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18 January 2015 @ 10:12 am
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.
Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on January 18th, 2015 06:40 pm (UTC)
I should read Booth before I pontificate on this, but I am immediately skeptical of a defense of this as performance. Sure, guys being guy-like together may egg each other on, but they wouldn't say toxic stuff like this if they didn't believe it. It's entirely different from the wholly fanciful ideas that SF fans like to play deadpan with (e.g. the suck fairy). Nobody's being smeared if you pretend to believe in the suck fairy.

Nevertheless I like Larkin's poetry. As a classical music fan, I'm used to great art from rotten people. You can't listen to Wagner or Beethoven without excusing a lot of dreadful personal behavior.
eub on January 19th, 2015 07:47 am (UTC)
Personally I can buy it as performance, but I then have to ask, why are they performing this? Sometimes it's with real content in critique of the offensive ideas, but this doesn't sound likely here. Sometimes it's agreement with the ideas under cover of detachment. Sometimes it's not agreement as such, but enjoyment of the freedom to say these dirty things. Which doesn't mean somebody's a bigot, but it I can't think of an example where they've been an anti-bigot either. It seems to go along with not really giving a shit about bigotry.
John M. Burtjohn_m_burthotm on January 19th, 2015 07:32 pm (UTC)
Poetry, prose, painting, sculpture -- these things are more enduring than mere flesh and blood. If their source is flawed, what of it?

Indeed, a faulty human can be redeemed by an act of creation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSsFcs8S4xM
Nation of Tire Saletdaschel on January 20th, 2015 12:53 pm (UTC)
i experienced something like this with Patricia Highsmith / when she returned for an American Visit, a radio man asked how she felt about the widespread perception that she was an anti-Semite. Mz Highsmith was shocked : "how can i be anti-Semitic? i don't like Arabs either." a misanthrope in any case (tho' it's said that in high school she had a brief romance with a Jewish student name of Judith Tuvim .. the future Judy Holliday).