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How Larkin’s stammer may have helped him find his voice

As a child, he couldn’t even ask for a railway ticket. Could the clarity of his poems have emerged from a habit of hesitation?

By Andrew Motion

A good deal has been written about how Philip Larkin “found his voice”, most memorably by the man himself; in his introduction to the 1966 reissue of his first collection The North Ship he describes how he applied a cooling Hardy-esque poultice to the Yeatsian “Celtic fever” that raged through his earliest published poems. Although this account oversimplifies things a good deal, and ignores the persistent influence of early models on the mature work, most people still accept the basic proposition: the trajectory of Larkin’s work is from highfalutin to demotic, from grand symbols to granular realities.

Much less has been said about how he found his voice in a different sense, and what the effect of this parallel development might have been. As a child Larkin stammered so badly that (again, he tells us this himself), he couldn’t even ask for a railway ticket when he went to the ticket office, but had to pass over a slip of paper with his destination written on it. Not surprisingly, his parents arranged for him to see a speech therapist, someone who eventually improved things by encouraging him to “swallow” his stammer. The effect was to make Larkin punctuate his conversation with occasional tense pauses which ended with a quick click of the tongue (he called it his “bushman’s click”); the sound is faintly and intermittently audible on the recordings he made of his own poems.

Stammers have complex origins, most likely of a neurodevelopmental kind, and it would be foolish to ascribe a definite cause – or set of causes – in Larkin’s case. But to the extent that his stammer at least sounds like hesitation, it exists in striking contrast to the very forthright and clear articulations of the poems themselves. Are those qualities in the latter a form of compensation for the former? Although proof would be hard to come by, it seems likely – in which respect his childhood affliction and its consequences might be described as an under-appreciated motive for the development of his “voice” in the other sense of the word.

And there’s something else. When I was gathering material for my biography, I visited Larkin’s older sister Kitty, hoping that she would help me establish certain facts about the early part of his life, and understand better the mood in their childhood home. She turned out to be a person of such complicated reticence, I didn’t get very far – but I was struck by her voice. Kitty had an unmistakeable Midlands/Coventry accent: she said “chicking”, rather than “chicken”. Her brother’s accent, as the recordings of his poems once again demonstrate, was so much less obvious it was almost imperceptible.

Did the person who helped Larkin swallow his stammer also weaken his accent? Did his slightly posher new voice provoke and/or accompany a different set of ambitions in life – including perhaps different ideas about poetic tone and form? Once again, it’s impossible to know for sure. But the possibility is intriguing.

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This article is part of a series in which writers reflect on Larkin’s life, work and legacy to mark the centenary of his birth. Read the other contributions here.

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