Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance
Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006
Reviewed by Stephen Sossaman
These 13 essays were presented at the 2004 International Conference of Larkin Studies at the University of Poitiers. The conference’s general theme of Larkin’s poetics of resistance elicited a broad range of responses and uses of that term, some more natural than others. A few interpretations seem forced to fit the theme, and some of the contributors seem to strain to get the very word “resistance” in. Even the editors’ introduction acknowledges that “Larkin would have scoffed at such theorizing about resistance” . For example, one essayist writes that preserving but not publishing a poem is a “dual form of resistance”  and several attempt to inflate to the level of a resistance poetics Larkin’s reluctance to analyze his own poems or his preference for one poetic practice over another. Most poets, in fact, would rather not explain their poems, and every poet rejects certain poetic techniques. Surely every good poet “resists the temptation to put everything in words” , and one contributor duly notes that “Larkin’s radical doubt about translation is shared by many illustrious figures in the history of Western poetry” .
The value of this book then lies not in a unified theory or in disputations over critical points of contention, but in the myriad close readings, speculations, and observations of 13 intelligent Larkin scholars, providing fresh insight into Larkin’s greatest works.
Jean-Charles Perquin is the most direct and confident contributor on the question of Larkin’s resistance. He finds continual “opposition, confrontation and resistance at the very core of his poetic creation” . Larkin eschews traditional Western poetry’s sentimentalism, for example, and employs a vocabulary that denies traditional decorum. To differentiate Larkin from those myriad other poets (arguably all poets) who attempt to resist time and mortality by the very act of writing, Perquin insists that Larkin’s poetry also evinces “the perilous discovery of something both impossible to silence and extraordinarily difficult to voice, resisting both time and the poet himself” . Unfortunately that something is apparently also difficult for the critic to name, and for his reader to apprehend. Perquin observes that Larkin’s poetry “always stages a first person speaker whose alienated condition and situation are systematically deployed in a verbal context of radical antagonism, giving a form of essential incompatibility with everything, a form of perpetual resistance” . Here Perquin is more convincing, although some readers might find too much overstatement in the muscular modifiers “always,” “systematic,” and “radical.” Perquin astutely notes the role of the poems’ structures, not just their themes, in evincing Larkin’s resistance, and offers interesting textual observations, especially on “Heads in the Women’s Wards,” “MCMXIV”, and “Dockery and Son.”
Larkin’s professed distaste for translations leads Raphaël Ingelbien to use translation theory to look for complexities of motivation, citing the work of George Steiner, Georges Mounin, Itamar Even-Zohar, and others. Ingelbien finds that Larkin’s resistance to foreign poetry derives not from simple English provincialism, but partly from his own difficulties learning foreign languages and largely from his aversion to “those elements within post-war English poetry that used foreign models and translations in order to promote their own norms” . Donald Davie, Charles Tomlinson and others who accused Larkin of tedious provincialism favored work offering political and intellectual responses to the real and potential catastrophes of twentieth-century history and politics, work that often ignored traditions of rhyme and meter in favor of an American free verse casualness. Ingelbien wisely cautions us that in considering Larkin’s professed disparagement of “foreign poetry,” too many commentators fixate on the word “foreign” and ignore the specification of “poetry” .
Jacques Nassif, a psychoanalyst who has translated Larkin into French, discusses his method with especially close attention to his decisions about Larkin’s “Here”. Given the nature of much Larkin criticism, Nassif probably discomforted some of his listeners at the Larkin conference when he asserted that, when it comes to poetry, the psychoanalyst’s task is to:
Nevertheless, Nassif closely links Larkin’s way of composing to Freud’s observations about repressed experiences revealing themselves only indirectly through dreams. Larkin, Nassif says, dismisses “polite poetics”  in favor of finding the repression and feeling in everyday experiences, instantiating the tossing of an apple core towards a waste bin in “As Bad as a Mile.” If all poems resist successful translation, Nassif found particular difficulty in translating Larkin because, even though rhyming is easier in French than in English, the “preciosity and prettinesses” of French rhyme conventions would undermine Larkin’s own tone . Larkin would likely have been pleased to read this affirmation of linguistic and cultural problems inherent in translation.
Larkin would probably have been appalled, on the other hand, to hear that, for Nassif, finding pleasure in doing a translation is the first priority for the translator. “I believe it is the pleasure principle which must be borne in mind above all in matters of translation,” he writes, noting as a defense that Larkin continually insisted on the pleasure principle when remarking on writing or reading his own work . Larkin might also have been taken aback by Nassif’s declaration that his intention in translating Larkin’s poetry was “to expand the space in which the French language exists, to use language like a Trojan horse” .
Martine Semblat considers those aspects of classical prosody that Larkin maintained, observing that his “formal signature consists in concealing an underlying regularity under an apparent irregularity, working on variations of a form, not on its destruction or its faithful reproduction” [96-97], which, as she reminds us, is what Larkin identified as the central task in writing a poem. Semblat largely credits Larkin’s nuanced changes in modulation, especially by use of voices within poems, for his ability to write memorable poems like “High Windows” that overcome his self-imposed formal and thematic limitations:
Semblat persuades us that Larkin enjoyed mimicry and acting, learned the subtle use of voices from drama, and used those voices more to achieve prosodic effects than to be comic; for a greater reason, we might also add, than to confound critics about who exactly this man Larkin was, obstinate crank or playful trickster.
Charles Holdefer would likely say Larkin was a trickster. He asks that we read Larkin in the light of camp as “a way to bring together some of his seeming contradictions” . He writes that some of the poems, especially beginning with The Whitsun Weddings, employ a camp mask. He cites in support Richard Dyer’s characterization of camp as balancing qualities usually considered antithetical. Much poetry by Larkin and others that is not perforce camp seems to share the effects: the co-existence of theatricality and authenticity, for example, and the simultaneous expression of profound emotion, ironic distance, and an awareness of absurdity. These indeed are effects that Larkin skillfully achieves in many of his best poems. Holdefer’s answer to one Larkin dispute reappearing throughout this collection is that Larkin’s crotchety poems and letters were just one of several masks he used for their theatrical or rhetorical effect. Larkin certain does employ a variety of dramatic personae, but he hardly seems to use them to explore ideas widely at odds with each other.
István Rácz employs poems from The Whitson Weddings to describe Larkin’s technique of transforming time into space. “Representing units of time versus the indivisibility of time in death signifies an epistemology that largely determines Larkin’s poetics,” he writes . In Larkin’s later poems, we are told, the speaker splits time into units. “Days,” Rácz believes, is the most intense expression of Larkin’s ontology. Stephen Cooper’s essay usefully quotes passages from unpublished letters and manuscripts.
Cooper understands Larkin’s resistance to be against the establishment, hollow ideals, pressures to conform, groupthink, grimy industrialism, and degrading commerce. For Cooper, Larkin is a “subversive radical” , or at least one of the two Larkins is. The other is the conformist whose letters are so embarrassing, but Cooper apparently believes that Larkin’s rebel self “unwrites” the racist and misogynistic utterances until—voilá!—those attitudes are transformed “by ridicule and rejection” into tools for Larkin’s struggles against “clichéd narrative” .
David Ten Eyck explicates “The Dance” to argue that one important Larkin resistance was linguistic, poetic speech opposing the debased public discourse. Larkin is hardly the only poet who sees poetry as “poised between the preservation of private experience and the relation of such experience” to a reading public whose idiosyncratic interpretations “compromise the integrity of the experiences” . “The Dance” is, Ten Eyck believes, an act of resistance within a flawed language system. Apparently that language system is for Larkin as alien and discomforting as the crowded dance hall itself.
The particular qualities of Larkin’s poetry that Andrian Grafe calls our attention to are the interlocking triad of questioning, language, and understatement, and its opposite, extreme forthrightness or obscenity” . Grafe notes the various Larkin devices suggesting the pull of wordlessness against the artistic impulse to write, such as repetitions, expressions of inadequacy or reticence, and half-statements. In other papers, Andrew McKeown, one of the book’s editors, explicates “Money” to argue that the poem’s intention is to show not what money is but what it is like, and James Booth posits an intimate connection between Larkin and T.S. Eliot based on a shared poetic sensibility and religiosity.
Years ago, papers were presented at conferences as drafts, so that their authors could hear criticisms, counter arguments and suggestions from a room full of peers before revising the paper for publication. While it is unclear whether these 13 papers are published as they were presented, or after that old-fashioned peer-review process, several of the authors acknowledge the weaknesses in their own argument. Helen Goethels, for example, believes that Larkin’s poems should be read as war poems, but the most convincing points in her essay are probably those she tries to refute, notably the notion that the war must be, in Desmond Graham’s words, “apparent and central” for a poem to be a war poem . She reminds her reader that Larkin’s biographer, Andrew Motion, wrote that for Larkin, “the war might as well not have existed” . She notes that Larkin’s experiences during the war are arguably “conspicuously absent” from the 1945 The North Ship . To accept her implied definition of war poetry, every English poet of that era was a war poet. If we properly do not consider Richard Wilbur a war poet, despite his extensive infantryman’s experience, we should probably not use the term to describe a poet for whom the war was merely an annoyance and inconvenience, for whom the war seemingly provided no vital personal experience, no revelations, and no material for poems.
In the interest of not overly broadening the critical uses of “resistance,” we should probably leave the idea of “a poetics of resistance” to those poets who insist that resistance is not merely withholding cooperation, but is also bearing witness, promoting change, or rallying a wronged group. The wrongs that bothered Larkin inhere in life, not politics, and so cannot be put right. Larkin certainly was too much of a loner to subsume his individuality in identification with a group, and too much of an artist to subordinate his art to political goals.
What Larkin resists so wonderfully in his poems is the comfort of self-delusion in the face of disillusion, and the absurd hope that things will somehow turn out all right. The poem’s speakers must accept mortality, failure, unattainableness, inadequacy, and loneliness. Larkin’s most successful poems are meditations prompted by some ordinary sight or quotidian experience whose significance others seem not to have noticed, or whose import is denied by our natural resistance to face unpleasant truths. To some extent, Larkin’s is a poetics of acceptance.