Scraping the bottom of the waste paper basket
The Complete Poems of Philip LarkinEdited by Archie Burnett Faber and Faber, 729pp. £40
THE TWO-LINE squib Their Sex Life, by AR Ammons, comes to mind when reading much of this book: “One failure on / Top of another.” The young Philip Larkin, having suffered rejection at the hands of the Dolmen Press, among other places, was desperate to find a taker for the book of poems he wanted to publish in the 1950s. Since his death, in 1985, failed poems that he never aspired to publish in book form have been repeatedly issued. Fastidiously selected, meticulously arranged, perfectly achieved – “Poems you can tap all over with a hammer and there are no hollow places,” as John Ashbery said – Larkin’s three ultraslim canonical collections, The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), occupy fewer than 70 pages of this 700-page tome.
As in the agrifood business, the fat skimmed from one Larkin product reappears elsewhere in the literary food chain – in this case as canon fodder, thesis forage, pedagogic pap in the form of yet another adipose recycling of work that the poet himself had rejected and repudiated.
Inferior verse that first appeared in the disastrously jumbled Collected Poems (1988) and the superfluous Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005) is now exposed to public gaze again in The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, diluting a major oeuvre and distracting from the real source of its power.
To the Larkin reject pile already published, this book’s editor, Prof Archie Burnett, assiduously upending and scraping the waste-paper basket, has added a slew of further failures. The work of this most discriminating of poets has come to resemble a midden in which virtually any surviving scrap resembling verse – whether baby-talking valentine or bawdy-talking satire – has been methodically deposited and industriously annotated; the plump poet is treated as a golden goose from which every last tail feather must be plucked.
Those of us who love his poems – with their characteristic amalgam of yearning and humour, elegy and euphony, apprehension and epiphany – and who regard Aubade as the greatest postwar lyric poem in English, do not love them to bits; not, at any rate, when those bits are dog-eared duds and rabbit-chewed flops. (“This MS has been badly gnawed by Flemish rabbits,” the young poet joked, having bungled an ambitious Auden-Eliot alloy.) All serious poets amass folders bulging with botched drafts and fragments, a few of which they hope to overhaul and salvage some day. But they certainly have no wish to see their also-rans – sternly disqualified by the inner steward – led around the parade ring and annotated in detail like a form guide.
The Complete Poems – though poorly cross-referenced and devoid of a convenient list of Larkin’s principal publications in prose and poetry – is not without several redeeming editorial features, however. In particular, the notes to the all-important canonical poems are extremely illuminating and frequently (Larkin being the wittiest of poets) entertaining. They provide not only bibliographical data but also a multiplicity of insights from critical commentaries and the poet’s conversations and correspondence (especially the letters to his stalwart companion and semi-resident critic, Monica Jones).
Useful, too, is the “account of the contents of the 11 typescript booklets prepared by Larkin before publication of The North Ship in July 1945”. A 50-year chronology of the dates of composition of individual Larkin poems is fascinating: roller-coaster testimony to the vicissitudes of inspiration and the fickleness of his Muse, as his output dwindled (from his mid-50s onwards) towards his frustratingly arid final years.
If there is any possible justification for the inclusion of the juvenilia, it lies in demonstrating what a virtuoso – almost a prodigy – the young Larkin was. Many of the poems are undoubtedly in thrall to TS Eliot and, even more, WH Auden, yet an aspiring artist so driven that he had racked up a large mass of technically demanding poetry, a verse play, four or five novels and a Listener acceptance by the age of 18 might well have become, in maturity, an Auden-class writer, and a similarly prolific one, had mental blocks – debilitating depressions; obsessive quandaries about love and marriage – not thwarted him.
Thesis writers will use the Complete Poems to trace the first manifestations of archetypal Larkin tropes, traits and themes. Indeed, general readers who know their Larkin, and who stray into the thickets of this book, will be struck by the sight of ancestral resemblances to familiar Larkin lines and poems – akin to the “family face” in Thomas Hardy’s poem, the features of which recur across the generations. Striking, too, are the symptoms of early-onset world-weariness in a poet whose gaiety was forever being undermined by his gloom and who, “though summer-born / And summer-loving, none the less / Am easier when the leaves are gone”. On Being Twenty-Six begins:
I feared these present years,
The middle twenties,
When deftness disappears
And each event is
Freighted with a source-encrusting doubt,
and turned to drought.
“In our family / Love was disgusting as lavatory. / And not as necessary,” a 1949 fragment reads; the coldly claustrophobic relationship between his parents made him ever wary of making a permanent commitment to any one of the various women who, jointly or severally, as the lawyers say, enriched and complicated his bachelor existence: “ ‘My wife and I – we’re pals. Marriage is fun.’ / Yes: two can live as stupidly as one.” While misogyny may be detected in some of the nuptial poems, his sympathies are entirely with “Mrs Alfred Tennyson”, who slaves as secretary, housemaid and children’s nanny, while (note the lavatorial double entendre in the final phrase) “Mister Alfred Tennyson sat like a baby / Doing his poetic business.”
It is surprising how strongly – when set against the other rejects, at least – the poems attributed to “Brunette Coleman”, and based in the fictitious world of a girls’ school, fare. Tempting though it is to dismiss these schoolgirl fantasies with a schoolboy scoff, the best of them, such as The School in August (“The cloakroom pegs are empty now, / And locked the classroom door”), are poignant, if sentimental, elegies for the passing of youth (“the joy, the pain”):
Ah, notices are taken down,
And scorebooks stowed away,
And seniors grow tomorrow
From the juniors today,
And even swimming groups can fade,
Games mistresses turn grey.
The time has surely come to grade Larkin’s end-of-term performance on the basis of his best poems alone, letting the rest of them go the way that grey games mistresses go.
Dennis O’Driscoll’s ninth book of poems, Dear Life (Anvil Press), will be published in May. A second selection of his essays and reviews is also forthcoming