Great poets: it’s not their job to be nice

A new book reveals much about the English poet Philip Larkin. He was far from perfect as a man. But should that affect how we read his poetry?

Philip Larkin is widely regarded as one of the great English poets of the 20th century. But was his life worthy of his art? And does it matter anyway?

In 2003, almost two decades after his death in 1985, Larkin was chosen as 'the nation's best-loved poet' in a survey by the Poetry Book Society and in 2008 The Times newspaper named him as the greatest British post-war writer.

Yet Professor Lisa Jardine calls him a 'casual, habitual racist' and a new collection of his letters, recently reviewed in The Atlantic magazine, provides plenty of evidence for this fact.

Larkin detested his father who admired the 'New Germany' of the 1930's and displayed Nazi regalia in his office. Yet Larkin himself came to hold some extreme right-wing views.

In one shocking line, written in the 1960's, he writes: 'I find the state of the nation quite terrifying. In 10 years' time we shall all be cowering under our beds as hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.'

Perhaps fed by his own bleak experiences of growing up, Larkin had an aversion to marriage and his friendships with women were complicated. At one point in the 1970's, he was conducting three relationships at the same time.

In Larkin's mind, marriage was a trap set by females: a ring in exchange for a lifetime of domestic slavery. Indeed, it was the wretchedness of life which inspired Larkin. 'Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,' he said, referring to the flowers that famously inspired the great romantic poet.

The accurate description of unhappiness was his poetic trademark. As he wrote: 'Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don't have any kids yourself.'

Yet was such vibrant despair also the reason for his success? He thought so. 'I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any – after all, most people are unhappy, don't you think?'

That nothing cures

Larkin didn't like himself. As he once wrote to Monica, his on/off partner for 40 years: 'I've always tried to get you to see me as unlikeable, and now I must be getting near success.'

And he was the first to admit there was a hole in his life where love should have been: 'In everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love. / To some it means the difference they could make / By loving others, but across most it sweeps / As all they might have done had they been loved. / That nothing cures.'

You Decide

  1. 'No one could like the art of a child murderer.' Discuss.
  2. 'There's enough pain in the world - art should be cheerful!' Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Larkin did not choose grand subjects, but wrote about the everyday things of life. Write a poem about the everyday things that press on you at the moment.
  2. Find a Philip Larkin poem that speaks to you. And then write a short piece commending it your readers. Why do you like it?

Some People Say...

“Poets? Self-important and incomprehensible!”

What do you think?

Q & A

If a writer is a genius, does it matter if they're a bad person?
That's your decision, really. Of course, no one is all bad and there are reasons why they are as they are. Larkin felt unloved as a child, but he turned his unhappiness into art.
Is that common?
Probably. Van Gogh was a difficult man, but we still love his paintings. Their beauty seems the greater because it is carved out of his sadness.
Pain can become something beautiful?
Sometimes. As Christopher Hitchens wrote: 'It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold.'A 'Of all the people I've ever met, he was the person who felt the least hesitation about revealing his personality, warts and all,' says former poet laureate Andrew Motion.

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