When, a few years back, the Orange Tree in Richmond presented Larkin With Women by Ben Brown, the theatre rocked with laughter. One Sunday afternoon during the run, Patrick Garland, the play’s director, and Oliver Ford Davies, who played Larkin, read from the poet’s Required Writing. The laughter was even louder.
Larkin the fabled curmudgeon was a very funny man, as his jazz criticism reveals. Those Capstan-strength denunciations of favourite villains still leave readers honking like John Coltrane, and though the po-faced arbiters of taste turn crimson at his revisionist tone, Larkin was usually spot on. Coltrane did become a master of “gigantic absurdity”, and Thelonious Monk (“what key is this?”) did attack the piano like an elephant.
He continued to listen to Archie Shepp, “in the hope that it will one day all cease to sound like the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ scored for bagpipes and concrete mixer”. Another bullseye! Then there was Miles Davis, and the “passionless creep” of his muted trumpet. Davis served as midwife to some fine music-making in the Fifties and early Sixties, but to somebody such as Larkin, who had grown up with the king, Louis Armstrong, he spoke a language that defied translation.
The Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite, give immense pleasure. The prejudices, as most readers pick up fairly quickly, are usually performative. Larkin was a man of his time, and although times have changed, in many ways for the better, that must be borne in mind. There isn’t a dull sentence, and the barbs he exchanged with Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest can lift the flattest day. It’s a male humour, very English in its irony, wordplay and occasional filth, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you don’t like laughing.
There is a grim humour in the poetry, expressed in a minor key. In “The Whitsun Weddings”, for instance, Larkin notes the proud mothers and fathers at each station they pass, and also the uncle “shouting smut”. In “Next, Please”, that early poem of dread, he draws our attention to “the figurehead with golden tits” on the ship of death. No other poet would have turned that phrase.
Would Eliot or Yeats have noticed Mr Bleaney in his lonely room, “plugging at the four aways”? It’s a lovely image of a solitary man: not laugh-out-loud funny, but amusing – and sympathetic. Larkin understood that world of dashed hopes better than any poet, and his admirers understand that he understood, which is one of the reasons his poetry will survive official neglect and fluctuations of taste. Whether or not his poetry is studied in schools, curious readers will always beat a path to his door.
The best joke is on the mardy pouters who would commit him to the doghouse for the appalling sin of being Philip Larkin. When they are confronted by the poems, however, the mockers become very shy indeed. His finest work stands, to lift a phrase from his last notable poem, “Aubade”, “plain as a wardrobe”. It will endure because it is great, and greatness stays the course.
“I feel like a tinker may do when surveying the Forth Bridge”, Elgar said of Beethoven. So it is when we consider Larkin. The supreme poet of English life in the second half of the 20th century is untouchable. He will always have the last laugh.
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.