Larkin Wrote Poems
Philip Larkin started writing poems in 1938 when he was fifteen or sixteen and very nearly stopped about ten years before he died at sixty-three. His reputation, during his lifetime, was based almost entirely on three collections published at intervals of approximately ten years: The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and High Windows (1974). Together they contain eighty-five poems, all but a few of them under forty lines. He said in an interview that he never wanted to “be a poet,” and he did not follow the established routine of people who did want to “be poets.” He didn’t give readings or lectures, was never a poet-in-residence at a university, never taught, rarely gave interviews, generally stayed away from literary circles, stayed away from London, did not work at maintaining a network of editors and publishers, did not have an agent or a publicist, and finally stopped writing poems. For him, to “be a poet” meant spending a lot of time doing things he considered inimical to writing poems. “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.”
Beginning in 1955, he lived in Hull, where he was appointed university librarian, and he stayed there for the rest of his life. The University of Hull underwent a major expansion during his nearly thirty-year tenure; he was closely involved in the planning, design, and construction of two new library buildings. At the end of his career, he was directing a staff of over a hundred. When he first appeared in Who’s Who in 1959, he did not mention he was a poet or even a writer.
As a mature poet, Larkin is unheroic in his subject matter and in his attitude. In his poems, he characteristically presents himself as a passive observer of ordinary events and ordinary experiences: prominently, disappointment, failure, regret, fear of death. Even when he addresses historic subjects—war or the erosion of a culture—he does so from the perspective of an ordinary person with no active role to play: “It seems, just now, / To be happening so very fast; / . . . / And that will be England gone.” His astonishing poem on the First World War and the world it destroyed, “MCMXIV,” is a prime example of how a traditionally heroic subject becomes the observation of a single, passive speaker—an extraordinary articulation of what is presented as ordinary observation.
Larkin put considerable effort into establishing his persona, not merely as the represented speaker of his poems but as a real-life working poet. He presented himself as a full-time librarian who, at the end of a day’s work, after preparing and eating his solitary dinner and washing up, wrote unpretentious and “unliterary” poems, based on common experiences and the emotions they prompted. He maintained that there was nothing extraordinary about what he did. He once said of the experience that inspired “The Whitsun Weddings,” “You couldn’t be on that train without feeling the young lives all starting off, and that just for a moment you were touching them. . . . It was wonderful, a marvelous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”
This is, of course, sheer fantasy.