Keving Saving on
Selected by Martin Amis
Faber and Faber (2011)
Wit's End Weddings
How many 'great' poems does a writer have to write before they become a Great poet? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? For me, Gerard Manley Hopkins is a Great poet not because he wrote 'The Wreck of the Deutschland', 'Pied Beauty' or 'The Windhover' (though all these, and several more, are fine poems: well-crafted, idiosyncratic, strong in style). For me, Hopkins is a Great poet because, as a young man, he wrote 'Heaven-Haven' - a slight (eight-line) gem so perfectly executed that it is impossible to imagine any similar thing being done better.
It is hard, today, to envisage anyone writing anything remotely comparable - that is, until someone actually does. When did you last read a poem which made you think 'Wow!'? Odds are, if you ever have - and it was written by anyone active during (or after) the second half of the twentieth century - it was one written by Philip Larkin.
Larkin was the first poet I ever read who consistently spoke to me in my own language, who brought forth the recognition 'yes, that's just the way it is'. That he was (also) a tight-fisted, bigoted, sexist whinger, with crypto-fascist leanings, only became apparent over the course of time -when biographical attention was duly focused upon him. But are any of his (now fairly undeniable) imperfections really detectable in the work? Or is it only now that we know of them that we can fancy we discern them 'spread[ing] through other lives like a tree'?
The present is, probably, as good a time as any (following both the immediate-posthumous 'hype' and the inevitable subsequent demolition) for the process of winnowing Larkin's poetic achievement to begin. Accordingly, Faber and Faber have released their Selected - though, interestingly enough, it was the provincial Marvell Press who gave him his first big break, a while before his beatification as a Son of Faber.
For too long, the sole generally available route into 'Larkinland' has been via his Collected, 'edited' (if that's really the word) by Anthony Thwaite. Also issued by Fabers, this (1988) production features 242 individual poems, many of them juvenilia, a large proportion - frankly - mediocre. Larkin's 'muse' lacked stamina: even the present volume's poem count (58) seems, at times, repetitive and 'dated'. Then there is the selection itself. Martin Amis (son of the poet's best friend Kingsley Amis, though he seems not to have personally liked Larkin very much) unaccountably retains insipid examples such as 'The Card-Players', 'Dublinesque' and 'Posterity' whilst jettisoning minor classics like 'Sunny Prestatyn', 'As Bad As A Mile' and 'Best Society'. His Introduction, though not without 'colour', sheds little in the way of unexpected insight, besides the pontification that Larkin is a 'novelist's poet' without being a 'poet's poet'. Even curiouser is Amis's predilection towards the more erratically valuable latter work. Looking back, it appears evident that High Windows represented the beginnings of a gradual desiccation of the poet's creative juices (though this edition boasts a wonderfully lugubrious cover photograph of him from around this same period).
And yet. And yet. Larkin at his best (and this volume does contain most of his finest poetry) can make us laugh at 'Life's Little Ironies' in a way which no one else has quite managed - save, perhaps, his own personal talisman, Thomas Hardy. Who else would lead us into the deserted church, up to the 'holy end', make us watch as he donates an Irish sixpence and then surprise us (and himself) with a 'hunger to be more serious' - if only because 'so many dead lie around'?
Who else really causes us to see (as in a sepia photograph) the 'long uneven lines' of prospective cannon fodder, standing patiently outside (presumably) the First World War Recruitment Office; 'the differently dressed servants/ with tiny rooms in huge houses...the thousands of marriages lasting a little while longer'? Often (typically, his phrase) Larkin's 'voice falls as they say love should,/ like an enormous yes'. Truly, there never was 'such innocence,/ never before or since' (as that evoked in 'MCMXIV') and 'Never such innocence again'.
I'd contend that Philip Larkin wrote a dozen or so Great poems which is as many as Auden, and more than T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas combined. Whether, or not, this is enough to elevate him into the (always hotly disputed) ranks of the Great Poets is, really, anyone's guess. For Larkin (and in this he is entirely a 'modern') the best that mankind can aspire to is to be (slightly) less deceived. He could sense (way back in 1972) that 'England' - like Brooke he seldom speaks of 'Britain' - was already 'Going, Going' and the conclusion he hesitatingly drew (in a late, uncollected poem) was that 'we should be careful/ of each other, we should be kind/ while there is still time'. If that prescription sounds simplistic nowadays and, well, slightly un-Larkinesque, who since has furnished us with any better a manifesto?
Paradoxically, perhaps this uber-cynic's last, most enduring and greatest gift is his vulnerability -somehow both well-camouflaged and undisguised - which reaches out to us and confides 'I, too, am afraid of the dark'. And, ultimately, how can we fail to respond to someone who affirms (even though he partially subverts the statement with caveats and, eventually, wanted to retract it altogether) 'what will survive of us is love'?
Kevin Saving © 2011