August 9, 2011
When I think of PHILIP LARKIN (1922-85), the word that comes to my mind is punch. The word doesn’t come from his poems; it describes them. “Home is so sad.” “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three.” “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Or, looking at poem endings rather than poem beginnings, he gets BOOM to the very jaw of the matter (graveyards) when writing about why churches remain moving places even for godless cynical over-educated modernists:
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
At the same time, the word “punch” also makes me think of this anecdote: “Legend has it that once, at a dismally inept amateur boxing match in Hull, Philip Larkin turned to his neighbour with the words ‘Only connect.'” That Larkin should make E. M. Forster’s earnest plea for mutual understanding into, well, a punch line (about landing punches) seems somehow emblematic of Larkin’s misanthropy.
Which was definite, though not debilitating. Larkin never married, but he had affairs with women, sometimes with several women simultaneously. He turned down the Poet Laureateship in 1984 because he had not been writing poetry for many years, having instead risen steadily through the ranks of the library at the University of Hull to become its head. When Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Larkin’s letters and Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin came out in the early 1990s, many readers were appalled by the casual racism and sexism of Larkin’s private writings and actions, and by the report of the discovery of his stash of porn. At the same time, it’s hard to be entirely surprised at finding some legitimate cruelty and pollution in a Mad Men-era man who could write:
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.
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Tove Jansson.
READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).