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Simon Parke: Art with an aftertaste

18 May 2011

IT IS an old chestnut, but still a tasty one: can you enjoy the art of someone you do not like?

Philip Larkin (1922-85) is one of the most respected English poets of the 20th century. In 2008, The Times named him as the greatest British post-war writer. Yet Professor Lisa Jardine calls him a “casual, habitual racist”, and finds evidence for this in the second batch of his personal letters, published under the title Letters to Monica. Larkin may have detested his Nazi-leaning father, yet he himself came to hold some extreme right-wing views.

In one shocking line, he writes: “In ten years’ time we shall all be cower­ing under our beds as rampaging hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.”

And, perhaps fed by his own bleak experiences of growing up, Larkin had an aversion to marriage, leaving his friendships with women com­plicated and unresolved. At one point in the 1970s, he was conducting three relationships at the same time.

In Larkin’s mind, marriage was a trap set by females: a ring in ex­change for a lifetime of “perfunctory sex and domestic slavery”. Larkin needed fantasy; so trips to London from his home in Hull always in­cluded the purchase of porn­ography.

The accurate articulation of un­happiness was his trademark, and the wretchedness of life was his inspira­tion. “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Words­worth,” he said, and it is there in his poems: “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Yet was such vibrant despair also the reason for his success? He thought so. “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any —after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?” And somehow, as Chris­topher Hitchens observes, Lar­kin, like all great artists, “transmutes the dross of existence into magic or gold”.

Certainly, he had no airs or graces. Andrew Motion, who knew him well, says: “Of all the people I’ve ever met, he was the person who felt the least hesitation about revealing his per­son­ality, warts and all.” And Motion, along with others, says that Larkin was the funniest person he has ever met.

There are many who do not like Larkin. But then Larkin did not like himself. As he once wrote to Monica, his on-off partner for 40 years: “I’ve always tried to get you to see me as unlikeable, and now I must be getting near success.”

And he was the first to admit there was a hole in his life where love should have been: “In everyone there sleeps A sense of life lived according to love. To some it means the differ­ence they could make By loving others, but across most it sweeps As all they might have done had they been loved. That nothing cures.”


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