January 18th, 2015


Philip Larkin

Hugo Black was once required by politeness to attend the funeral of a legal colleague he disliked. When a late-arriving colleague asked what had happened thus far, he replied, "The defense opened."

When Philip Larkin died, the prosecution opened. He had been a serious poet who was loved by the masses (perhaps the last to reach that status without musical accompaniment), but his biographer and the editor of his letters portrayed him as a nasty little man who hated women, Jews, blacks, and just about everyone else.

I was not of course shocked that poetry I love came from someone of deplorable views. I went through it long ago with Ezra Pound, and I even found it somewhat sporting to appreciate someone who despised my kind so much. I also expected the pendulum to swing in Larkin's case, and it has.

Now James Booth has written Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love, and the defense has made a strong case. Booth argues persuasively that the nasty stuff in the letters to his mates Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest is performance, playing with racially and religiously offensive terms as they did the words we didn't used to be able to say on television, no more evidence of real hatred that the ritual closure of all missives with the word bum was evidence of anal eroticism. I like to think I would have been able to guess as much even if I hadn't done the same in my own extended adolescence. And of course even the sort of close readers who can find offense in their alphabet soup never managed to cite evidence of the deplorable attitudes in the published poetry.

The book is by no means a whitewash. Larkin famously said, "Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)," and he was right about the second part. He made himself miserable, and shared the pain with all the women he was involved with, and Booth tells that story too. We are dealing with a flawed human being, and I need feel neither pride nor shame in loving the verse.