Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Philip Larkin

A few thoughts on ol' Phil...

Though criticised as the archetypal 'little Englander', I feel Larkin can't be dismissed that easily, despite the foul racism revealed in his private letters. Though clearly tied very securely to a certain idea of Englishness and a certain social class, and emphasising social markers heavily in his poems, in my opinion he acheives some sort of state that transcends all of that at points. Larkin's at his best capturing the moments of 'otherness' that lie under all the familiar rituals and symbols of society and civilisation: towns, weddings, railway journeys, ambulances. Moments of non-religious epiphany, sometimes of bleak pessism, sometimes of a more joyous sort:

"And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true."
('Ambulances' from 'The Whitsun Weddings')

"And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly."
('Water' from 'The Whitsun Weddings')

"We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain."
('The Whitsun Weddings')

I think he found a similar sort of joy, which he could actually share in himself, unlike the weddings, in listening to jazz, though his tastes were conservative in the extreme and I find it hard to reconcile his racism with his love of this music, essentialy a black medium (a reference to "antique negroes" playing on a record player is particularly jarring - almost as if he didn't think of them as people). This article puts an interesting interpretation on Larkin's jazz criticism -'Larkin's blues: Jazz and modernism - Philip Larkin' (Twentieth Century Literature, Summer, 1996). You can find it at "http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0403/is_n2_v42/ai_19259725)".
Here's something from an A-level essay I wrote on Larkin as well:

"Perhaps his decision as to which persona he adopts (the omniscient narrator of Love Songs, the detached, then interested observer of Faith Healing and The Whitsun Weddings, or the obnoxious left-wing academic of Naturally the Foundation…) is based around how much of himself he is willing to reveal, or hide. Thus, we can say that the many different speakers and voices that form The Whitsun Weddings all spring, modified, from Larkin, but it is impossible to tell how far they share his own views and how great an impact the act of modification has had. Even in his prose writings and interviews, Larkin may have adopted a mask: for example, when working as jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph he praises as performance by the saxophonist Charlie Parker, describing his playing as like “a leaping salmon”, yet, in his introduction to All What Jazz, he sees Parker as one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of modernism (Picasso, Parker and Pound) who moved art away from the masses, making it inaccessible and irrelevant. Similarly, he describes Miles Davis’ playing as “declaimed with enormous authority, keen and kingly…his notes wilting as if at the edge of frost,” yet elsewhere wrote “Davis had several manners: the dead muzzled slow stuff, the sour yelping fast stuff, ad the sonorous theatrical arranged stuff, and I disliked them all.” Perhaps his true self is revealed only in his private letters to friends and family, or perhaps, as he writes in Talking in Bed, he only ever presented “an emblem of…being honest.” This dilemma, as much as the way it is presented (through form, style and language), forms perhaps the principal fascination of Larkin’s poetry."

However much I dislike "the true self" revealed in private letters, or disagree with his judgements on Coltrane and Davis, I still like 'For Sidney Bechet', though, apart from the rather weak pay-off, "scattering long-haired grief and scored pity":

"That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes...

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

And greeted as the natural noise of good..."

The ambiguity of his punctuation and of meaning can at times be irritating, a way of distancing himself from any sort of commitment (like 'Talking in Bed', with its conclusion, "It becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind/ Or not untrue and not unkind") but at others beguiling and fascinating. For instance, 'An Arundel Tomb', so often taken as providing a comforting, fluffy message that "what will survive us is love", is perhaps nothing of the sort - see this interpretation by James L.Orwin at http://www.philiplarkin.com/essays/orwin/arundeltomb.pdf

Some of his images catch me in the way the best poetry does - it stops and make you think about the world in a different way. Despite the bleakness of the subject or grouchiness of tone, there is a soul in there somewhere, and it's this that ensures Larkin's poetry is more than just the bile-venting of a grouchy, racist old sod.

"Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skilfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty."

('Dublinesque' from 'The Whitsun Weddings')

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