Philip Larkin and the Poetry of Otherness

Photo of Christopher Viner
14 December 2016

When he died in 1985, Philip Larkin was considered one of England’s literary treasures; it was only subsequently that the poet’s unsavoury politics and proclivities came to light. Christopher Viner examines how, through the adoption of the Other as a poetic voice, Larkin managed to create poetry that transcended his own personality, instead invoking universal truths that still ring out from his words today.

© Simon K/Flickr

From the archangel Gabriel, to those elusive muses that float atop Grecian mystic mountains in the paradise of Parnassus who sang their poetry into the keen ears of Homer; from Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, to the anti-personal poetry of Eliot—sacred writing (and I am most certainly looking at poetry here) has always eschewed a concept of Self. Poetry has always hedged its bets on the idea of an Other. In the poetry of Philip Larkin, we may presume that with his descriptions of a very particular desolate Hull, and his humanist approach to life, he is a poet that writes very much from a viewpoint of the Self. If we look a little closer, however, we find this is not the case.

In Larkin’s discussion of his poem ‘Absences’ we witness a rare admittance from the poet himself on the matter of summoning the Other, in order to write what he, in characteristic pseudo-humility claims, is quite simply ‘better’ poetry:

I suppose I like ‘Absences’ (a) because of its subject matter—I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there; (b) because I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet rather than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often.

This quote is of particular use to us, as it appears to resonate with a poetics of Otherness, in a Homeric sense of invoking a voice that is of a higher order: ‘I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet rather than myself.’ Furthermore, some sentiments seem to resonate with Eliot’s idea of a loss of the Self in order to represent things more perfectly: ‘I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there’. Finally, Larkin imagines the last line to read like an Other, in this case, a French symbolist. The last line that Larkin refers to, in ideology and in tone, reads like an Arthur Rimbaud in full swing, having fled Charleville, discovered absinthe and hashish with a green-eyed Paul Verlaine, and is now systematically deranging senses, in order to bring to the fore an objective truth:

Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.

Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!

What makes the construction of the poem so interesting is that, before the final image, in the first two stanzas of ‘Absences’, we are not in the Latin Quarter of a revolutionary Paris, but we instinctively feel isolated, in Larkin’s familiar post-war North England of ‘fishy smelling pastoral’. This is an English shore we are gazing at, that, ‘sighs’, moves like, ‘fast-running floors’, and whose waves drop ‘like a wall’. The voice is that of an urban city dweller, until we begin to derail, and, ‘sift away’ towards the end of the penultimate line, before dipping with immense disorientation in to an image that seems to accidentally channel the infinite, appearing to seamlessly, give forever:

Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!

© Simon K/Flickr

The sense of vertigo experienced at the sudden, unexpected, tilt in voice during the final line of the poem, does not sound typically ‘Larkin-esque’. Indeed, the infinite quality the line and image, almost miraculously, retains, seems to have only been possible through the poet’s (or narrator’s) willingness (or submission) to transcend his parochial surroundings. Here we unfold the crux of perhaps what makes Larkin so popular and universal: he is at his most compelling when in building an image of the banal landscape of post-war England, he suddenly eclipses it, with a poignant, universal truth (or philosophy) on the nature of the human condition.

If it is true that the particular is contained in the universal, Larkin reaffirms this in his work almost every time. The poet uses his particular disposition, his belief in oblivion running behind all things, and his particular habitat of mildly philistine, parochial Hull, as a platform for transcendence, or rather a gateway to another, more collected truth, that resides deeper within the poet. And, indeed, this is a truth that lies within, if not all of us, then those that gain a similar transcendence through the reading of his poems, making the voice of his ‘Other’, something universal.

Larkin achieves this by employing a voice in many of his poems, or in parts of his poems—usually the closing lines—that is not subjective, that appears to have no personality, which resonates with Eliot’s idea of Otherness. In the poem ‘The Explosion’, for example, James Booth argues, ‘the personality is absent, invisible, almost impenetrable.’ In a similar fashion, and more generally, Santosh Bhoomkar observes that, ‘Larkin’s affirmations and doubts are made in a tone and language with which Eliot has made us familiar.’ Although, we might go further and observe that Larkin is even more minimal in his tone and description, and able to leave even less of the ‘platinum’ Eliot uses in his analogy of writing poetry. We can easily detect this, when in the poem ‘Water’, in the plainest language he manages to depict what religion, in a single simple image, often fails to do, which is to accept all on all sides:

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

What is telling is that in his opportunity to construct an entirely new religion, Larkin is unable to entirely break from the old one, of Christianity: ‘the glass of water turned east indicates the place where Christianity originated and the directions in which church point [sic].’ This is perhaps a life-long paradox of Larkin’s that runs through his corpus of work—rational enough to perceive religion as a ‘vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die’; human enough to recognize its psychological importance—a problem probably most memorably documented in his poem ‘Church Going’. This paradox is, perhaps, most poignantly compacted during ‘Church Going’, in the sentiment that closes the second stanza, and the one that opens the third: ‘Reflect the place was not worth stopping for. // Yet stop I did.’

The literary critic James Wood suggests, ‘his poems about Other people […] ‘Mr Bleaney’, or even ‘An Arundel Tomb’—have the serenity of Otherness, despite their sadness. They seem to exist in a richer, freer place, an upper atmosphere of the soul.’ The ‘serenity of Otherness’ that Wood depicts here, we might say, allows Larkin the room to invoke, or call upon, a voice (or voices), that reside in the upper atmosphere, even beyond that, of the poet—indeed, one that, perhaps necessarily, strays from any dramatic events in the poet’s life, and almost certainly from any socio-political stance true to the poet’s disposition. It would make sense, as it’s remarkable that Larkin is even a poet with a subject to write about; indeed, he is, ‘surely one of the strangest lyric poets in English for he has so little to celebrate that he has little to mourn—an elegist without memory (“a forgotten boredom”), an eschatologist without a theology.’ It is his invocation of the Other, which finally, allows him to suspend his poetics in to that of the universal.

In particular, for this poet, it must have been crucial to omit any socio-political views from his published corpus. This is a man who wrote to his mother yearning for the perishing of the working classes; a man whose father, a Nazi-sympathiser, owned a statue of Hitler that resided on the family mantelpiece — and we must remember, ‘he could not help admiring his father, and never outgrew his influence.’ Fresh after the Letters and Life affair ,when the anathematisation of Larkin’s oeuvre began, Stephen Logan insists, ‘it now becomes apparent that the poems depend for their success on Larkin’s skill at keeping a sizeable part of his personality out of them.’

In fact, that Larkin’s popularity, pre the release of the Letters and the Life, was so widespread that he was considered a national treasure, and indeed, one that would be offered a position of poet laureate (a position he turned down due to his decreasing interest in writing poems after the death of his mother), is testimony to the extent Larkin writes beyond the Self in his poems, and embodies an ‘Other’ voice. Furthermore, that there is no trace of his racism and extreme right wing sympathies in the poems published during his lifetime is in no small way a contribution to the shock in the journalism world, once his true socio-political disposition was publicly unveiled by Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion in 1992 and 1993 respectively.

These are poems that are necessarily unaffected with an idiosyncratic socio-political viewpoint. They necessarily gravitate towards non-political certainties: the finality of death, the ultimate futility of love. Indeed, we might even go so far as to describe, at least some of his most well known works, as ‘distinct from… or opposite’ to the poet’s natural credence and (closet) political tendencies himself. No epiphany is ever circumscribed to a particular person, group or ethnicity—his closing statements are human without politic, almost always an effort for the universal.

Consider, the wholly uncharacterised thought that drives the poem ‘Days’ in to a universal truth:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
Where can we live but days?

That so much of Larkin’s important poetry, which now stand as pillars in the literary post-war landscape, is enjoyed, considered and of meaning, with or without knowledge of his political leanings makes the journalistic stir and downfall of the poet’s reputation after the Life and Letters even more remarkable, because it was always difficult for those with the intent of worsening his reputation to find anything politically disagreeable in his poems. The argument became not about the poet—for the voice of the poet embodied a universal voice of the ‘Other’—but the man.

Writing an obituary for Philip Larkin on 8 December 1985, Blake Morrison perhaps tempts fate a little, when he states: ‘There are only the poems now.’ And Kingsley Amis — famously close to Larkin and having corresponded with him regularly — must surely be thinking of the poems and not the man, when in his obituary he writes that Larkin, ‘erected no barriers.’

However, by 1993, ‘contempt for Philip Larkin [was] in vogue.’ After the release in the early 1990s of Thwaite’s Letters and Motion’s Life, we get quite a different public opinion of the poet in question. Larkin seems a far cry from the borderless, people’s poet depicted in the obituaries of 1985, when, in reviewing Motion’s biography, Neil Kay writes:

‘[Larkin’s] appraisal of Wilson’s government (1969) in a private letter to Kingsley Amis neatly indicates his prejudices, ‘Fuck the lot of them, I say, the decimal-loving, nigger-mad, army-cutting, abortion-promoting, murder-pardoning, daylight-hating ponces, to hell with them, the worst government I can remember.’

Being that, ‘Larkin said he had no politics’, also, does not mean we take his letter to Amis to be any less distressing, but that, perhaps, it becomes not quite politically focused enough to be something that should be taken entirely as a sincere threat, or even stance.

By 2012, critics and journalists seem to be a little more willingly blind-sighted to Larkin’s political orientation, and focused once again on the poems: ‘poetry, if it’s any good,’ writes a rather forgiving William Logan, ‘transcends the life’s sorry particulars’. In the same article, Logan also appears to instinctively move towards our theory of Otherness in Larkin’s work when he muses that, ‘the tender side of Larkin [is] sometimes seen only when displaced’.

Logan’s forgiveness of Larkin’s unfocused political orientation and racism, though subtle, is key to our final argument. His allusion to an ‘Other’ in the work of Larkin, through a displacement of the Self, brings us to something fundamental that remains at work in poetry in general. That we can forgive Larkin his socio-political viewpoint — on the basis that in the poems, he speaks to us as if transcending the Self, and transforming into an utterance that has no politics, and speaks universally to everyman — tells us that our belief that poetry does transcend the subjective-self, in becoming a force, if not greater, then wider than a single human perspective, is still at work and present. As in Homer an audience accepted that a great power — the muses — required to be called upon in order to perform poetry, so, in Larkin, our contemporary audience of critics, journalists and readers, remarkably, accept that what is written in his published poems, is not that of the man, but of the poet — a poet larger than subjectivity — the voice of an unnameable Other. His poems, thankfully, exist beyond the realms of the political. They achieve the universal through their embodiment of an Other.

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