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How Philip Larkin saved my life

I was a panicky teenager with a chaotic home life, but the profound clarity of his poems showed me a possible route ahead.

By Rachel Cooke

On our kitchen wall, we have a funny poster that purports to be the cover of an album by a jazz ensemble called the Philip Larkin Quintet. The record in question is called Moanin’ About Everyone, and below an old black and white photograph of the band’s leader looking, as he once put it himself, just like “an egg, sculpted in lard, with goggles on”, are a list of its tracks, “swinging classics” from the “maestro of mournful”. One is called “Staff Meeting Rag”. Another is “Dewey Decimal Lady”. A third has the title: “Horning Again (Morning at Ten Past Three)”. You get the picture.

I like this poster, which we found in Beverley, in East Yorkshire, a place not far from Hull, where Larkin famously lived and worked (“Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows/And traffic all night north”). I like watching people respond to it: getting the joke, or not.

But the joke, of course, isn’t straightforward. These smart-alecky riffs on Larkin’s life, in all its quotidian melancholy, conceal an irony, which is that those who really know his work find it far too lovely ever to be dispiriting. If Larkin’s first appeal lies, as Seamus Heaney once put it, in the fact that his verse is an encounter between a compassionate, un-foolable mind and its own predicaments – which we recognise as our own predicaments – its second, greater appeal lies far beyond all this. Larkin’s yearning for “a more crystalline reality to which he might give allegiance” makes his poetry, at moments, visionary: a repository of hopefulness that could not be less dour or cynical if it tried.

When I talk about how I found Larkin as a teenager, I know I sound slightly mad; when I tell people that I regard him as having saved my life, I wonder if they think I’m being self-conscious after the fact. But there it is: he turned things around for me, a girl who’d given up school for drinking and nightclubs, her family life, always somewhat byzantine, having then reached a particularly crazed pitch (my stepmother, my father’s third wife and the mother of my two sisters, had very publicly run off with a man 30 years her senior).

My dad was a fan of Larkin’s – a yellowing copy of his late, great poem “Aubade”, snipped (memory tells me) from the pages of the TLS, was permanently pinned to the noticeboard in our all-pine kitchen – and it was him who first told me to read him, pressing an old hardback of The Whitsun Weddings into my reluctant hands.

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The shock was considerable. This was stuff I could read! And it was so good, too; so profound. My older self agrees strongly with my teenage self, who saw straight off that Larkin’s verse had not only to do with work and death and bad sex; that he wrote exquisite love poems, too. “Broadcast”, in which a man listens to a concert on the radio knowing that the woman he quietly adores is there in the hall in person – “Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding” – struck me then as infinitely beautiful: its aching fondness; its foreshadowing of loss; the way it balances both these things, and yet still finds, in all its sublime concision, words to convey the orchestra, the music, the audience.

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Love, though… I was panicky about it, and not only because of the mayhem at home. Several girls at school had left early, having taken no exams: sometimes, I’d see them on the bus, folding their baby buggies, and experience something close to terror. What was amazing was that Larkin had written a poem about this, too: “Afternoons”, in which women at a playground look on as their children search for unripe acorns.

I read “Afternoons” – “Something is pushing them/ To the side of their own lives”– and something shoved me, not to the edge of my life, but towards its centre again. I could see a possible route ahead, and as peculiar and as daft as this may sound, one of the people that held my hand as I picked my way along that path was that old sculpted egg.

Say anything you like about Larkin – alas, I know that you will – but don’t ever tell me that he doesn’t, at points, know more about your life than you do yourself. From his own predicaments, clarity: a crystalline reality to be learned, by the rest of us, by heart.

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.