Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews 1952-85
Philip Larkin
Edited by Anthony Thwaite
London: Faber and Faber, 2001
£25 [hardback], 377 pages, ISBN 0-571-20945-9.

Philippe Romanski
Université de Rouen

Philip Larkin published four volumes of poems (The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and the most moving High Windows), one of jazz criticism (All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-71), one of miscellaneous pieces (Required Writing) and two relatively ill-known novels (Jill and A Girl in Winter). When Required Writing first appeared in 1983, the book—the last one to be published in Larkin’s lifetime—was highly praised by scholars and reviewers alike. Yet other commentators—like Blake Morrison in his review of the book for Encounter, February 1984)—also noted that such a collection was not to be construed as Larkin’s “collected” prose and many significant omissions were appropriately emphasised. This second volume of miscellaneous prose, edited by Anthony Thwaite, is a clear attempt at gathering what material had previously been left out — other interviews, broadcasts, statements, forewords and book reviews. Any assumption that such additions aim at exhaustivity is, however, definitely contradicted right from the start by Thwaite’s introducing words: “[This book] excludes some published judgements on various poetry competitions, mainly in Hull, and it also excludes some letters to the press. There may, one day, be a place for these, too, in some Complete Works.” [xiv]

Taken all together, the present collection amply and enjoyably corroborates the impression to be derived from Required Writing—that of a witty, sarcastic, provocative, sometimes generous, sometimes intolerant writer (his paper on Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce is a case in point). Larkin’s wit is unquestionably devastating and ruthless. In December 1958 Robert’s Graves’s Steps is rather rapidly dismissed as being “Very suitable for Christmas” [184] The same year, reviewing Antipodes in Shoes, Larkin crucifies Geoffrey Dutton in the most concluding way: “One could not imagine Mr Dutton making poetry the sole business of his life”[209] Likewise, wishing to stress John Heath-Stubbs’s lack of originality in his latest volume of poems (A Charm Against the Toothache), Larkin ends his paper as follows: “I should say that Mr Heath-Stubbs is not literary enough—a conclusion having, I hope, at least the charm of novelty” [145]. Convinced—God knows how and why—to review Dick Francis’s Reflex in 1980, he somehow manages to strike the final note at the very beginning of his assessment: “It was the late Edmund Crispin who recommended Dick Francis to me. ‘If you can stand the horse parts’, he said, ‘the mystery parts are quite good.’ I found this an understatement in reverse.” [293] Amongst Larkin’s favourite targets is W. H. Auden’s later poetry, which is regarded as having considerably declined with his American experience. The tone is less flippant or facetious whenever Auden happens to be concerned, and in many places one senses, beyond the reproaches, a real feeling of compassion for him. And nostalgia is never really far behind: “What was English Auden’s game about, that tended to become like a war—was it capital and labour, communism and fascism, life and death? It hardly mattered: what rang true was that inimitable Thirties fear, the sense that something was going to fall like rain, on the other side of which, if we were lucky, we might build the Just City. English Auden was a superb, magnetic, wide-angled poet.”[40] On the contrary—and judging both from the recurrence of the topic and the vehemence of the pieces, the qualitative change must have been a genuine source of anxiety for Larkin—American Auden only produced in his eyes second-class, name-dropping, pseudo-intellectual poetry devoid of any fever or emotion. What Auden probably taught Larkin is that it is preferable to stop writing before it is too late.

Larkin can also commend and admire. Betjeman, as those familiar with Larkin’s works will expect, earns his praise. The 30 pages-or-so devoted to his poetry clearly testify to his enduring admiration for a writer he regards as essentially honest: “What Betjeman achieves is done simply by saying what he thinks and feels, without minding whether he is laughed at” [313] Along with Betjeman, others such as Hardy, Lawrence, Tennyson, Louis MacNeice or Barbara Pym are spoken of in especially laudatory terms too. Larkin’s insight is even more conspicuous when reviewing writers of little renown such as Randall Jarrell or Gavin Ewart. Fame or anonymity clearly did not distort Larkin’s criticism.

Some of the statements gathered here will no doubt confirm the Mr-Pooter-like persona that Larkin created for himself throughout those years (and which is so unambiguously exposed in Thwaite’s edition of his Letters). Such pieces as his interviews by John Haffenden (“I can’t learn foreign languages, I just don’t believe in them” [54]) or Ian Hamilton will indeed substantiate his self-portrait of a little, conservative Englander distrustful of all things foreign: “Hamilton: I wonder if you read much foreign poetry? Larkin: Foreign poetry! No!” [25] Yet such a picture is at best incomplete. A quick look at the index (in which Billie Holiday, Ezra Pound and Ian Fleming rub shoulders with Georg Friedrich Händel, Bertolt Brecht and Christina Rossetti) is enough to realise how multifaceted and truly curious the man was. Besides, he also knew that good poetry always aims—in one way or another at transgressing through sincere emotion its original personal or “national” borders. And of course this included his own production:

If I avoid abstractions such as are found in politics and religion, it’s because they have never affected me strongly enough to become part of my personal life, and so to cease beings abstractions. I suppose the kind of response I am seeking from the reader is, Yes, I know what you mean life is like that; and for readers to say it not only now but in the future, and not only in England but anywhere in the world. [78].

Finally, and probably in order to challenge or rectify the false image of a self-satisfied poet those lines might create, one should also mention the numerous instances in this book of Larkin’s real humility—a quality (something verging on shyness) which is not be confused with a mere pose. Larkin was certainly a lot of things—some of them being admittedly objectionable—but before everything he was meticulously honest, refusing to disguise or hide to himself what could be seen as embarrassing truths: “I suppose I’m less likely to write a really bad poem now, but possibly equally less likely to write a good one. If you can call that development, then I’ve developed” [26]