Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Philip Larkin

Last night I pulled out Larkin's Collected Poems--the nice green FSG edition with its tiny image of the bespectacled, non-photogenic poet--and trawled around for a few minutes. I had a heating pad under my lower back, since I had foolishly bent over to pick up my son's duffel bag last weekend and felt a novel, lasting jolt of pain in that general vicinity. I had also taken two muscle relaxant pills (no jokes, please) and was silently praying for them to take effect. My mood of middle-age decrepitude made Larkin seem like a good choice. Of course his reputation has taken a certain pounding over the past 15 years. As Martin Amis put it, in a 1995 speech I came across on the Web: "Larkin is now something like a pariah, or an untouchable. The word 'Larkinesque' used to evoke the wistful, the provincial, the crepuscular, the unloved. Now it evokes the scabrous and the supremacist. The word 'Larkinism' used to stand for a certain sort of staid, decent, wary Englishness. Now it refers to the articulate far right. In the early Eighties, the common mind imagined Larkin as a reclusive drudge...slumped in a shabby library, gaslight against the dusk. In the mid-Nineties, however, we see a fuddled Scrooge and bigot, his singlet-clad form barely visible through a mephitis of alcohol, anality and spank magazines." Amis goes on to point out that the three-ring circus of political correctness is meaningless, that only the poems count--and of course he's right. Here's the last, lovely stanza of "Money":
I listen to the money singing. It's like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

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