Pick your Larkin. There’s more than one. Do you want the minor-league mystic, sitting on a train somewhere and blinking at the void through his thick-framed specs? “What will survive of us is love.” That guy? “One of the best-known and best-loved poets of the English-speaking world,” according to the jacket of his Collected Poems. Perhaps you want the witty English celibate (not that he was actually celibate) with his droops and his disappointments: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me).” Or do you want the nihilist, snotty as a Sex Pistol, teeth bared, who wrote “The Old Fools,” “Sunny Prestatyn,” and “This Be the Verse”? “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”
Clive James wanted the lot: all the moods, all the modes, all the poems, everything. James, the omnivorous, polymathic, multi-browed critic/novelist/broadcaster/poet who died on November 24 at the age of 80, was what you might call a massive Philip Larkin fan. His specific fandom was feverish and absolute—and also, because he was Clive James, deeply considered and beautifully expressed. Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin gathers almost five decades of James on Larkin: reviews, essays, apologias, meditations, and two actual homages-in-verse. The earliest piece, on Larkin’s last collection, High Windows, is from 1974. The last is from December 2018. In between, James gets his hairy Australian arms right around Larkin. “His poems could not be more personal. But equally, they could not be more universal. Seeing the world as the hungry and thirsty see food and drink, he describes it for the benefit of those who are at home in it, their senses dulled by satiation.” Rather moving, to see such a tricky and verbally lethal character so steadily attended to, so comprehended. Treat yourself to Somewhere Becoming Rain: to misery mirthfully examined, to cramped circumstances magnanimously explored, to one high style reacting with joy to another.