Collected Philip Larkin: A sobering triumph of exquisitely finished poems

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: April 22, 2012

The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin Edited by Archie Burnett Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 768 pp. $40

Reviewed by John Timpane

For about the last 60 years, Philip Larkin (1922-1985) has been, for many, the poet’s poet, one of the best, a fastidious craftsman who let only choice, finished pieces out into the light.

Now we have The Complete Poems, edited with devotion by Archie Burnett of Boston University. It is a sobering triumph. Or maybe I mean a triumph of sobriety. Much about it wakes you up.

The first stunner is how little, in four decades of writing life, Larkin let out. His four books — The North Ship (1945); The Less Deceived (1955), his real fame-maker; The Whitsun Weddings (1964), which I, like thousands of others, read to tatters (the book and the reader); and High Windows (1974) — get us only to page 97. All of the “Other Poems Published in the Poet’s Lifetime” get us only to page 123.

The second stunner is that, between that and Burnett’s excellent “Commentary” (page 333), we encounter a mass of unpublished work, things Burnett and others have found in papers, letters, the dog-ends of a life. I can see why Larkin held much of it back. Some is unfinished. Some’s pretty darn catty. Some exhibits a dismaying sexual immaturity. And some fails to edit out the self-pity spectacularly absent in his best work.

Still: There are some true gems, and it’s well worth knocking about among these lesser-knowns. There’s an aching, unfinished masterpiece called “The Dance,” a lacerating “Letter to a Friend About Girls.” There’s a poem titled “Autumn” that most poets I know would murder to have written:

The air deals blows: surely too hard, too often?

No: it is bent on bringing summer down.

Dead leaves desert in thousands, outwards, upwards,

Numerous as birds; but the birds fly away,

And the sound blows on, like distant, collapsing water

And there’s a masterful reimagining of François Villon’s “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis” (Ballade of Women of Yesteryear), set in the England of Larkin’s youth:

Tell me, into what far lands

They are all gone, whom I once knew

With tennis-racquets in their hands,

And gym-shoes, dabbled with the dew?

Also on display in these unpublished works is Larkin the humorist, who can harness his inner curmudgeon in the service of “light” verse (hateful term).

Collected Poems offers the Larkin lover these unknown riches, to accompany all those indelible lines and poems anthologized and taught in thousands of classes for generations.

To step back: Larkin’s poems, the ones “everyone knows,” marry formal perfection and a middle-to-pre-fall-of-the-Wall 20th-century sensibility. The stuff breaks your heart. By the time he let The Less Deceived into the world — what a title, devastating, one that stands for his entire worldview — he’d realized that life, his life, had failed to have meaning. And yet we keep on living. His poems constantly collide with the beauties of existence, and, believe me, he wants to sing, but that’s only his heart. His head can’t believe, doesn’t buy the joy and ecstasy thing.

The beauty, he does buy; the romantic, traditionalist, sensualist in him can’t help it. His permanent lyric “The Trees” beholds, with a choke in his throat, the yearly riot of the natural world. “They die, too,” he reminds himself, but the astonishing renewal of loveliness goes on anyway: “Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh,” the -sh noises enacting the thrashing crowns of spring trees in new leaf.

(In “The Trees,” as very often in his poetry, the speaker, even though he stresses the pointlessness of it all, is left out, left behind. He’s a loser. That’s the price of standing apart from living-that-is-its-own-illusion. At least, the poetry seems to insist, I’m not fooled. I’ll go on without illusions. To his enduring credit, not even Larkin thinks that’s much of a victory.)

Underneath his assent to beauty, never far away, is the puzzled shrug of the man in meaninglessness. In the simply undoing poem “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” he sees life itself splayed out in images that, while he cannot share them, tell him clearly why and how other people live. His paralyzing revelation: The album shows “a past that now no one can share.” All we have is pictures of the peak moments of other lives, “Smaller and clearer as the years go by.” It’s one of the great poetic moments of his century.

“What are days for?” another poem asks:

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields. By the way, that poem could have been written at almost any time, word for word, between about 1650 and now. Larkin could achieve the timeless point, spoken in a voice that is all voice.

Burnett is a knowing, able editor, and also an expert on another despairing perfectionist, A.E. Housman. A book like this is a treasure trove if you want to know your poet. Burnett is both a scrupulous scholar and a good storyteller. We learn much about Larkin’s life, thought, and circumstances, and the poems — the famed “Mr. Bleaney,” for example, or “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” — really benefit.

Larkin has been compared repeatedly to Thomas Hardy. He bears some connection, I guess, in his formal achievement, and his principled refusal of comfort. But Larkin inhabits a quite different world: postwar England on the skids, a world of booze (friend and foe), bad sex, bad music (Larkin was quite a snob about jazz, and he had a major crisis at the bebop of the late 1940s), isolation most existential, self-loathing, balked suffering at social cuts, people at parties you just don’t want to see. It’s more trivial than Hardy’s world, and somewhat more endearing, being, again, that of the irritable loser.

In my 20s I, too, had my heart broken again and again by The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings. And I’m glad. The title poem of the latter takes place on Whitsunday, traditional marriage day in England. The speaker finds himself on a train full of men and women going to their weddings. He can feel the massed energy of joy, fertility, and forwardness, “ready to be loosed with all the power/ That being changed can give,” and yet, as the train brakes near its station, “there swelled/ A sense of falling.”

No one has to write poetry in Larkin’s fashion, just as no one is obliged to adopt his punctilious and defeated despair. But how great an awakening it is to have the complete Larkin, the constant swell and the sense of falling.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.

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