Philip Larkin and friends
The week before last I wrote something for Engelsberg Ideas about Philip Larkin's Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century English Verse, which was published fifty years ago last month (a hook's a hook). You can read it here.
Larkin's anthology is often remembered for its idiosyncrasies, but those idiosyncracies led him to some brilliant poems which might otherwise have been passed over - at least by me (poets, too: I have just got a copy of Tony Connor's collection Lodgers). The assembly process also forced him to reconsider at least some of his own ideas about modern poetry - and raised some provocative questions about what those kind of poetry anthologies are really for.
Thinking about Larkin wrestling with contemporary poetry is a reminder that he wasn't always the isolated figure he is sometimes made out as. In his 1993 biography, Andrew Motion expressed some surprise his friend had even agreed to the commission. But he also placed the book in the context of the various other ways in which Larkin was supporting poets at the time - serving on committees, judging awards, reviewing books (Larkin chaired the PBS during the 1980s).
Though the opportunity to edit the anthology came about by chance (the publisher's first choice, Louis MacNeice, had died unexpectedly), it could be seen as a culmination of those efforts. And yet in Andrew Motion's account, it was also a turning point: Larkin, Motion argued, ultimately found the experience of returning to Oxford - where he had taken a sabbatical to finish the reading and where he had once been a student - deeply depressing. Once he was safely back in Hull, he settled ever more deeply into his self-imposed isolation.
That lingering isolation extends to how we read Larkin’s poems. I often get the feeling that besides the so-called Movement, in which he never really fitted (and which was never an organised movement anyway, except in Robert Conquest's head), Larkin is rarely read in the context of his contemporaries. This is as true for readers as it is for critics. Larkin doesn't feature in many comparative studies. I talk to people who say that they don't read much modern poetry, besides Larkin.
This is a shame on both counts. Larkin wasn't always generous about his contemporaries, but he can still be a rewarding guide to other writers. One example besides the anthology would be his well-documented admiration for his friend Gavin Ewart. Other connections might demand a little more deduction: The Philip Larkin Society's conference last year, for instance, included a paper from Will May on Larkin's borrowings from Stevie Smith.
The Society, incidentally, aims to promote understanding and appreciation of Larkin's work, but also of the work of the poet’s contemporaries. I like to think Larkin would have liked that addition.
I don't think Larkin's critical isolation does his own poetry any favours. If we had a wider, richer view of post-war poetry - and of his place in it - we might finally be able to stop treating Larkin as a 'national monument', with all the depreciating luggage that has entailed; we might even be able to see his real achievements a little more clearly. Put that down as wishful thinking, perhaps.
The Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century English Verse, ed. Philip Larkin (Oxford University Press, 1973)
Lodgers, Tony Connor (Oxford University Press, 1965)
Larkin: A Writer's Life, Andrew Motion (Faber, 1993)