Toad trip: Larkin 25 years on
A quarter-century after the poet Philip Larkin’s death, his literary executor looks back on his lega
I first met Philip Larkin in July 1958. I was a young radio producer for what was then the BBC Overseas Service; he had begun to make his reputation on the strength of one book, The Less Deceived, published by the little Marvell Press in Hull at the end of 1955. Larkin agreed to record a statement and some poems for a brief series called Younger British Poets of Today.
I liked this tall, shy, but also very funny and engaging man. He became a friend for the rest of his life, and asked me to be one of his literary executors. He died in December 1985.
For much of the last quarter-century or so of his life, I was responsible for broadcasting and publishing some of his best poems and reviews. When I was literary editor of the New Statesman (1968-72), the tally of Larkin contributions was particularly impressive. Among the poems, "The Trees", "Posterity", "Sad Steps", "Vers de Société", "The Building". Among the reviews, major pieces on Rupert Brooke's letters, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Walter de la Mare, Anthony Powell, "The hidden Hardy".
But I missed a trick, too. In the Easter vacation of 1971, Larkin was staying at his mother's house in Loughborough, fed up as so often with their tedious relationship - guilty and furious at the same time. He was also worrying away at what he called "the OxBo incident" - his editing of the Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse, eventually published in 1973. My wife, Ann Thwaite, was at the time editing an annual of new writing for children, Allsorts, of which Larkin was aware, as he had allowed his poem "Take One Home for the Kiddies" to be published in one of the volumes. On 14 April 1971, he wrote to me:
Talking of poetry, I've dashed off a little piece suitable for Ann's next Garden of Verses -
This Be the Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad;
They may not mean to, but they do.
They hand on all the faults they had
And add some fresh ones, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man:
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
Maybe (fingers grown too big for the typewriter) it needs a little polishing: might offer it to Wave - concealers of verse.
Wave was a short-lived poetry magazine, edited by Ted Tarling in Hull, and Larkin had contributed a slight poem ("How") to the first number. But I now see that in effect Larkin was offering me "This Be the Verse" for first publication in the New Statesman - daring me, as it were, to risk offending many readers. Would I have been allowed to get away with it? I never put it to the test.
Late in 1973, Larkin gave me a copy of the typescript of High Windows, for my comments on its content before he delivered it to Faber and Faber. I now wince to read my letter:
The only one I regret, as I told you on the telephone, is "This Be the Verse": it isn't what you're saying that I object to (I think I'm being honest about this) but how. Nobody, surely, ever thinks he's been "fucked up" by his genetics? The phrase is needlessly coarse, unthinking and inexact. Watch your language, Dr Larkin . . . However, you will no doubt think I'm just up to my usual pious sentiments - me and my St Augustine of Hippo.
The first publication of "This Be the Verse" was in August 1971 in the New Humanist - a rather bleak and cheerless organ for which George Hartley (publisher of The Less Deceived) at the Marvell Press was for a time poetry editor.
Anyway, I do regret not sensing that I could have published this notorious poem - though it might have caused trouble at the time. I also feel uneasy that this is Larkin's best-known poem; he himself wryly commented that he fully expected to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before he died.
How, indeed, does Larkin survive, 25 years after his death? In spite of the furore following my edition of the Selected Letters in 1992 and then my fellow literary executor Andrew Motion's biography in 1993, Larkin's primacy as the leading English poet of the second half of the 20th century is undisputed. The only possible contender, Ted Hughes, powerful though he was at his best, has much less entered the national consciousness as a poet: it is the Plath/Hughes myth that survives, rather than individual Hughes poems.
Indeed, Hughes's poems are much less memorable than Larkin's. Lines and whole stanzas of Larkin's have become part of our currency: "A serious house on serious earth it is"; "Give me your arm, old Toad;/Help me down Cemetery Road"; "What are days for?"; "Talking in bed ought to be easiest"; "Books are a load of crap"; "Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three (Which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban /And the Beatles' first LP"; "Life is first boredom, then fear"; "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said" . . . It becomes difficult to stop quoting.
In the 21st century, many literary reputations have retreated into the fortress of academe. But Larkin seems to have satisfied two constituencies - he is studied in schools and universities, and he is read by a much wider public. He even survives as a dramatic "character", in various versions by Alan Bennett, Ben Brown, Alan Pater and other dramatists, and in the one-man show Pretending to Be Me, a virtuoso performance by Tom Courtenay.
The enthusiasts of the Philip Larkin Society are active, organising Larkin25, a Hull-based festival that includes fundraising for a statue of Larkin, and much else in this 25th anniversary year of his death. Some of its activities, such as placing giant fibreglass toads around the city as if in homage to two of Larkin's best-known poems, may seem doubtful, and they would almost certainly have earned a ribald reaction from Larkin. Yet I think he would not have been entirely surprised by the current buzz of acclaim. He wryly and privately acknowledged that even in his lifetime there was such a thing beginning as "Larkin Studies": to have become a genuinely popular poet - as his friend John Betjeman was and is - and at the same time to be taken seriously was something he looked for.
My edition of his letters to his confidante of many years, Monica Jones, is due in October; an edition of the Complete Poems by the scholar Archie Burnett is making progress. Letters to Monica (a rendering down of more than 1,500 to a more manageable 388) shows the intimate workings of the closest relationship in Larkin's life: a relationship stretching from 1946 until his death, something that came close to marriage but constantly avoided the terrible plunge. Intermittently, the letters also show Larkin grappling with his poems: disappointed, frustrated and self-doubting, even when he had produced something as solid and memorable as "Church Going" or "An Arundel Tomb", or as purely beautiful as "The Trees".
Most importantly, I think, the poems themselves, having gone out into the world, have been effectively "making their own way", much as Larkin hoped they would. He also said: "I sometimes think that the most successful poems are those in which subjects appear to float free from the preoccupations that chose them, and to exist in their own right, reassembled - one hopes - in the eternity of imagination."
Philip Larkin's "Letters to Monica", edited by Anthony Thwaite, will be published by Faber and Faber in October
Larkin25, a festival of the poet's life, runs in Hull until 2 December (larkin25.co.uk)