Since the 1990s the poet Philip Larkin has been in an awkward place. If he’d been a gonzo journalist, or a novelist with a subject matter on the underclass, it might not have been as troubled, but perhaps because of the way poetry is consumed, and by a certain public, that his unpleasant, insular and antediluvian attitudes horrified people as it did.
Reading Larkin’s poems again it is quite obvious that it was all there: the loneliness and isolation, the bitterness and envy, the rage and contempt for anyone to read. It’s all open and honest. Maybe at a time – in the ‘60s and ‘70s – the voice and perception were thought to be a type of posture, not intrinsic to its author, simply artifice to bring about an effect.
I suppose the question is why should this matter? Writers do not have to be truthful and it’s a fundamental error to interpret what’s on the page in biographical terms: something that David Wallace reminded a Rolling Stone editor who shadowed him on his Infinite Jest tour.
D H Lawrence welcomed the First World War as a means to clean up the filth of humanity, and he meant the working classes, an attitude which is not very easy to square with his background and work. Many artists shared Lawrence’s opinions. Mass slaughter, it seems, can be extolled for good purpose.
Pound and Céline (Ferdinand – not Dion) like Larkin encountered similar changes to their reputation due to their political and anti-Semitic allegiances. Over fifty years after their deaths readers are not as conflicted in reading Voyage au bout de la nuit or The Cantos.
Larkin’s poems are heralded for their truth which stems from his own honesty and his ability to craft syllables so well. In another fifty years readers may be able to find a form of reconciliation between the poems and the poet.
©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.