“Larkin’s poems taught me so much about my new home.” So tweeted the then secretary of state for education, Nadhim Zahawi, in June 2022. I found this amusing because migrants who fight tooth and nail to risk their lives to get to another country don’t usually expect the host country to say, as in “This be the Verse”, “Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself”. In “Self’s the Man”, from the The Whitsun Weddings, Arnold “married a woman to stop her getting away/Now she’s there all day”; Arnold is mocked for getting married, for having children, for being a good father and for his DIY skills. Could these be the British values that Zahawi found so edifying?
I first came across Larkin when my middle-class peers quoted him in the Royal Holloway quadrant when I was an undergraduate, and when I started reading contemporary poetry, I saw his fingerprints on every British poet. I learned that to be accepted as a person of culture, the correct opinion was that I liked Larkin, perhaps even that I loved Larkin.
More recently, I went to a Larkin exhibition at Hull University, and though I didn’t see Zahawi there, I saw a busload of elderly women disembark from a coach. At the exhibition, Larkin’s brogues were the size of boats and his suspended pyjamas under spotlight were the size of a wicker man; he seemed to be the Green Man, John Barleycorn, most likely John Bull, a substantial part of the myth of the nation.
Larkin died in 1985, and by the early 1990s we were learning more about his private views. In 1992 the Selected Letters exposed a racist and a sexist who exchanged his opinions with Kingsley Amis over several decades. The following year Andrew Motion’s biography revealed his infidelities, and in 2012 the American edition of his Complete Poems, thankfully never published in the UK, exposed further disturbing views. Sadly not juvenilia, but written in his mid-forties, he writes “How to Win the Next Election”, presumably in support of the Conservatives, and lists his many views. As a whole it reads less as satire and more as an earnest appeal. Here is the opening quatrain: “Prison for strikers,/Bring back the cat,/Kick out the n*****s,/How about that?”
Earlier today I took Larkin’s Collected Poems, its cover park-green, in my hands, and I felt my skin tone darken, as though I had become a shade more visible. Ever since his infamous letters were published, I’ve sensed the shadow of his enormous hands fall across the recto and verso. I can almost hear him, lowering his glasses, saying sombrely, “Do you dare to assume this book was written for you?”
Would he have wanted me to read these poems that ignored England’s postwar dynamism, the England where folk such as my family were here to rebuild Britain from the 1950s? What would he have made of all my books being published by Faber & Faber alongside his? What if after I’d told him how much I loved the formal vigour of his verse, the tragic comedy of his stylistic versatility, that I’d like him to apologise for some of the language in his letters? Would he have surprised me? I don’t know.
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.