Jeremy Wikeley gives his reactions to the exhibition Larkinworld which is currently at the Poetry Library, Southbank Centre
Phillip Larkin is a popular poet, but also an uncomfortable one. Here are two personal anecdotes by way of illustration. When I first read Thomas Hardy’s poems I found myself looking for Larkin’s voice in Hardy’s work: Larkin’s appropriation of Hardy’s tone and style had been so successful that I found it impossible to read the originals in their own right. Larkin had killed Hardy, and immediately, rather than words I had a vision of coming across Larkin crouched over a corpse in a dark wood. Larkin himself provides the image himself in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ (The Whitsun Weddings):
Later, with inch thick specs, Evil was just my lark: Me and my cloak and fangs Had ripping times in the dark.
I saw the cloak and the fangs. The second example comes from reading Phillip Larkin: Letters to Monica (2011), a collection of letters from Larkin to his long-term partner Monica Jones, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Larkin never committed to Jones, but they couldn’t let each other go, either. After flicking through the book a couple of times I felt compelled to get it as far away from me as possible: Larkin’s long, mawkish musings gave off a peculiar reek of self-regard and cowardice.
This is one Larkin. But, as DJ Roberts’ exhibition at the Poetry Library shows, there have always been others. Larkinworld finds a ‘robust and life-enhancing quality’ in Phillip Larkin’s poetry, using new works of art, cultural ephemera and Larkin memorabilia to illustrate Larkin’s place in twentieth-century Britain. The walls are plastered with Blues lyrics. The display features postcards, pre-Raphaelite paintings, popular novels, a pin-up girl calendar, record sleeves etc.
This is all quite interesting – a fictional history of post-war Middle England. More interesting, though, is how Larkinworld reinterprets the poems themselves. The centre piece is a large, red, neon sign, displaying the phrase ‘like an enormous yes’. The phrase comes from Larkin’s poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’, a eulogy for the American jazz saxophonist:
On me your voice falls as they say love should, Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City Is where your speech alone is understood.
Larkin understood the energy and aspirations behind pop music better than most. The directness and memorability of his poetry, famously, owes a lot to his re-discovery of Hardy (although the early Yeats influence is important, too). But I suspect these qualities also owe something to contemporary song lyrics, especially the love songs his mother is pictured poring over in ‘Love Songs in Age’:
The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love, Broke out, to show Its bright incipience sailing above, Still promising to solve, and satisfy, And set unchangeably in order.
Along with the simple, open language, Larkin’s poems also shares pop’s aphoristic quality: he says things about the world that people want to share with others. If you listen, you begin to notice Larkin lines in all kinds of unlikely places. U.S. alternative rock band The National’s most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me, borrows from both The Less Deceived and High Windows. The lines make the transition into lyric so well that no one seems to have noticed. As Larkin puts it in ‘Going, Going’, ‘things are tougher than we are’. (Matt Berninger intones the same line on ‘Heavenfaced’).
In the poem, Larkin undermines that statement as soon as he delivers it. England is not as tough as it looks, he says. It is about to be buried under ‘concrete and tyres’. It will be gone, soon. In ‘For Sidney Bechet’ the comparison with love is also qualified: ‘as they say love should’: should, but, implicitly, doesn’t. Even so, it is Larkin’s affirmations, not his qualifications, which stick. By rendering Larkin’s ‘enormous yes’ in red neon, Larkinworld illustrates how much Larkin empathised with the kind of sentiments he professed not to feel.
Jeremy Wikeley is a young writer, living in South London. He is currently reviewing for the Poetry School in Lambeth and his own poetry has been in Magma and South Bank Poetry recently.