly notes to be consulted, and a few poems which I had never seen. Feeling ashamed that there was anything I had missed in the work of a man I had admired so much, I got my personal assistant to press the right buttons on her computer so that Abebooks might supply me with the desired volume. It arrived seemingly within minutes: yet more proof that we have entered a new age. Or, rather, that everyone else has: some of us are leaving too early to get much more than a hint of what life will be like when you will merely have to think of something you want and it will arrive instantly, still crackling with the ozone of the time-space continuum.

By whatever means it was supplied, though, what a glorious book to have on my desk. Promising myself to read only what I needed, I read on and on for hours, even rereading those poems which I have known almost by heart since the week they were first published. (I say “week” because they tended to make their first appearance in such weekly magazines as the Listener, whose then editor, Karl Miller, rightly treated the arrival of each fresh Larkin manuscript as a visitation from the angel Gabriel.) During my career as a critic I wrote at least half a dozen articles about Larkin without doing much more than scratching the surface of his brilliance, but I’m sure my instinct was sound in not trying to plumb the depths. The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, in the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty. That being said, his unique thematic originality should be remarked: no other great modern poet, not even Yeats, was so successful at making his own personality the subject, and this despite the fact that his personality was something that he would really rather not have been stuck with. He would rather have been Sidney Bechet.