A Book That Honors a Complicated Figure

A recent work by the late critic Clive James about his literary idol, Philip Larkin, artfully examines the complex poet’s canon.

Philip Larkin’s smallness was important; one of the consolations of his poetry has to do with its limpid account of not-big, not-noble thoughts and feelings, its transparency about being opaque. (Radio Times)

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.

Famously, or not famously at all, Larkin lived a quiet life. He was the librarian of the University of Hull. He never married, and he never really went anywhere. “Larkin described an England changing in ways he didn’t like,” James writes. “The Empire had shrunk to a few islands, his personal history to a set of missed opportunities.” He deplored modernism and admired the jingle-jangle poetry of John Betjeman. As a reviewer for The Daily Telegraph, he wrote quite a lot about jazz—not expansively, but with a kind of violent narrowness. “No wittier book of criticism has ever been written,” thumps James, with not much evidence, of the 1970 prose collection All What Jazz. Trad jazz was Larkin’s thing: His esteem for Sidney Bechet, whom he adored (and celebrated in a lovely poem), seemed to feed off his incredible aversion to the music of John Coltrane. It feels weirdly personal, Larkin’s problem with Coltrane, a loose wire in his critical circuit. “Metallic and passionless nullity … the vinegary drizzle of his tone … that reedy, catarrhal tone … wilful and hideous distortion of tone.” On and on. James tackles the jazz writing, the two novels, the whole corpus. And the two poems of his own that he includes, while incorrigibly chatty, are not bad at all. “You never travelled much but now you have,” begins “A Valediction for Philip Larkin.” “Into the land whose brochures you liked least: / That drear Bulgaria beyond the grave.”

Larkin was a proto-Morrissey, of course, anticipating all the venom and lapsarianism of that troubled English troubadour. But peering back into the poems from this distance, I was struck afresh by how punk rock Larkin was. Or more accurately (because he was there first) by how much Larkin there was in English punk rock. Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards”; couldn’t that be the title of a late Larkin poem? Public Image Ltd.’s “Poptones”: “Drive to the forest in a Japanese car / The smell of rubber on country tar.” That’s Larkin’s England right there, his tainted everyday sublime. And the Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”—ordinary bloke gets randomly battered by skinheads—is pure nightmare Larkin, like one of his mini-epics set to music: “The last thing that I saw / As I lay there on the floor / Was Jesus saves painted by an atheist nutter.” It’s as if Larkin, in his lugubrious undercover way, spent the pre-punk years doing things to poetic speech precisely in preparation for the arrival of these brilliant ragamuffins.

And posthumously, he did achieve for a little while that most punk rock of conditions: infamy. It was an unlikely twist for such a determined nonentity, but it happened. Larkin’s Selected Letters, published in 1992, revealed that, while with most of his correspondents he was decent and thoughtful, with certain of them (Kingsley Amis, mainly) he enjoyed being revolting: racist, smutty, nasty, shrunken-hearted. Unforgivable—which was rather the point, one suspects. Uproar greeted the Letters; further uproar greeted the 1993 biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, by Andrew Motion. There was a pile-on, a takedown, a reassessment, an attempt at cancellation. A 1993 piece collected in Somewhere Becoming Rain finds James in damage-limitation mode, loyally mopping up the mess. “In his poems he generously shaped and transcended his personal despair to celebrate life on our behalf … If he expressed himself unscrupulously in private it was his only respite from the hard labour of expressing himself scrupulously in public.” Not the strongest of arguments: If he kicked his own children, it was his only respite from the hard labor of not kicking other people’s. But James isn’t really sticking up for Larkin; he’s sticking up for the poetry. For the beauty. He can’t bear to have the poems reduced by the smallness of the poet.

Larkin’s smallness was important, though; one of the consolations, such as they are, of his poetry has to do with its limpid account of not-big, not-noble thoughts and feelings, its transparency about being opaque. (Read “If, My Darling”; or better still, listen to him reading it.) The idea of death left him candidly stunned, blinking in terror; he had nothing useful to say about it. But say it he did, unforgettably. “All thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die. / Arid interrogation: yet the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.” That’s “Aubade,” echoing Gerard Manley Hopkins at his most insomniac and desolate. Larkin was the pinpoint elegist of shifting afternoon light, of empty hotel dining rooms, and no one wrote about traveling by train in England better than him: “Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and / Canals with floatings of industrial froth.” At their happiest, his poems partake of a kind of rapturous slightness or slenderness, an ecstasy of marginality. Some of the shorter ones—“Days,” “Pigeons”—have a sealed, humming quality of actual perfection.

What survives of Larkin is Larkin. Sedulous nobody that he was, his pain touches your pain, my pain, our pain. “You brought us all together on your own,” James wrote in his “Valediction.” “Your saddest lyric is a social act.” And you can’t have the greater Larkin without the lesser. The snarling reactionary who stopped his ears against John Coltrane was the same man who wrote this about Sidney Bechet’s saxophone: “On me your voice falls, as they say love should / Like an enormous yes.” Clive James was a larger, louder man, and at the end of the year, in the season of his passing, it’s a privilege to look back at Larkin—all of Larkin—through the prism of his appreciation. Because that’s what you can hear behind Somewhere Becoming Rain: an enormous yes.