The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin
Edited by Archie Burnett
Reviewing Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems, published by Faber & Faber and the Marvell Press in 1988, the great Ian Hamilton regretted the inclusion of eighty-odd uncollected and often unfinished poems. “The plumpened Larkin oeuvre does not carry a great deal of extra weight,” he wrote. In both literal and metaphorical terms I think he was right: with the exception of the indispensable “Aubade” — that soul-jolting meditation on mortality and death — there frankly isn’t much in Larkin’s leftovers I find worth the bother. Thwaite, I gather, didn’t either: my edition of the Collected Poems has been met with an editorial mop; the poems Hamilton (and many others, for that matter) found unreadable have been omitted, including the awful, jangling “Love Again,” which reads like something written by a lecherous and less-talented poet.
But here the poem is again on page 320 of Archie Burnett’s new edition of Philip Larkin’s The Complete Poems, along with hundreds of other uncollected, unfinished or (too often) unreadable poems, painstakingly extracted from letters and desk drawers and, presumably, the backs of grocery lists and lottery tickets. The editorial protocol of the book must have been something like: if Larkin wrote it, and if it vaguely resembled verse, it’s a poem. How else could you possibly explain the inclusion of:
Get Kingsley Amis to sleep with your wife,
You’ll find it will give you a bunk up in life.
High o’er the fence leaps Soldier Jim,
Housman the bugger chasing him.
One is tempted to reach for words like crime or injustice, but at the end of the day it just seems like lazy criticism. In his incorrigibly scholarly introduction, Professor Burnett assures us that “this edition includes all of Larkin’s poems whose texts are accessible,” and that “verses from letters, mainly short, and by turns sentimental, affectionate, satirical and scurrilous, are included.” And yet he claims that “mere scraps of verse” have justly been excluded. But if the following isn’t a “mere” scrap of verse, then I don’t know what is:
Oh who is this feeling my prick?
Is it Tom, is it Harry, or Dick?
The problem lies in Burnett’s motivation for this volume, which appears to have been born amid the whirr and clang of academic machinery. “An accurate text is, and always must be, the chief justification,” Burnett writes, before lobbing a handful of verbal grenades at A.T. Tolley’s Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005) which, we are told, “contains 72 errors of wording, 47 of punctuation, 8 of letter-case, 5 of word-division, 4 of font and 3 of format.” Even Thwaite’s Collected Poems does not emerge unscathed from Burnett’s introduction: its “record of sources” was often “unhelpfully rudimentary.”
Right. We’re obviously much obliged to Professor Burnett for bringing these mistakes and inconsistencies to light. We’re grateful that he has produced a text purged of inaccuracy and error. But it begs the question: how accurate is factual accuracy? What is its relation to the larger project of representing the poet accurately? Clive James once wrote that Larkin’s work “made a point of declining in advance all offers of academic assistance,” that his poetry “was, and always will remain, too self-explanatory to require much commentary.” The Complete Poems takes the opposite view. Here, Larkin is eagerly footnoted, indexed and appendiced; thirty pages of introduction, notes to the introduction, and notes on abbreviations, precede the actual poems. More than three hundred pages of exhaustive commentary documenting the formation of the poems succeed the poems. Then there are twelve pages on “Larkin’s Early Collections of His Poems,” followed by a redundant “Dates of Composition” — before the “Index of Titles and First Lines,” like the end credits of a very long and boring movie. The four collections of poetry Larkin published in his lifetime take up 97 pages. The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin clocks in at 729.
In all fairness, the commentary does occasionally manage to warrant a little interest. In the entry for “Aubade,” for instance, there’s a wonderful excerpt from a 1977 letter to Kingsley Amis, a few months before Larkin completed the poem: “Poetry, that rare bird, has flown out the window and now sings on some alien shore. In other words I just drink these days…I wake at four and lie worrying till seven. Loneliness Death. Law suits. Talent gone. Law suits. Loneliness. Talent Gone. Death. I really am not happy these days.” These sentiments poignantly made it into the text of the poem — his last, and possibly most enduring, convulsion of talent before he gradually dried up:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify +
The only problem is that the excerpt from the letter to Amis is buried in five and a half pages of notes and commentary — for just the one poem. Ultimately it doesn’t dramatically change our view of “Aubade,” it merely provides a little extra biographical padding here and there. Apart from that, Burnett’s insistence on documenting the development of the individual poem (a-ha! this line appeared slightly altered in this letter, and so on) is, well, unhelpful. The “poem” “Walt Whitman,” which, in its entirety, goes “Walt Whitman / Was certainly no titman / Leaves of Grass / …,” gets the following entry:
10 Apr. 1978, when it was included in a p.c. to KA (Huntington MS, AMS 353-393). L writes the text as four lines separated by slant lines, and leaves the fourth line as an ellipsis. He signs off as ‘young bum. ǀ Philip’. Previously unpublished.
From early on, readers have detected homoerotic feelings in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (various edns. From 1855 onwards). 2 titman: a fancier of women’s breasts (slang); not in OED.
That “previously unpublished” bit is pretty good — as though those pathetic, left-handed lines were ever seriously meant for publication.
Does Professor Burnett imagine that the inclusion of “Walt Whitman” — or the many other bumbling snippets of nonsense like it — strengthens Larkin’s oeuvre? If so he is seriously mistaken. The only thing we’re reminded of is what a shit Larkin was in real life. There are little jibes at Donald Davie, Tariq Ali and Frank Kermode; infantile lines about feces and cunts; the odd homophobic taunt. Because so many of these poems appeared in private letters, the effect of reading them is to conflate Larkin’s art with his life — a fallacy his real poetry doesn’t deserve. It will be necessary, one fears, to rehash Martin Amis’s excellent New Yorker essay on the Larkin backlash that followed the publication of the Selected Letters in 1992. “None of this matters,” Amis wrote, “because only the poems matter.”
It’s annoying to have to drone on like this about things that seem so obvious. The Complete Poems ought to do what its title seems to promise: give us the four collections of poetry Larkin published in his lifetime, followed by the uncollected poems that appeared in magazines and anthologies and elsewhere. Instead, Burnett has given us a verbose and inaccessible tome — a heap of the half-formed and half-felt. Which is about as far from Larkin’s example as you’re likely to get: he relied on powers of economy and accessibility for effect. His gift was to combine a condensed and deeply poetic language (with its tremors of Auden, Hardy and Eliot) with ordinary speech, as in the devastating final stanzas of “Mr Bleaney” –
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know +
– whose last three words deliver so powerful and unsettling a blow and pull that long sentence to a crashing halt. “Mr Bleaney,” like “Aubade,” “Church Going,” “Next, Please,” “The Old Fools,” “For Sidney Bechet,” “Dockery and Son,” “An Arundel Tomb” and countless others, are poems wrenched from personal experience yet heightened by art into universal experience. Their endless quotability are a testament to their paradoxical generosity — the expansive reach that thwarts their brevity. Larkin’s life was by all accounts uneventful and drab, a kind of non-life, but it enabled him his many searing insights about life, age, death, disappointment and the passing of time. As he put it in his Paris Review interview a few years before his death: “I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year the same. Probably neither works.”
Most of us, I imagine, like to think of ourselves as belonging squarely in that first category. We might not be in California one year and Japan the next, but we’re certainly struggling to do a lot, to keep abreast of the passing of time. Yet Larkin’s way is always there with us, whether we like it or not, intensified at those moments when “we are caught without / People or drink.” It’s the voice of the unhappy — the disappointed, the ugly, the unloved — reminding us of what at certain moments we can only bear to intuit:
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age +