Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Philip Larkin

The Marvell Press with faber and faber, 1988; edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite; quarter bound and cornered in embossed leather with cloth boards, and ribbed spine, with filigree and different leather for title and author.

In my country in 1972, there was a sense of liberation, as we experienced a change in mores (or customs).  The change came not least in language, and we started to hear words that had not until then been admissible in public.  I had already got a foretaste late in the 60’s.  We had been at the MCG watching the Demons get done again, and drinking far too much beer.  One of us three, Johnny, was about to qualify in medicine.  He took us back to his East Melbourne flat to meet his wife.  Some idiot put on the TV.  We saw the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr E G Whitlam, QC, hugging a koala.  My other mate and I nearly fainted when Johnny, in front of his wife, said ‘That would be par for the fucking course.’  That sort of thing just did not happen.

Well, things were different after 1972.  A government that had been there far too long was kicked out; we ended the infamy of our involvement in Vietnam; and we saw a renaissance in our theatre and writing.  David Williamson and others made our foibles hilariously apparent.  We found out how to enjoy laughing at ourselves and to abandon bad old ring-fences of our shame.  The ‘magic word’ was all over the stage. 

Still, it came as a bit of jolt when at a small dinner party in sedate Ivanhoe in about 1974, a mate introduced me (and my wife) to the following poem:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

In time, I would learn that that poem (from 1971) was typical of Philip Larkin.  He came from a well off family in Coventry and went to Oxford.  He served a large part of his life as a librarian and part time jazz critic.  But his calling was to writing, which became settled on poetry.  His personal life was spotty – as is the case with most of us – and that and his personal correspondence would enable those with far less art in them to throw stones when they should really have known better. 

The poem above is blunt, no bullshit, with no affected style or fancy words.  The poem looks to tell a simple truth – about the world as it is.  Perhaps it is negative to the point of being bitter – that is very characteristic.  But what about that nasty little kicker at the end?  And if art is a lyrical reflection on the human condition, what is a poet doing denying life?

Larkin, like oysters, may be an acquired taste.  But there is a big difference between learning to swallow an oyster, and getting used to sticking your teeth right into the bloody lemon.  Take the poem Schoolmaster.

He sighed with relief.  He had got the job.  He was safe.

Putting on his gown, he prepared for the long years to come

That he saw, stretching like aisles of stone

Before him.  He prepared for the unreal life

Of exercises, marks, honour, speech days and games,

And the interesting and pretty animals that inspired it all,

And made him a god.  No, he would never fail.

Others, of course, had often spoken of the claims

Of living: they were merely desperate.

His defence of Youth and Service silenced it.

It was acted as he planned: grown old and favourite,

With most Old Boys he was quite intimate –

For though he never realised it, he

Dissolved.  (Like sugar in a cup of tea.)

That might strike you as the kind of character you might see on stage in a one-act play by Alan Bennett.  But is this just a type?  And what about the twist at the end – and that nasty little jab at being intimate?  And when does a librarian get off taking pot-shots at schoolteachers for being neurotic life preservers?

Well, looking at the bleak side of life does not of itself vitiate art – just look at Breughel, Dürer (say, the Melencolia), and Goya – and that ghastly pile of bleeding corpses in the Uffizi.  It is also as well to recall that in America they developed an enduring art form called the blues.  Mr Larkin may have been the English response. 

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool.  That vase.

Larkin adored Bessie Smith.  (He was brutally myopic about those jazz musicians who came later.  That was a shame.  The off-key tristesse of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monkshould have been right up his alley.)  When it came to Desert Island Discs in 1976, Larkin chose Bessie.  ‘It would have to be one of the jazz records, I can't live without jazz.  The Bessie Smith I think, it is so full of life and so invigorating.’  Which song?  Why, naturally, ‘I’m down in the Dumps.’
You may wish to bring to mind some such facts of life if you are unfortunate enough to step into that minefield of name-calling and labelling called criticism about this poet.  The bullshit passes my understanding, and some of the pettiness is about as edifying as watching someone scrutinise my dunny pan.  Those who think they may be above Larkin might tell us when they were last offered a Fellowship by All Souls.
And we should keep a very close eye on a toff of any description who is looking to go after an artist who wants to talk to people on the street.  We should in truth be on the watch for that very English speciality - common garden snobbery.  And there may even be a touch of more common jealousy – Larkin was hardly ever going to prove a challenge to the likes of George Clooney, but the evidence is in that Larkin was running three women at once at an age where some men are thinking of slowing down.  That kind of behaviour is calculated to lead to the expression of very strong views – from either side of the great divide.  (I have long ceased to wonder at or about the sex lives of the English – a process that set in with Wuthering Heights.)
In his introduction to this finely presented volume – which is a prized possession in my home (it cost a bloody arm and a leg) – Mr Thwaites, one of Larkin’s literary executors, comments on the intense work that Larkin put into his drafts, sometimes over years.  He also comments on the influence of Hardy, Auden and Yeats.  He quotes Larkin:
As for their [the poems’] literary interest, I think that almost any single line by Auden would be worth more than the whole lot put together…Auden’s ease and vividness were the qualities I most wished to gain.
Naturally, Larkin had morbid views about death.  He expressed some in the poem Aubade.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   

In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   

Till then I see what’s really always there:   

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   

Making all thought impossible but how   

And where and when I shall myself die.   

Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   

—The good not done, the love not given, time   

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says No rational being 

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   

Nothing to love or link with,

The anaesthetic from which none come round…..

That is not a happy condition.  Any life so lived was fraught.  But out of that life came the work in this beautiful book, and for better or worse, that book is a comfort to me in my own life.

As I think reflect on it now, Philip Larkin has at least something in common with another artist considered in this book (although there are plenty of differences).  Jeffrey Smart also used his very refined technique as an artist to help us come to grips with our wholly flawed modern world.  That looks to me to be a very decent thing for either of them to have done, and one for which we should be truly grateful.

So, we might end with a happy little poem.

Day by day your estimation clocks up

Who deserves a smile and who a frown,

And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up

Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.

Or will some latterday font of primness deny my right to call that poem happy?  Have we put our foot down even on the birds and the bees? Or have we forgotten what it is just to have fun?

Poetry – Larkin – prudes

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