Seamus Perry: My name is Seamus Perry and I teach English at the University of Oxford, and I’m here today to talk to Mark Ford, who is professor of English at University College, London. We are both contributors to the London Review of Books – me, merely prose; Mark, both prose and poetry – and we are here to talk about the poetry and the life of Philip Larkin. This has been prompted by a number of things: one was the relatively recent publication of a big defensive biography of Larkin by James Booth, who is a great scholar of Larkin at the University of Hull; also, the arrival of Larkin in Westminster Abbey, posthumously; and, finally, 2017 is Hull’s turn to be the City of Culture, in which Larkin is bound to loom very large. So we thought, for those reasons alone, it would be a good idea to talk about Larkin and try and reassess his importance, and why he still matters as a poet today. Larkin features very largely in the archives of the London Review of Books – many great pieces about him have appeared in the pages of the LRB, by Barbara Everett and John Bayley and Alan Bennett and Jenny Diski, and other people, and we may be referring to some of those as we continue our conversation. But perhaps a good place to start would be where Larkin started, and it’s perhaps not where we might think he started – which is to say, although he always wrote poems, his earliest ambitions as a literary figure were to write novels, and I wonder, Mark, if you might say something about that. Where do we place these early novels that Larkin wrote? What are they like?
Mark Ford: I think they’re wonderful. Two novels, he wrote in his very early twenties – Jill was published when he was only twenty-one, I think; and the book published as A Girl in Winter, but which he thought of as The Kingdom of Winter, in 1947, just after the war. And they are poetic novels in some ways, in that there is a limited cast of characters, and the themes of them are close to the themes explored in his poetry: fantasy, the erotic life, one’s dreams of being an ideal self, and the ways in which reality cuts you down to size – and the ways in which we come to accommodate ourselves to reality. And Larkin did like the idea of being a novelist. In a late poem, he fantasised about what he calls ‘the shit in the shuttered chateau’, writing 500 words a day, parsing out the rest of the afternoon between booze and birds. This is a kind of fantasy life which he felt Kingsley Amis, his friend whom he met at Oxford, had succeeded in achieving. And there is a kind of leitmotiv throughout Larkin’s life of Amis being a sort of successful doppelganger – that Amis was Jack the Lad, who did make all his money from his books, and had lots and lots of girls, and Larkin was old misery-guts in Hull, who didn’t have that much money and didn’t get the girls; though that, in fact, posthumously turned out not to be quite the case – he at one time had four girls on the go at once. But still, he wasn’t a lothario of the kind that Kingsley Amis was. So this vision of a life as a novelist ground to a halt with his third novel, which he titled A New World Symphony, and he just couldn’t finish it, and he realised that he would never be able to continue as a novelist, and poetry chose him; he had written lots and lots of poems by that point, but that he just couldn’t keep going as a novelist. He said it was because he wasn’t interested enough in other people.
SP: The novels are very different from Amis’s novels, aren’t they? I mean, Amis’s novels are in a kind of Fielding-esque sort of tradition of knockabout humour, really – Lucky Jim especially, I suppose. And Larkin’s novels, he describes as oversized poems, doesn’t he? So they’re already, as you say, rather poetical enterprises in the first place. And I wonder if there’s something about that very kind of poetic sort of purity that made it difficult to sustain as a novelistic kind of project?
MF: Yes – he thought of the novel as a long prose-poem, and there was an article, I think in Scrutiny, which had talked exactly about that concept of the postwar novel as being like a prose-poem, and he liked that idea. But I think, going back to Amis, it had always been advanced that Larkin is almost a co-author of Lucky Jim, that Lucky Jim was so based on Larkin’s own sense of humour, and Jim Dixon took his name from Dixon Drive, where Larkin was living, and Margaret Peel is based on his girlfriend, Monica Jones, in a rather brutal way. So I think that Kingsley Amis and Larkin shared a kind of humour, which emerges in Lucky Jim, and catapulted Amis to fame; not so, Larkin. And he did come to resent that in later life.
SP: Now, none of that Larkinesque humour gets into the early poems, does it? The first volume is called The North Ship, which is heavily influenced by Yeats, with a little bit of Auden and a little bit of Dylan Thomas. How would you characterise that as a volume?
MF: Yes, Yeats was the primary influence. It’s a kind of distillation of Yeats. If you read Larkin’s early work, it’s odd that he could write Auden by the yards, and there’s yards and yards of sub-Audenesque work, but Yeats actually was good, in distilling his work and making it more kind of crystalline and more imagistic and more symbolist, and more ... jewelled, you could say. And North Ship, in its way, is successful. It’s quite a distance from the Larkin that became incredibly popular in the fifties and sixties, but an understanding of his career does, I think, have to begin with The North Ship.
SP: But these are poems that, if you saw them without an author’s name attached to them, you would struggle to think of them as the work of Philip Larkin, probably.
MF: They come out of the forties, as well, when there were poets such as ... called the New Apocalyptics, and they present a kind of ... emptied-out landscape – there aren’t many people in them. And this is what, I think, if you put them against the novels, it’s fascinating to see that the people get into the novels, and the kind of lyricism gets into the poetry; and Larkin’s great breakthrough was to find a way of bringing together the kind of mundane and the ordinary with this symbolist drive for some kind of intensity of experience ... but to represent it in relation to the quotidian, the everyday, rather than in relation to the purely lyrical.
SP: Yes. So, the person who helped him, the author who helped him make that reconciliation of those different elements in his imagination, you would say, is Hardy?
MF: Yes. I mean, he used to joke about how the influence of Yeats was pervasive as garlic, and he was always quoting Yeats and getting people rather annoyed by quoting Yeats so much. And then, when he was working in Wellington as a librarian – his first job; he worked all his life as a librarian – he used to wake up early, and he had a copy of Hardy’s poems, the selection Hardy made, his last selection of his poems, and it’s been taken ... this is an interesting ... sort of detail, belonged to a local girls’ school – Larkin tells us that, somehow to suggest, I think, a connection between the erotic and Hardy; and I think the erotic is also crucial to Larkin’s work, as it is to Hardy’s. And he read these poems, and suddenly thought: I don’t have to jack myself up to this idea of poetry which Yeats’s works embody, that I can somehow write about my ordinary life in the way that Hardy does, and that there’s not a scrap of Hardy’s 900 pages of poetry that doesn’t have something of interest in it. And he said that every Hardy poem has a spinal cord of thought; and I think that is something which is also crucial to the way Larkin’s poetry develops – that each of them has a kind of donnée, a line of thought, which is then developed.
SP: He says of Hardy, doesn’t he, that he’s not a transcendental writer – he’s not like Eliot or Yeats, he doesn’t go for transcendence; his subjects are time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love. Do you think those are the lessons that Larkin principally learned?
MF: Yes – and that he touches the reader’s heart by showing his own; that ... there’s something a bit defensive about the North Ship poems, that they are somehow invulnerable, and that one of the powerful aspects of Larkin’s work, and the reasons that it became so popular, was because, in defiance of kind of modernist ideas about irony and the distance of the poet from the reader, that Larkin was emboldened by Hardy to think of himself as pretty much an average person – there’s lots of ways in which Larkin wasn’t at all average ...
SP: Or Hardy
MF: ... or Hardy, as well – that’s certainly true; but that the persona that he developed, a bit of an Eeyore persona, but also someone capable of being moved and being hurt, and of being moved by the sight of young lambs being born: that’s not the kind of thing which the poet of The North Ship could have created a poem out of. So there’s a kind of ... ways in which his work connects to what could be called a sentimental tradition in poetry – A. E. Housman is possibly also an influence on this – but that Larkin felt that ... why not expose his own emotions in the poems, or create a simulacrum of the exposure of emotions that might move the reader in the way in which a Hardy or Housman poem moves the reader.
SP: Yes, so there is an important sort of recuperation of sentiment, or sentimentalism – that must be right, mustn’t it? But also, there’s a kind of a thread of scepticism, isn’t there, in the Larkin persona, too, which I guess is captured partly in the title of his next book, 1955, which is The Less Deceived – which is an allusion to Shakespeare, but also sets the theme, doesn’t it, for a lot of the poems in that book, and a lot of Larkin’s poems subsequently, which is a certain kind of refusal to indulge in fantasies or delusions or illusions or wish-fulfilments of various kinds?
MF: Yes – didn’t he talk about, with a poem, you either ... the mixture of beauty and truth – it’s either truthful and you make it beautiful, or it’s beautiful and you make it true – that somehow is going to do justice to the rich fantasy life; and it is often an erotic fantasy life that Larkin’s poems explore, as do Hardy’s, but that somehow that will be juxtaposed with a sense of the ordinary, and the way in which we all live – in a mixture of ... you know, in a fantasy and external obligations, and that the poetry will kind of chart the way we sort of create a working or living dialogue between the two.
SP: So, the beautiful poem, and also perhaps the true poem, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Phogotraph Album’, maybe captures some of that, would you say?
MF: Yes, I would. I think that Larkin’s also famous for being sort of anti-literary; one of the rejections of kind of modernism was being anti-literary. But, I mean, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, the title suggests something rather literary, doesn’t it? It’s kind of often used in the eighteenth century, or by Wordsworth – lines on this, or lines on ... that. So, that kind of literariness, which he later was kind of famous ... would present himself as a philistine, that is almost contradicted by this rather literary allusion – and ‘o, photography’; it’s a bit like Wordsworth: ‘oh imagination’, in the Prelude. But it’s a very erotic poem, don’t you think?
SP: I do. It’s an erotic poem that’s run through with a strong sense of the elegiac though, isn’t it? I mean, the photographs in the album are full of sexual interest for him, absolutely; but they’re also mementos of the sheer passing of time, aren’t they, and the way that one is always excluded from memories of experiences that one has not participated in?
MF: Yes, I think that’s true. I like the way it balances kind of romance and realism, by being almost pornographic. ‘My swivel eye hungers from pose to pose’ ...
SP: Yes, the swivel eye is very kinky.
MF: Well, that could describe Larkin, who kept a great stack of pornography magazines in his library office in Hull, and used to kind of ... after lunch, would spend some time, not cataloguing, but looking at those ... And you can actually see the picture of Winifred Arnott – it’s based upon a girl who worked in the library at Belfast, where Larkin moved in 1950, and he was there from 1950 to 1955. And that’s when he really hit his stride, I think, as a poet. And it’s interesting that, in some ways, he was not exactly in exile, but he was elsewhere, and that’s when he found his voice as a poet. But yes, the girl is ... obviously not going to succumb to Larkin, that she’s a memory, and she is crystallised in all these photographs, which ... he talks about how, in these pictures, photography is faithful and disappointing, and that’s what makes her so beautiful – a real girl in a real place: that her chin is doubled, the cat is disinclined, there’s washing lines in the background, and yet this real girl in a real place clearly connects with some notion of romance, which is the ... I’d say that’s sort of the mainspring of many of Larkin’s most powerful poems.
SP: Yes. And it anticipates later poems, too, doesn’t it? Because it begins with that emphasis upon the real, but the note on which it closes is absolutely the note of romance, isn’t it? So that the photographs represent, as he says,
a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.
It’s a very beautiful evocation of a kind of Keatesean sort of romantic female figure, isn’t it?
MF: Yes. And Winifred Arnott got married shortly afterwards. And there’s another poem in The Less Deceived called ‘Maiden Name’, which talks about the way she is transformed from the person that he knew and was attracted to into someone completely different – and yet, his memory holds her as she was, with her maiden name. And it’s the same with the photographs in the photograph album ... and he’s able ... He’s also conscious, though, that the fact that he is looking just at photos is a bit of a cheat, that ‘It leaves us free to cry. We know what was / Won’t call on us to justify / Our grief’. Now, if he really, really wanted to, he could perhaps have made a move on her, and married her; but that was what Larking really didn’t want to do. One of the themes that emerges in all biographies of him is this, what’s called misogamy – his hatred of marriage; and that these four women that he had to juggle ... or, mainly it was two women, he had to not marry them – and that’s the theme of his letters: why he’s not marrying Monica ... runs through and through. So there’s an odd sense in which, although Larkin is presenting himself as an ordinary bloke, he’s also an aesthete, who is so committed to his art that he will sacrifice his life to it. And the primary ... or, he didn’t see it necessarily as a sacrifice, though perhaps later in life he did think of it as a sacrifice – that he would not participate in all the rituals and means of living which other people justified their lives by – getting married, having children – but would commit himself to his art, to writing. So, although ... again, that’s a kind of paradox, that he’s this ordinary chap, and yet he’s also someone who has sacrificed his entire life to writing.
SP: So, part of that resistance to marriage and to the domestic life is wrapped up with Larkin’s conception of poethood as being an intrinsically solitary, and indeed lonely, sort of pursuit, where the loneliness is the price you pay for the art that you manage to create. And yet, at the same time, there’s a side of Larkin, isn’t there that’s deeply interested in collective experience and communal experience, even if in a rather distant and elegiac way – and I suppose that’s the feeling that gets into his great poem, ‘Church Going’, which is, I suppose, the most famous of the poems to appear in The Less Deceived. Where do you stand on ‘Church Going’?
MF: Well, it’s one of the big poems. He wrote this kind of series of ode-like poems, which are ... up to ten or eleven of them, which had these kind of rather grand verse structures deriving from Yeats as well as from Keats, and they are quite intricately rhymed, and they often address communal themes and the ways ... they address quite large social themes. I mean, ‘Church Going’ is obviously a pun – that he’s not just going to church, he’s going to a disused church, or a church which has not got anyone in it, but also the fact that belief is dying; and Larkin was an atheist from the beginning – he never believed life ... and he talked crossly about an American academic who tried to persuade him that ‘Church Going’ was actually a religious poem – and no, he said, it wasn’t at all. But, like Hardy, he was fascinated by churches, and the whole business of churches, and the ways in which, as the poem beautifully puts it, they
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these
and about how in their ‘blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies.’ So fancying somebody turns into a proposal, turns into marriage, and it becomes your destiny, and is robed as destinies. So churches dignify human experience in a way that Larkin found profoundly moving, even if it won’t work for him.
SP: Yes. So, he is very much exiled from the experiences that he’s imagining here, isn’t he, or the sorts of cultures that he’s imagining here? And we also see in ‘Church Going’, don’t we, the very deliberate and purposeful creation of a particular kind of Larkinian persona? He does a famous Monitor TV programme, doesn’t he, with Betjeman, and this is one of the poems he reads out, and he’s filmed – a little sequence of him on his bike, going to the church, and taking off his cycle clips, and wearing this drab Mac; and it’s raining, and it’s grey, and everything is working very, very kind of assiduously towards the creation of a particular kind of modern, non-poetic poetic persona, who is awkward, who doesn’t understand much about culture, who, you know, isn’t terribly interested in history, who is sort of scurrilous, and donates an Irish sixpence to the collection box, and so on. Say a little bit about that Larkinian persona, and the way in which that enables his poetry.
MF: Doesn’t know what rood lofts were, and that kind of thing.
SP: Yes, exactly – someone would know, I don’t!
MF: Yes – bored, uninformed. It was a persona, to some extent, because if you look at the early Larkin, he had a tremendous range of artistic interests, and he liked music – jazz in particular, but also classical music – and interested in ... people you wouldn’t have thought he’d be that interested in – Katherine Mansfield, say, and Virginia Woolf, and ...
SP: Henry Green – very niche-y taste.
MF: ... yes, quite avant-garde-y things. But he did develop this kind of Eeyore persona, and this philistine persona, to some extent; and it was in some ways ... can be connected, I think, to the movement idea, in the fifties, of the ordinary bloke – it’s always a bloke rather than a woman or a girl – who somehow represents ordinary experience, and it’s kind of, come off it, and it’s a come-down; but that Larkin is very skilful in having his cake and eating it, I think, that he can present himself as a sceptic, and yet also do justice to what he calls in ‘Church Going’ the ‘hunger ... to be more serious’; and it’s that hunger to be more serious, to see your life as robed in destiny, rather than as simply one thing after another, which drives you to the church, and the church is seen as satisfying those desires, this ... call it idealism, in the most kind of old-fashioned way; and that idealism doesn’t die because you don’t believe in it, but the poetry has to find a way of accommodating both the scepticism and giving voice to that idealism, even if it can only present it in a rather kind of detached, or kind of provisional way.
SP: Yes, that’s lovely. So he’s, as it were, less deceived, but not entirely undeceived.
MF: Yes. Its Ophelia, isn’t it, who was ‘the more deceived’?
SP: Yes, more deceived ...
MF: And that poem itself, ‘Deceptions’, about a girl who was raped in Victorian England is one of the examples, I think, of his ability to identify with women characters in his poetry, which is something which, I think, runs through his work, and is one of its great strengths.
SP: Okay, so that’s The Less Deceived, 1955 – and that’s a very popular volume, isn’t it? I mean, it’s published by a fairly obscure publisher in Hull, but nevertheless is widely noticed, and establishes Larkin quite quickly as a prominent younger literary figure.
MF: I mean, it was just Larkin’s luck – Faber wrote to him two weeks after he’d signed the contract with George Hartley of Marvell Press, saying, Have you got a book for us? Because A Girl in Winter was published by Faber. But Larkin – I think it’s quite interesting – had a lot of his ... put a manuscript together, called In the Grip of Light, that was rejected – it’s often thought that Larkin ... kind of effortlessly found himself at the centre of the British poetry world, but actually he was rejected like any other avant-gardist of the times. I think that’s worth kind of keeping in mind, given the extent to which he became a national monument, particularly in the 1970s, when he was at the height of his fame.
SP: And the next volume comes out almost ten years later, doesn’t it – 1964; and it’s called The Whitsun Weddings. And we were talking a little bit, a moment ago, about his attitude towards marriage, and his sense that domestic and especially familial life was simply antipathetic to the creative or the literary life. And yet, in The Whitsun Weddings he writes what must be one of the most popular and loved modern British poems about marriage, about getting married. How do you read that poem?
MF: Well, he talked about it, interestingly, as almost like a documentary poem, that it was something that happened to him – he got on the train at Hull ... in fact, he wasn’t going to London, and it wasn’t at Whitsun: it happened in August, and he got off at Grantham and then caught a bus to visit his mother in Loughborough ...
SP: In Loughborough, yes.
MF: ... but that, from Hull to Grantham, that these married couples did board the train, and he was kind of obviously entranced by it and fascinated by it. And there was this equation in Larkin, that it was his exile, or his marginalisation from all the kinds of ritual by which other people structured their lives which allowed him to observe them and to write them down, and to depict them, so that it was an equation in his mind – whether it’s true for all poets, it was to him, that he had to be the one who was excluded, for his ... that’s what made his vision ‘mountain-clear’, as he puts it in an earlier poem, ‘Spring’. But ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a wonderful description of London in the fifties, as kind of social history, and it’s extremely unillusioned, in some ways, in presenting an England – it’s not Betjeman’s romantic England, it’s got a kind of ... it’s got dismantled cars, industrial froth; but it’s kind of unforgettable as a train journey, isn’t it? It’s a great train poem, in that it sort of picks up from Thomas Hardy’s many train poems.
SP: Yes, it’s a lovely poem about partnership, isn’t it, and about people joining together; but it’s also, importantly, a poem about not really knowing what other people are thinking. So, one of the key points, as Larkin imagines this train journey, is that none of the married couples getting on board are thinking about the other married couples who are getting on board. So there’s a sense in which human experience, as it’s imagined within the poem, is part of some sort of coincidence of human lives, but also is incorrigibly separated and individualised.
MF: Yes. But he ... sort of is the communal recorder of all these histories, and in some ways the poem does hold them all together, like ... as the train does: that they all exist, and he’s observed them all. And then, as the train rushes towards London, there is a sense of, I think, fertility, definitely, in the final lines – this famous ‘arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’, which he attributed to seeing Henry V – Laurence Oliver’s version of the Shakespeare play, which was made in the middle of the wartime. I think this, like many Larkin poems, is quite patriotic in its implications. But that final sense, ‘as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling’, there’s certainly something post-coital, I think, about that particular moment – ‘like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’, must gesture towards what’s going to happen perhaps nine months after all of these wedding nights, that the more ... ‘What will survive of us is love’, in the most literal sense, that this love will give birth to a new generation.
SP: Yes, hope in Larkin is always so brilliantly poised, isn’t it, with the absence of hope? So, this wonderful, fecund train that’s heading towards consummation in the city, at the same time is just, as he puts it, a ‘frail / Travelling coincidence’ – and coincidence is such a well-chosen word, isn’t it, because it can mean, you know, things that were opposite coming together, and it can mean, as it were, simply chance. So there’s something kind of fantastically fragile about it, but at the same time wonderfully kind of assertive about it?
MF: Well, also, and that ... leads into that notion of being changed, which I think is one of the key notions in all poetry, but particularly in Larkin – the way some experience can change you for ever. And again, the narrative of Larkin’s life is that, when he was asked if he might have been happier, he said: Yes – not without being somebody else. The idea that you can’t change, and that, in that sense, he’s resisting many of the kind of, you know, standard narrative of the twentieth century, which is ... or twenty-first century: you can change yourself if you do this or that; Larkin liked to persist in some kind of stubborn notion that his selfhood was given, and he would never change. And I think that’s what exasperated Alan Bennett, when he writes in his review of Larkin that Larkin was so ... it’s the LRB piece I’m thinking of – that Larkin was so resistant to enjoying life, or being changed. And yet ... I think what’s going on is that he’s saving all that up for the vision that he presents of being changed in the poetry.
SP: In the poems, yes. Yes – and Larkin himself, doesn’t he ... remembers a conversation, this one conversation with W. H. Auden, where he tells Auden he lives in Hull, and Auden says, Do you like it in Hull?, and Larkin says, I’m no unhappier there than I would be anywhere else – to which Auden replies, Naughty, naughty!, and Larkin thinks that’s very funny.
MF: Yes. He’s referring, isn’t he, to the end of ‘I Remember, I Remember’: ‘nothing, like something, happens anywhere’? And that is his ... I mean, by the ... most of The Whitsun Weddings was written in Hull.
SP: Hull, that’s right.Not all of it – some were written before; but most was written in Hull, and he did stay in Hull for the rest of his life, from 1955, wasn’t it, to his death in ...?Yes, that’s right. And indeed, he even goes to Reading for an interview, doesn’t he, for a job as a librarian in Reading, and gets back on the train before the interview, because he can’t, you know, bear the idea of not being in Hull, in a funny ... What was it about Hull, do you think?
MF: I’ve never been to Hull, but ... have you been there?
SP: Yes, I have, yes – it’s great!
MF: I’m sure, as a City of Culture, it’s vibrant at the moment. But, I mean, you can now do the Larkin tour, I believe – you can go on there ...
SP: Yes, yes – you can go to the Royal Station Hotel and have a morose drink on your own.
MF: And can you kind of ogle the women in Pearson Park – no one to stop you doing that. He had a sort of telescope, didn’t he, on his ... he moved into a flat, which ... well, first he moved into lodgings, which were always very unsatisfactory, mainly because the landlady had a radio which jabbered all the time, and ‘Mr Bleaney’ is obviously the poem in which he captures the desolate routines of a kind of terrifying doppelganger, almost; and this is what, without his art, without his poetry, Larkin might have been – just a Mr Bleaney, a kind of hopelessly kind of limited and impoverished other, whose life he sort of takes over for a while.
SP: Yes, his life, in all sorts of ways, is depressingly and uncannily similar to his, but in some sorts of crucial ways, I suppose, is also dissimilar to his – that’s the point of the poem, is it?
MF: Yes, I think ... in a way, again, one of his quotes was, ‘desolation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth’ – that he ... I’m not saying he deliberately sought out these kinds of locations because they would generate poems like this, which, obviously, the writing of enormously satisfied him. ‘Mr Bleaney’, he was particularly proud of. But he once talked in an interview that having produced a poem was a bit like producing an egg.
SP: Yes – yes, that’s right.
MF: And I think that the joy that he got from producing a successful poem about failure, which is what ‘Mr Bleaney’ so obviously is, was one that kept him going from poem to poem. But, again, like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, it’s terribly ... has a kind of novelist’s eye for detail: my
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags –
‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool [which Larkin actually did] to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
The bane of his life were these kind of radio sets in all these kind of lodgings that he took in Hull, and he often complains in letters about how they are inhibiting his attempts to write.
SP: Hull appeals to him, I suppose, within his own terms, because it feels distant, doesn’t it – it feels at the opposite end of England to London. And when Betjeman interviews him on that Monitor programme, he says something which must have been guided by Larkin’s own view of the subject, when he says: ‘If anywhere is the end of England, it’s Hull, and what lies beyond Hull; and then he goes on to read, himself, the poem ‘Here’, which is the first poem in The Whitsun Weddings. This is a very striking mythologisation of a city, isn’t it, ‘Here’? It’s a very striking representation of an urban space, and then something beyond the urban space. What do you see Larkin doing in this poem?
MF: Yes. I mean, there are lines, such as the description of the ‘cut-price crowd, urban yet simple’, which can seem a little bit patronising, and remind you that there’s this Oxbridge-educated intellectual, though he didn’t sort of adopt that term, arriving in this place, and categorising the people as ‘urban yet simple, dwelling / Where only salesmen and relations come’. But I think romance, again, is the key to a poem like ‘Here’ – the way it transforms the averageness of what it’s assessing, and the recognisability of what it’s assessing, as in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, the poem, and turns it into something charged with a sense of ... is romance the right word? Possibility, excitement, some ... but both beauty and truthfulness. And loneliness becomes the kind of catalyst for this transformation. He talks about the way loneliness clarifies lives. And again, that is a kind of high-aesthetic posture; but this gives him access to nature, where ‘Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken, / Luminously-peopled air ascends’ – ‘luminously-peopled’ is one of those ... you get many compound, or hyphenated adjectival phrases, don’t you, in Larkin, and that’s one of the most beautiful of them – the idea of the pollen luminous in the sun.
SP: Yes – it’s pollen, but it’s also angels, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a wonderful example of the ways in which, although Larkin claimed Hardy as a model, because of his lack of transcendence, actually Larkin himself is constantly imagining transcendence of one kind or another – I mean, it’s not doctrinal, it doesn’t have a religious label attached to it, but the ending of this poem, ‘Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach’ – that imagining of numinous experience, often couched in terms of negatives, like ‘untalkative’, that’s pure Larkin, isn’t it?
MF: Yes – ‘Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’, the end of ‘High Windows’. I think often they do ... that is the narrative of Larkin peoms, that moving from the everyday towards some point of ... you could call it the sublime, or the transcendent, but it’s a sublime and a transcendent which is ... godless; in some ways, it’s death, would be one way of putting it – it’s an absence, an attic ‘cleared of me! Such absences!’, to borrow the last lines of the poem ‘Absences’, from The Less Deceived. So, I think that’s one of the dichotomies, or antitheses, to which Larkin’s poems have to work, like beauty and truth – the everyday and this sublime absence, which somehow is the opposite.
SP: And, as you were saying before, one of the most important elements that gets wrapped up with this very sort of ambivalent kind of modern romanticism Larkin professes is sex, is women. And you ... ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ always strikes me as the poem that most brilliantly captures Larkin’s odd, sort of belated, disenchanted erotic romanticism.
MF: Well, he was brilliant in advertising, wasn’t he, because advertising was a representation of the ideal, and advertising has always used girls to sell stuff. In fact, something in ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ derives from British Rail adverts, doesn’t it, which would ... had a girl ... it’s interesting, the extent to which the language used in the poem could again, as in ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, derive from a pornography ... ‘a hunk of coast’ ...
SP: Absolutely – the second stanza, especially, yes. ... ‘breast-lifting arms’ ... ‘Hotel with palms / Seemed to expand from her thighs and / Spread breast-lifting arms.’ So that’s the ideal girl, on the poster. But then the graffitist gets to work. And, as you probably know, Monica Jones, Larkin’s partner, and Larkin used to spend their summers defacing Iris Murdoch novels.
SP: Well, who can honestly say they don’t do the same?
MF: Was The Flight from the Enchanter?
SP: That’s right, yes.
MF: Which they ... almost every sentence was rewritten into a kind of pornography.
SP: Yes – but not witty at all, was it? It was just sort of rude.
MF: Again, there’s the kind of twin impulses, aren’t there – one, the romantic idealising, and then this kind of denigratory, pornographic, which is in sympathy, I think, with the graffiti artist:
She was slapped up one day in March.
A couple of weeks, and her face
Was snuggle-toothed and boss-eyed;
Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were scored well in, and the space
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls
Autographed Titch Thomas.
The joke in ‘Titch Thomas’ is that somehow he’s advertising his own inadequacy – is that what’s happening there, do you think?
SP: Yes – there’s some sort of compensatory thing going on here, do you think?
MF: But the great sort of punchline of the poem is that she was too good for this life, and she’s replaced by a different poster: ‘Now Fight Cancer is there.’ Which is, of course, what Larkin died of, at the age of sixty-three.
SP: Yes, the cancer, of course, is the cancer charity advertising, isn’t it, but it’s also a sense of a broader kind of cancer that’s affecting reality at large.
MF: Well, whether you take the kind of romantic view of the opposite sex, or the kind of denigratory, pornographic view of the opposite sex, cancer’s gonna get you in the end, so what’s the difference?
SP: The romanticism of this poem is very marked, isn’t it, because this is, in a belated and knowing, modern way, this is a piece of art, isn’t it? It’s a piece of art that’s been desecrated. So it’s a little bit like Keats’s Grecian urn, or something like that, that has been ravished in this kind of brutal way.
MF: Well, a lot of his poems use mediated, kind of ... you know, they talk about jazz, or they talk about advertising, and so on. And that’s picked up by John Bayley, isn’t it, in his various LRB pieces.
SP: That’s right. He talks very much about ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ as a late Keatsian poem, as a kind of ... almost as a rewrite of Keats’s own ‘On a Grecian Urn’, something like that – yes, that’s ...
MF: And Barbara Everett connects the kind of ... what we were talking about, the transcendental to French symbolism, which, again, was something Larkin would possibly have resisted at the time. Didn’t he say about the idea of High Windows being translated into French: ‘Haute fenêtre! Good God!’
SP: Yes, exactly – that’s right. Do you read foreign poetry? ‘Foreign poetry? No!’, he says in the interview. But, yes, Barbara Everett does show that he did indeed, and has got some great pieces in the LRB about that – yes, you’re right.
MF: But there’s quite explicit references to symbolist poetry – ‘Immensements!’, for instance, in ‘Sad Steps’, which we might come on to.
SP: One of the things John says in his essay about Larkin and romanticism is that the lovely line that you singled out about the girl on the poster, ‘She was too good for this life’, in a way also applies to Larkin’s poem – there’s something about Larkin’s own poem that’s so beautiful, and it’s so beautifully sort of contrived and worked, and comes to its sort of completion with such utter kind of accomplishment that it itself is somehow too good for normal discourse, or normal language.
MF: Yes, that’s ... he could be slightly perverse, there. I mean, it depends what ... if you think of ... Larkin’s own most resonant kind of description of life is probably from ‘Dockery and Son’: ‘Life is first boredom, then fear. / Whether or not we use it, it goes’, which ... he thought ‘Dockery and Son’ was his ... Larkin was particularly proud of ‘Dockery and Son’, wasn’t he?
SP: Well, he says something a bit more ambiguous about it, doesn’t he? He tells Monica Jones that he’s never going to get past it, or he’s never going to get over it, or something like that. And there is a sense in which, you know, so much of him got into the poem that I wonder if he ... doubted there was more to come, as it were – of course, there was more to come. But there is a sense in which it is a very monumental poem – it’s one of those poems that does feel like the centre of a writing life, to me.
MF: I think the Larkin persona is particularly brilliantly performed in it. I think, you just need to think of the awful pie that he eats at Sheffield, where he changes trains. That awful pie is, in two words, the Larkin persona.
SP: It is – it’s a lovely moment, too, isn’t it, because it’s a poem all about changing. You mentioned changing earlier on in our talk, and this is a poem about changing, about having an experience that changes you. But the only mention of changing in this poem is changing trains at Sheffield – so there’s a way in which it kind of insinuates the idea of change in the poem, but in this kind of undeceived, unromantic way – he doesn’t want to sort of indulge it.
MF: I think, also, he ... it is one of those poems, like ‘Church Going’, which, in its generalities ... his brilliance with generalities is to the fore. You may resist them: ‘Where do these / Innate assumptions come from? / Not from what / We think truest, or most want to do’. Well, who is that ‘we’, you sometimes think. But part of the insinuating power of Larkin’s poems is to make us, as readers, feel intimately bound up with this voice – and even if what this voice is saying is something that you might think, Well, life isn’t first boredom then fear, or I don’t actually want to think of life as like that; but it is very seductive and appealing, and that is one of his brilliances, I think – to make what is essentially a fairly uninspiring vision of life seem seductive and kind of one one wants to kind of participate in.
SP: He does have ... I mean, he’s unusual among modern poets, wouldn’t you say, in that he is, at times an aphoristic poet? I mean: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ isn’t ... you know, it’s not from Plato, as it were, but it has a kind of aphoristic kind of claim, which is what makes it so memorable.
MF: He is very quotable.
SP: And ‘Life is first boredom, then ...’ – I mean, this is a kind of sort of generalising, aphoristic sort of, this is the truth about life sort of voice that most modern British poets just would shun.
MF: Yes. And he was very pleased that he had far more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than Kingsley Amis did. But I think that he is probably the most ... I would say a Larkin line comes into my head almost every day, and they do fit so many different occasions. There’s a rather wonderful Derek Walcott poem about how they’re like keys which open doors, and they’re just ... they can be used on occasion after occasion. And that ... is a fairly rare and extraordinary ability.
SP: Dockery is another doppelganger, isn’t he? He’s another Mr Bleaney. And he’s done the ultimate thing that Larkin will not do, which is to have a child, to have a son.
MF: ‘Why did he think adding meant increase? To me it was dilution.’ I mean, the dilution, somehow, that ... that is very ... I think, for many people, that is counterintuitive – the idea that having a child is a diluting ... It tells us a lot about Larkin’s sense of selfhood, doesn’t it – that his selfhood is one which has to be preserved, almost like a fortress. And this is where his fear of the pram in the hall ... And he met Cyril Connolly, didn’t he, and ... ?
SP: Yes, he does – he does meet Cyril Connolly, and he admires Connolly greatly. And Enemies of Promise, Connolly’s book, where he says that the greatest enemy of promise is the pram in the hall, was an important book to Larkin – yes, that’s right.
MF: This was the last poem in Whitsun Weddings, in terms of the composition of the book – it was the kind of final achievement. He sent it off, and there was only one more book to come.
SP: Which was 1974, and is a slimmer book even than The Whitsun Weddings, entitled High Windows.
MF: There were several other titles for it that he thought of, didn’t he?
SP: Yes, he was ... well, he was toying at one stage, he says, calling it Living for Others. What do you make of that?
MF: I don’t know. It almost seems like a desire to recover his early novelistic interest in other people, somehow. And there’s ... a poem like ‘Livings’ is the one in the book that does show Larkin’s ability to explore characters very different from himself, or ... in one, it’s a travelling salesman in 1929 ...
SP: This was lighthouse-keeper, isn’t it, yes, that’s right.Lighthouse keeper. The third one is totally baffling.
SP: ... strange little Oxford don, isn’t it, but it’s not quite Oxford ...
MF: In the eighteenth century, yes.
SP: ... yes, that’s right. And those are dramatised lyrics, aren’t they – he himself compared them to the dramatised lyrics of Browning; and that’s quite unlike anything else that he had written, really.
MF: I think, with the title, they suggest the kind of road not taken, really, for Larkin – that what actually happens in High Windows, it seems to me, is that the Larkin persona calcifies, or becomes even more extreme – obviously, ‘This Be the Verse’, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’, is the most obvious example; but ‘High Windows’ – ‘When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her’, and so on – that Larkin ... the kind of disaffected middle-aged man who is resenting the pleasures of the young, which ... was in some ways a persona, but it’s one of those kind of habits which has hardened into ...
SP: ... into what we’ve got, as it were.
MF: ... what we’ve got, yes.
SP: Yes, that’s right. What about ‘High Windows’, the title poem? Because it’s a very famous poem, I suppose, for the deliberate provocation of its opening lines, as you say. It’s a striking poetic voice, isn’t it, because it’s going out of its way to be ugly – ugly sentiments – but also, as it were, ugly expression, as well, and ... stylistically, it matches its own ugliness. And yet, within the course of just these five four-line stanzas, we have this extraordinary movement, don’t we, away from that kind of demotic, quotidian, rough vision to another one of these great negative glimpses of pure kind of transcendent otherness. Do you think it comes off, or do you think there’s just too much ground covered in too small a space?
MF: I think it does come off. I like ... very much the idea of somebody looking at him forty years before, and saying: ‘He / And his lot will all go down the long slide / Like free bloody birds’ – and it’s a kind of poem about intergenerational envy or conflict, and the idea that Larkin, when he was young, would have been envied by someone of an older generation, and ... the last lines never fail to get me, in fact. I suppose it depends upon your mood: ‘And immediately / Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / The sun-comprehending glass’ – and, again, one of those compound words which only Larkin could pull off – ‘And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ It’s him in his most sort of high-symbolist or transcendental mode.
SP: ‘Sun-comprehending’ is amazing, isn’t it? But it’s a sign of the lingering influence of something like Yeats, or Dylan Thomas, isn’t it – there’s something like the ‘dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea’ behind it, or something like that, isn’t there? That sheer sort of, you know, exuberance of verbal imagination, which is quite contrary to the normal persona of, you know, like, a welfare-state, drab, utilitarian, prosaic ...
MF: Yes. I would say, by the time of High Windows, the polarities have got more extreme. And I think that, on the manuscript he wrote, after ‘... and is endless’, ‘Fucking piss’, or something?
SP: That’s right, he does. It’s a great act of self-graffiti-ising – he’s doing his own ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ to his ... poems.
MF: Yes. And he did the same with ‘The Trees’ – ‘The trees are coming into leaf’ – he wrote ‘Awful tripe’ on it. I always think of Kurtz in ... Heart of Darkness by Conrad, writing ‘Exterminate the brutes’, after ... on his kind of manuscript about the progress of the savages. There’s a kind of wilful self-sabotaging release of all the negativity which is in opposition to the beauty of those last lines.
SP: Yes, and the beauty of the last lines is very striking, isn’t it, because it’s a negative beauty rather than a positive beauty, really – so that within ‘sun-comprehending’ we get the idea of ‘uncomprehending’; and in the last line, that extraordinary sort of combination of nothingness and nowhereness and endlessness – and they’re all very ambiguously good things, aren’t they? And they’re all almost like versions of annihilation, rather than anything more positive?
MF: Yes. Because, oddly, to me, his sense of death, the awfulness of death, was that you don’t exist – I mean, I ... think ... a while, I hope, but it’ll be a bit of a relief when you get there, that finally the journey will be over. But Larkin’s terror of death was genuine, I think; and it was genuinely the idea of not existing – that’s what’s so awful. And in ‘Aubade’, that great late poem, he talks about people saying, It won’t hurt, you won’t feel anything – he said, That’s exactly it – I won’t feel anything; that’s why it’s so awful. But in this poem, the not feeling anything seems to be a kind of sublimation of fear and anxiety into some kind of endless, almost heavenly, paradisal vision of endlessness.
SP: The transition I love in the poem ‘High Windows’ is the sudden move into: ‘And immediately there comes ...’; and it makes me think of a wonderful point that Barbara Everett makes in one of her LRB pieces about what makes a Larkin poem really work. And she says Larkin’s voice seems so accessible, and it seems such a kind of socialised voice – it seems a voice that we can understand, a voice of, you know, contemporary Britain, as it were; but at the heart of every real, you know, Larkin poem, there is something that’s completely unsocialised, something that’s totally private, totally sort of wrapped up within the deepest, unscrutinised motives of his personality. And I think that moment where we suddenly shift from the ‘Man hands on misery to man’ intergenerational plot, to this extraordinary vision of something which seems prompted by nothing, apart from things that we can never really access – it’s a wonderful example of that unsocialised core.
MF: Yes. I think that’s the fascination that Larkin holds for us as readers, and for the, you know, many, many readers that he has – he has more readers, probably, than any other poet of the postwar era – that there was something sphynx-like about him, in the end, that there was a reticence there. And it may be a very ... particularly English kind of reticence; because, if this was appearing in a symbolist poem, it would be kind of regulation Mallarmé – we’d know where we were. But, actually, the fact is that it’s coming in a Larking poem, and that’s what’s so fascinating. And I think the ways in which he hooks us are perhaps not deliberate, either, in that kind of way – there’s something kind of compulsive about it, rather than a performance which you can feel, Ah, this is the poem performing Larkin. And I think that’s why he is ... I find him, as a poet, inexhaustible; and I’ve been rereading him in the last few days, and I’m thinking: this is ... I’m completely hooked all over again.
SP: Yes. It wins a sort of sense of authenticity to it, doesn’t it, that ... it’s more than ... that Larkin is doing more than simply performing the Larkinian – he’s doing something else as well.
MF: Yes. And that he wasn’t in control of it, I think, is also crucial to it. And he had this notion ... in its way, it’s like the descent of grace – that he had this notion that you couldn’t force a poem, that it came, poetry chose him, and then abandoned him, which was absolutely awful for him: having chosen him, it abandoned him in his last years, and he had ... he’d fucked up his life, as he put it, to write poetry, and now he had a fucked-up life and he couldn’t write poetry – and that was the bleakness of Larkin’s last years, and that was part of his poetic makeup: the equation was that it was some force beyond him which was creating the poetry. And that also works on the reader as well, that this is something not deliberate, not willed, not manipulating us, but something that has occurred in some way which is unfathomable, and therefore endlessly fascinating.
SP: So, after High Windows, 1974, as you’ve just been saying, the poetry becomes a trickle. He publishes the poem that you’ve just referred to, called ‘Aubade’, which is printed in the Times Literary Supplement as part of their Christmas special – it must be about the bleakest Christmas present ever, I should think! Would you agree that this is, you know, as it were, about as bleak as the Larkin voice becomes?
MF: Yes. And it’s bleak without much kind of compensation – no kind of visionary uplift ...
SP: There’s no ... blue ... high windows at the end of this one, is there?
MF: ... no; and that its vision of dying is… he called it ‘funk’ – you know, that somehow you should face death bravely, but he couldn’t do that. And I think it also captures – which may be an aspect in his bleakness – his routines by this time: ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night’. There’s another, earlier great poem about pouring himself a gin and tonic; but that is what he did every night – gin and tonic, wine, and then more drink – and Monica shared his taste for alcohol, so there is an extent ... there is a way in which his own search for uplift was doused by the amount of alcohol which he was consuming. He was overweight. And he got into feeling that he wouldn’t write any more poetry – that High Windows was it. He did try, and he started an affair with his secretary, Betty Mackereth, late in the day, and wrote a few touching poems for her, but not great poems. I think his only great post–High Windows poem, for me, is ‘Love Again’, which again returns us to the Larkinian demotic.
SP: It does, indeed – and in its most extreme form, really, this one.
MF: This is another kind of Maeve poem. I mean, we’ve mentioned Monica Jones as the woman he shared his life with, but he fell in love, or had a long-term relationship with Maeve Brennan in Hull, and she inspired some of his touching poems, like ‘Broadcast’, but also, she inspired jealousy – there’s a long poem called ‘The Dance’, which he never finished, which was about feeling jealous of Maeve; and ‘Love Again’ was inspired by ... jealousy – and its opening line, ‘Love again: wanking at ten past three’. And interestingly, when Maeve saw the manuscript for this after Larkin’s death, she thought it was a misprint for ‘waking’ – that’s how innocent she was: ‘waking at ten past three’. And I think it had to be explained to her that he’d actually written something else:
wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.
And it’s also a poem that I find powerful, in that he is reflecting on his own commitment to poetry, and thinking ... regretting the Faustian pact, you could say, that he’s made – that somehow ... wondering if it was worthwhile, after all, to quote from Eliot – he’s wondering why he was different from all the others, why did he sacrifice his life for poetry? Was it because he was incapable of leading an ordinary life, marrying Monica, or marrying Maeve, in a Roman Catholic wedding – she was a Roman Catholic. And he did envision that, but he couldn’t go through with it: ‘ ... why put into words? / Isolate rather this element / That spreads through other lives like a tree / And sways them on in a sort of sense’, i.e. getting married and having kids, makes sense of your life – won’t stop you dying, but it will make sense of your life, ‘And say why it never worked for me.’ And then these puzzling last lines: ‘Something to do with violence / A long way back, and wrong rewards’. Well, I think ‘wrong rewards’ is art, ‘And arrogant eternity’ is also art, in some way. How do you read those last two lines?
SP: I think they’re puzzling lines, aren’t they? And they’re obviously being secretive about the violence that he’s talking about – and I suppose lots of us must have thought it was to do with his earliest years in Coventry. But the biographies – especially the Booth biography that we mentioned at the beginning – actually managed to convey quite a happy childhood, or a perfectly content childhood, at least.
MF: Yes. Well, Alan Bennett also says that, you know, Larkin calls his childhood a forgotten boredom – he had no right to. His father, yes, he had Nazi sympathies; but that wasn’t unusual for Britain in the mid-1930s. He liked Germany a lot, and he took Larkin to Germany a couple of times. But his father was quite intellectual, quite ... had shelves of Lawrence, he’d read Ulysses, and Katherine Mansfield, and he talks of getting to Oxford, and having read all the modern authors and no one else had there. So there’s a sense in which his childhood wasn’t as bad as he makes out. This does suggest, this violence, some kind of abuse of some kind that he suffered. He said his parents didn’t get on well – they weren’t good at being married; and his mother was clearly fairly exasperating. But he was ... you know, he wrote to her several times a week.
SP: Yes, and long conversations – yes, exactly. It must be self-violence, mustn’t it – it must be some sort of violence done to himself, I think; that’s the only way I can read it.
MF: But arrogant eternity is a notion of this art that he’s created, will somehow be adequate compensation for all he has given up, and now he’s wondering.
SP: Yes, absolutely – arrogant eternity has a real Yeatsian ring to it, doesn’t it, as indeed does the tree: the ‘element / That spreads through other lives like a tree’ – that’s like the ‘great-rooted blossomer’ at the end of ‘Among School Children’, isn’t it?
MF: Yes, exactly.
SP: And I suppose, in a way, Yeats comes back to haunt him at this point in his life, because Yeats did devote himself to art, but at the same time Yeats also had children – so somehow Yeats managed to square the circle in some way that, like ... that Dockery does too, but Larkin never managed to.
MF: Yes. Well, his characterisation of himself in posterity, as an old-type fouled-up guy, is probably pertinent – there was something ... And, again, it’s: Could you have been happier? Not without being somebody else. That his identity or his sense of self was given and was unchangeable, and that his poetic vocation depended on him staying true to that particular vision of himself, whatever the cost.
SP: Yes, absolutely – and something to which he was devoted and dedicated, but also a sense of self that’s extraordinarily fragile, in some odd way.And I think that’s why he is so popular, and has proved popular, even in the nineties when his letters came out, and people complained that he was a racist – and he did express often in his letters pretty unpleasant views; and some of his light verse is not to be quoted, either; but that the fascination is something that I believe has overridden those factors, which would have been lethal to a lesser poet’s reputation.