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Unlike most poets, Philip Larkin dared to be mean

People rarely moved him to sentiments of kindness but one senses that he wished they would.

By Emily Berry

Philip Larkin may have written that “What will survive of us is love”, perhaps his most famous (and uncharacteristic) line, but that’s not what survives of Larkin. What survives of him – for me, anyway – is something closer to love’s opposite: not hate, quite, but a decided meanness.

In “Vers de Société”, a bitter audit of the relative demerits of socialising versus solitude (with both options found to be dreadful), the speaker ponders which would be worse: staying home alone or spending his evenings at parties “canted/Over to catch the drivel of some bitch/Who’s read nothing but Which”. The poem continues: “The big wish/Is to have people nice to you, which means/Doing it back somehow./Virtue is social. Are, then, these routines/Playing at goodness, like going to church?” He could be responding to contemporary debates around virtue signalling.

Few poets these days would care, or dare, to put their more unpleasant sides so boldly on display – though the American poet Frederick Seidel, who wrote “a naked woman my age is a total nightmare” (Seidel was born in 1936), must receive an honourable mention. I can almost imagine a less uptight, less sexually awkward – less British – Larkin writing something similar. Instead, in “Letter to a Friend about Girls”, he has a speaker complaining, rather pathetically, about his comparative lack of success with women, how he always ends up with the “sort” that “put off men/By being unattractive” (and don’t put out).

“We should be kind/While there is still time,” he wrote after the death of a hedgehog: people rarely moved Larkin to such sentiments but one (kindly, lovingly) senses that he desperately wished they would. In “Talking in Bed” he captures the acute loneliness of unhappy coupledom: “At this unique distance from isolation/It becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind,/Or not untrue and not unkind.”

This difficulty, clearly, was beyond him when he wrote “Wild Oats”, a definitely not-kind summary of a relationship that began when “Two girls came in where I worked –/A bosomy English rose/And her friend in specs I could talk to”. In some ghastly inversion of a meet-cute, the speaker admits it was “bosomy rose” he really fancied, “But it was the friend I took out” (one of the “sort” that “put off men”, no doubt). Cut to seven years later and after numerous failed attempts the relationship with the “friend in specs” has been broken off, and the speaker admits that all along he’s been carrying “two snaps/Of bosomy rose” in his wallet. (Now I think about it, something like this is the premise of the mid-Nineties romcom The Truth about Cats and Dogs, but it all works out beautifully because the leading man is apparently not as shallow as Philip Larkin, and ends up happily partnered with Janeane Garofalo – “the friend”, albeit not bespectacled – despite the undeniable allure of Uma Thurman.)

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I quite like Philip Larkin, despite all this. What a funny, mean little man! He wrote some great things about death. And he wasn’t always mean, of course. After all, he came up with the phrase “My loaf-haired secretary”, the tenderest line in all of literature…

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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.