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An Affair of Sanity

Required Writing by Philip Larkin (Faber, 1983)

Every reviewer will say that Required Writing is required reading. To save the statement from blinding obviousness, it might be pointed out that whereas ‘required writing’ is a bit of a pun — Larkin pretends that he wouldn’t have written a word of critical prose if he hadn’t been asked — there is nothing ambiguous about ‘required reading’. No outside agency requires you to read this book. The book requires that all by itself. It’s just too good to miss.

Required Writing tacitly makes the claim that it collects all of Larkin’s fugitive prose, right down to the speeches he has delivered while wearing his Library Association tie. There is none of this that an admirer of his poems and novels would want to be without, and indeed at least one admirer could have stood a bit more of it. The short critical notices Larkin once wrote for the magazine Listen are, except for a single fragment, not here. As I remember them, they were characteristically jam-packed with judgments, observations and laconic wit.

If Larkin meant to avoid repetitiveness, he was being too modest: incapable of a stock response, he never quite repeats himself no matter how often he makes the same point. On the other hand there is at least one worrying presence. The inclusion, well warranted, of the prefaces to Jill and The North Ship can hardly mean that those books will be dropped from his list of achievements, but the inclusion of the long and marvellous introductory essay to All What Jazz, an essay that amounts to his most sustained attack on the modernist aesthetic, carries the depressing implication that the book itself which never did much business, might be allowed to stay out of print. That would be a shame, because jazz is Larkin’s first love and in the short notices collected in All What Jazz he gives his most unguarded and exultant endorsement of the kind of art he likes, along with his funniest and most irascible excoriation of the kind he doesn’t.

Jazz is Larkin’s first love and literature is his first duty. But even at the full stretch of his dignity he is still more likely to talk shop than to talk down, and anyway his conception of duty includes affection while going beyond it, so as well as an ample demonstration of his capacity to speak generally about writing, we are given, on every page of this collection, constant and heartening reminders that for this writer his fellow-writers, alive or dead, are human beings, not abstractions.

Human beings with all their quirks. Larkin proceeds as if he had heard of the biographical fallacy but decided to ignore it. ‘Poetry is an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are.’ But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that sanity can be hard won, from inner conflict. He has a way of bringing out the foibles of his fellow-artists while leaving their dignity at least intact and usually enhanced. To take his beloved Hardy as an example — and many other examples, from Francis Thompson to Wilfred Owen, would do as well — he convincingly traces the link between moral lassitude and poetic strength. This sympathetic knack must come from deep within Larkin’s own nature, where diffidence and self-confidence reinforce each other: the personal diffidence of the stammerer whose childhood was agony, and the artistic self-confidence of the born poet who has always been able to feel his vocation as a living force.

The first principle of his critical attitude, which he applies to his own poetry even more rigorously than to anyone else’s, is to trust nothing which does not spring from feeling. Auden, according to Larkin, killed his own poetry by going to America, where, having sacrificed the capacity to make art out of life, he tried to make art out of art instead.

It might be argued that if the Americanised Auden had written nothing else except ‘The Fall of Rome’ then it would be enough to make this contention sound a trifle sweeping. It is still, however, an interesting contention, and all of a piece with Larkin’s general belief about sticking close to home, which are only partly grounded in the old anguish of having to ask for a railway ticket by passing a note. He is not really as nervous about Abroad as all that: while forever warning us of the impossibility of mastering foreign languages, he has the right Latin and French tags ready when he needs them, and on his one and only trip to Germany, when he was picking up a prize, he favoured the locals with a suavely chosen quotation in their own tongue.

Lurking in double focus behind those thick specs is a star student who could have been scholarly over any range he chose. But what he chose was to narrow the field of vision: narrow it to deepen it. He isn’t exactly telling us to Buy British, but there can be no doubt that he attaches little meaning to the idea of internationalism in the arts. All too vague, too unpindownable, too disrupting of the connections between literature and the life of the nation.

Betjeman was the young Larkin’s idea of a modern poet because Betjeman, while thinking nothing of modern art, actually got in all the facts of modern life. Like all good critics Larkin quotes from a writer almost as creatively as the writer writes, and the way he quotes from Summoned by Bells traces Betjeman’s power of evocation to its source, in memory. The Betjeman/Piper guide-books, in which past and present were made contemporaneous through being observed by the same selectively loving eye, looked the way Larkin’s poetry was later to sound — packed with clear images of a crumbling reality, a coherent framework in which England fell apart. An impulse to preserve which thrived on loss.

In Required Writing the Impulse to Preserve is mentioned often. Larkin the critic, like Larkin the librarian, is a keeper of English literature. Perhaps the librarian is obliged to accession more than a few modern books which the critic would be inclined to turf out, but here again duty has triumphed. As for loss, Larkin the loser is here too (‘deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’) but it becomes clearer all the time that he had the whole event won from the start.

Whether he spotted the daffodil-like properties of deprivation, and so arranged matters that he got more of it, is a complicated question, of the kind which his critical prose, however often it parades a strict simplicity, is equipped to tackle. Subtle, supple, craftily at ease, it is on a par with his poetry — which is just about as high as praise can go. Required Writing would be a treasure-house even if every second page were printed upside-down. Lacking the technology to accomplish this, the publishers have issued the book in paperback only, with no index, as if to prove that no matter how self-effacing its author might be, they can be even more so on his behalf.

(Observer, 25 November, 1983)