Saturday, November 25, 2017

Philip Larkin "The Complete Poems": Book Review

The Complete Poems | Philip Larkin | Macmillan
Reading an advance copy of Martin Amis' The Rub of Time (collected essays and journalism), his insights into his father's friendship with and his son's childhood memories of Philip Larkin kindled my checking out Archie Burnett's 2013 edition and commentary. Whereas Amis judiciously chose his pick among the hundred-plus poems published in Larkin's lifetime, Burnett shovels them all in.

Certainly for scholars it's welcome to have it all with detailed commentary and textual apparatus. Burnett combs the letters, novels, and reflections Larkin himself and some of his critics and biographers have aligned to the poetry. Aptly, Burnett cites his Boston U. colleague Christopher Ricks: to distinguish "between what went into the making of the poem and what went into the meaning of the poem." (xxvii) Ricks wrote this over two decades before about T.S. Eliot's similarly posthumous and more minor work collected as Inventions of the March Hare but it applies, with some overlap as Burnett asserts, to Larkin. I've always been intrigued by such minutiae when it comes to my favorite creators in any genre, but I've also been overwhelmed, as when the six-disc box set offers not only the remastered version of the great LP, but demos, live tracks, and innumerable outtakes and studio noodlings. This sort of assembly of all parts is Complete Poems, Larkin style.

Amis was correct to call out as it were his subject's early attempts as not quite on target compared to the best, mostly from The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). But he also reminds us that, rare for a poet of postwar renown, all four of Larkin's slim volumes still enjoy print, attesting to their demand and their quality. So, why the box set package here? Academically inclined as I am, I admit that the meticulous editing, very necessary given faults of past compilers of Larkin, is probably too much of more of a good thing than the general reader, who liked seeing the f-word in the first line of "This Be the Verse," or chuckled once at finding the Fab Four sparking "Annus Mirabilis" about 1963, expects or needs. I'd judge Amis is enough. He leans towards the later, certainly a wise choice.

Still, surveying the whole of Burnett's diligence, moments early on and off the printed record now and then merit mention. The North Ship (1945) features a series of mostly untitled poems headed in Roman numerals. I like this, for like listing "track 7" it keeps the focus on content revealed rather than following a reductive or encompassing title. "It is not love you find:/ You have no limbs/ Crying for stillness/ You have no mind/ Trembling with seraphim,/ You have no death to come." (XIII. p. 11, last stanza). The elegance of the fifth line settling into the gentle remonstration, or assurance, of grim mortality conveys Larkin's signature theme early on. All of XXVI condenses what many false starts and abandoned marathons in the uncollected, unpublished sections demonstrate as Larkin fumbling and experimenting; whereas most of the published contents of the four collections show his control.

"This is the first thing/ I have understood:/ Time is the echo of an axe/ In the wood." (p. 19)

Here Larkin gets it right: he presents the metaphor, frames it in imperious (would we call it "humblebrag" if Twittered?) or humbled persona, and leaves it there. Enough, no need for more.

By the time of The Less Deceived (1955), more inclusions begin to call out for attention. "Next, Please" channels the maritime theme of his first volume neatly into another (of so many) reflections on mortality, as the ship of doom comes each of our separate paths but shared destination of nothing. The end of "Church Going" eloquently lets a longer Larkin tell us that although, as many of us, his belief in the old ways withers, he acknowledges and respects the dead and their place of gravitas.

"This is the future furthest childhood saw" alliteratively captures the limits of our past perception, within "Triple Time." (p. 40, line 7) What has slipped away, what suggests itself ahead, and what passes as the moment we keep grasping as future turns to memory: this again Larkin expresses here.

The whole of "Water" as the essence of whatever faith Larkin might be called on in such a distant realm perhaps to conjure should be a corrective to the secular harshness which dominates his poems. Sure, it's imaginary, but like "Church Going" (a multilayered title), it offers humanist audiences of the later 20th c. onward a composed consideration of the solace which devotion has given many before.

No, Larkin's no dupe. The surreal "Essential Beauty" turns billboards of all things into a dazzling and disturbing contrast of what we see peddled around us, heedless of the real landscape and its sufferers. The "Whitsun" title entry depicts an English rush of wedding parties onto and away from trains, which Stanley Spencer might have depicted on canvas in elongated whirl. "An Arundel Tomb" with dignity notices the clasped hands of the venerable couple dissolved under its statutory tribute. This concludes his third volume with impressive grace, while never doting on the poet's own perspective.

His final collection works best when keeping to similar topics of balance and sangfroid amid death. "High Windows" swoops up in its last stanza from the f-word, the diaphragm, combine harvesters and "like free bloody birds" into contemplation where no words suffice, only thoughts before a vision of nowhere as everywhere. Set to music in one's mind may be the only correlative for this depth of focus. Given this collection was written around the time of his fifties, the expectation of his own termination was premature (he stopped his production officially more or less as he judged correctly that his talent was on the decline; would so many musicians and singers do the same these days).

But he prepared for it. "The Old Fools" wonders what goes on in the heads of the addled aged. "The peak that stays in view wherever we go/ For them is rising ground." (p. 82, ll. 43-4) The next one, "Going Going," and one after the next in High Windows, "The Building," depress as they document the decline of whatever beauty is left to the countryside as squalor and suburbia consume delicacy, and the sinister aspect of Hull's Kingston Hospital where some visitors may spark the tagline for American ad adepts of a Roach Motel where the inmates once they check in will never check out.

"I listen to money singing," the speaker in "Money" sighs, comparing it as probably nobody ever had before to looking down on a provincial town from french windows, saddened by slums and churches.
Yet, "Show Saturday" in detail equal to a Bruegel painting shows folks at their summer folly and fun. May it endure, the poet hopes, despite the fate of every one of its attendees, as a seasonal renewal.

Others in the published uncollected chapter, besides the deservedly much-anthologized standout "Aubade," number few. Larkin in letters seemed a fair adjudicator about the value of his odds and ends. He knows the arch and strained "Breadfruit" languishes within the subpar, but it's somewhat clever. (Too much of the castoffs resemble, as Larkin well knew first, Auden and Eliot inter alia.)

More hospitalized anguish fills "Heads in the Women's Ward," but after "Old Fools," merely switching genders and hairstyles seems superficial, and Larkin smartly let this one fall out of line. The tenderness of "The Mower" might have made my cut, as its composure when men destroy the natural and the fragile unknowingly resonates with the everyday threatened landscapes of "Going Going." Human encroachment upon the wild and the inarticulate reveals the agony when we play god. In the last batch, the scraps and drafts and failures, "To A Friend" keeps poise, "The Conscientious Objector" scorn, and for the veterans of "The Returned," care. None of these, including these three, meet the standards Larkin set, but they have moments of insight, if a sub-Auden slant.

A couple more would have broadened the scope of the oeuvre we know. "Compline" may not be needed given the reflections on religion already applauded, but it concludes with a nod to ritual and the trust this instills in the faithful which Larkin lets happen, free of either critique or platitude. It's a style that today's barbed wits tearing apart the "moth-eaten brocade" of religious certainty ("Aubade") might pause before, as an example of how their betters got there first, and how they found their foil.

Jazz captivated Larkin and created a whole other role he played, in essays and reviews. Little finds its way into his works and even in the fragments and rejections, there's less than I expected about music. "Two Guitar Pieces" is a bit of a lark, as the poet imagines life down South a romanticized time ago and an ocean away from Hull, and the library employing him. But it's lighter in tone and for that, fine.

I'm glad I perused this edition. It's overflowing when most readers will be content with a sampling. These definitive gatherings of the gifted artists around us keep us reverent, and also respectful of how much may lay on the studio cutting room floor, or the poet's wastebasket, before our digital erasures.
(Amazon US 11/25/17)

P.S.  Here's fifteen "Greatest Hits" from the poet. Like any such compilation, I'd make some change, but it's a starter. Same with this "Top Ten." 

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