The Guardian (July 4, 2017) features a review of a favorite poet of mine, Philip Larkin, in connection with a current exhibit of Larkin artifacts at Hull’s Brynmore Jones Library, where he was a librarian for many years.
It notes his tortured sexual life, indulgence in pornography, racist asides, and complex relationships the writer terms “despicable” with several women, whom he allegedly treated unfairly, particularly Monica Jones, his lifelong lover and collaborator.
The show includes a small Hitler bust given him by his father, a Nazi sympathizer, who had once taken his son to a Nuremberg rally.
Beyond announcing the exhibit, about which there’s very little, not even its running dates, columnist Hannah Ellis Petersen tells us Larkin was obsessed with his appearance, weighing himself twice daily on two different scales, fastidious about his clothes, etc.
A good portion of the article paraphrases or quotes the exhibit’s curator Anna Farthing, who ironically seems apologetic for the exhibition, perhaps thrown on the defensive by a rehearsed biased protocol: “The challenge is alway to not judge, and present the story in a way with lots of perspectives and hooks so people can make their own minds up. I’ve had lots of different reactions to him as I’ve started to get to know him, from complete respect to being appalled.”
I find the article, spirited perhaps by feminist indulgence, a blatant dismissal of Larkin’s perfected artistry as a poet. Larkin may well be Britain’s best poet since Auden. Unfortunately, literary criticism has taken on a contemporary intrusion of sexual politics. I side with Terry Eagleton in his contention that we appear “less interested in ideas than in the sexual habits of those who had them.”
Her take isn’t anything new. As Stephen Walsh recalls (The Guardian, May 30, 2017), during “the 2015 premiere of a BBC documentary about the poet, a female audience member disrupted the generally cosy atmosphere by asking why Hull people should be so proud of Larkin. He was a misogynist and racist, she said, and he didn’t do anything for the image of the city.”
Aside from this, what concerns me more are those who would shun an artist on the basis of alleged moral incongruities or ideology. Ellis-Petersen dubs the exhibit “a morally complex minefield.”
Do we stop reading Voltaire or Gide because they were anti-Semitic; or more famously, D. H. Lawrence, who exhibits a considerable misogynist vein in his work? And what about Hemingway caught up in his male chauvinism? Or the writer I know best, James Joyce with his notorious kinkiness that once got Ulysses banned? Is there a new Index in town? A moral or political registry to which artists must do obeisance?
My interest in Larkin, or any artist for that matter, isn’t foregrounded in his life. Artists, after all, are human beings, each with their flotsam of inertia or indulgence and dark secrets shaped by the interweave of parental, cultural, economic and social phenomena often imprinting them psychologically, as any reading of Freud’s seminal Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) should remind us.
Truth is, though a brilliant student at Oxford, Larkin was nonetheless self-deprecating. As a youth, he stuttered and all his life suffered from bad vision. He sought validation from women, but even that couldn’t suffice for low self-esteem.
He shied from interviews and readings. The current exhibit, virtually underwear and all, would undoubtedly have violated his sensibility and his privacy, as much, maybe more, than his inclusion in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey
Flashback to my student days in a modern poetry course at Exeter College, Oxford, summer of 1979:
I know nothing of Larkin. My tutor, one of the best ever, steeped in bibliography and intertextual nuance, introduces us to the idiomatic, conversational cadence of poems like “Church Going,” “Toads,” and “Whitsun Weddings”.
He knows Larkin personally and has invited him to our class for a reading, but Larkin cancels at the last moment, pleading illness. It’s a let down.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter, for Larkin would become a poetic staple in my life.
Larkin bravely translated the anxieties of modern life into verse. A leading candidate for Poet Laureate in 1984, the withdrawn Larkin wasn’t interested. He died the following year.
Larkin had become librarian at the University of Hull in 1955, beginning a thirty year association. He’s still remembered for his modernization and expansion of its facilities, though this gets omitted in the article.
Biographer Alan Brownjohn notes that Larkin quietly achieved “the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.”
George Dekker, in Agenda, comments that no living poet “can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England.”
Even curator Farthing finally gets it right in exclaiming “to have achieved work that is so human and engaging and continually relevant, it seems that he did it despite his demons, not because of them.”
And, of course, this is what matters.