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On Larkin's Wit

Larkin at Sixty edited by Anthony Thwaite (Faber, London)

There is no phrase in Philip Larkin’s poetry which has not been turned, but then any poet tries to avoid flat writing, even at the cost of producing overwrought banality. Larkin’s dedication to compressed resonance is best studied, in the first instance, through his prose. The prefaces to the re-issues of Jill and The North Ship are full of sentences that make you smile at their neat richness even when they are not meant to be jokes, and that when they are meant to be jokes — as in the evocation of the young Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the preface to Jill — make you wish that the article went on as long as the book. But there is a whole book which does just that: All What Jazz, the collection of Larkin’s Daily Telegraph jazz record review columns which was published in 1970. Having brought the book out, Faber seemed nervous about what to do with it next. I bought two copies marked down to 75p each in a Cardiff newsagent’s and wish now that I had bought ten. I thought at the time that All What Jazz was the best available expression by the author himself of what he believed art to be. I still think so, and would contend in addition that no wittier book of criticism has ever been written.

To be witty does not necessarily mean to crack wise. In fact it usually means the opposite: wits rarely tell jokes. Larkin’s prose flatters the reader by giving him as much as he can take in one time. The delight caused has to do with collusion. Writer and reader are in cahoots. Larkin has the knack of donning cap and bells while still keeping his dignity. For years he feigned desperation before the task of conveying the real desperation induced in him by the saxophone playing of John Coltrane. The metaphors can be pursued through the book — they constitute by themselves a kind of extended solo, of which the summary sentence in the book’s introductory essay should be regarded as the coda. ‘With John Coltrane metallic and passionless nullity gave way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions on not-especially-attractive themes during which all possible changes were rung, extended investigations of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity.’ This final grandiose flourish was uttered in 1968.

But the opening note was blown in 1961, when Larkin, while yet prepared (cravenly, by his own later insistence) to praise Coltrane as a hard-thinking experimenter, referred to ‘the vinegary drizzle of his tone’. In 1962 he was still in two minds, but you could already guess which mind was winning. ‘Coltrane’s records are, paradoxically, nearly always both interesting and boring, and I certainly find myself listening to them in preference to many a less adventurous set.’ Notable at this stage is that he did not risk a metaphor, in which the truth would have more saliently protruded. In May 1963 there is only one mind left talking. To the eighth track of a Thelonius Monk album, ‘John Coltrane contributes a solo of characteristic dreariness.’

By December of that same year Larkin’s line on this topic has not only lost all its qualifications but acquired metaphorical force. Coltrane is referred to as ‘the master of the thinly disagreeable’ who ‘sounds as if he is playing for an audience of cobras’. This squares up well with the critic’s known disgust that the joyous voicing of the old jazz should have so completely given way to ‘the cobra-coaxing cacophonies of Calcutta’, In 1965 Larkin was gratified to discover that his opinion of Coltrane’s achievement was shared by the great blues-shouter Jimmy Rushing. ‘I don’t think he can play his instrument’ said Rushing. ‘This’, Larkin observed, ‘accords very well with my own opinion that Coltrane sounds like nothing so much as a club bore who has been metamorphosed by a fellow-member of magical powers into a pair of bagpipes.’ (Note Larkin’s comic timing, incidentally: a less witty writer would have put ‘metamorphosed into a pair of bagpipes by a fellow-member of magical powers’, and so halved the effect.) Later in the same piece he expanded the attack into one of those generally pertinent critical disquisitions in which All What Jazz is so wealthy. ‘His solos seem to me to bear the same relation to proper jazz solos as those drawings of running dogs, showing their legs in all positions so that they appear to have about fifty of them, have to real drawings. Once, they are amusing and even instructive. But the whole point of drawing is to choose the right line, not drawing fifty alternatives. Again, Coltrane’s choice and treatment of themes is hypnotic, repetitive, monotonous: he will rock backwards and forwards between two chords for five minutes, or pull a tune to pieces like someone subtracting petals from a flower.’ Later in the piece there is an atavistic gesture towards giving the Devil his due, but by the vividness of his chosen figures of speech the critic has already shown what he really thinks.

‘I can thoroughly endorse’, wrote Larkin in July 1966, ‘the sleeve of John Coltrane’s "Ascension" (HMV), which says "This record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting."’ In November of the same year he greeted Coltrane’s religious suite ‘Meditations’ as ‘the most astounding piece of ugliness I have ever heard’. After Coltrane’s death in 1977 Larkin summed up the departed hero’s career. ‘ ... I do not remember ever suggesting that his music was anything but a pain between the ears ... Was I wrong?’ Infact, as we have seen, Larkin had once allowed himself to suggest that the noises Coltrane made might at least be interesting, but by now tentativeness had long given way to a kind of fury, as of someone defending a principle against his own past weakness. ‘That reedy, catarrhal tone ... that insolent egotism, leading to 45-minute versions of "My Favourite Things" until, at any rate in Britain, the audience walked out, no doubt wondering why they had ever walked in ... pretension as a way of life ... wilful and hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for serious consideration ... dervish-like heights of hysteria.’ It should be remembered, if this sounds like a grave being danced on, that Larkin’s was virtually the sole dissenting critical voice. Coltrane died in triumph and Larkin had every right to think at the time that to express any doubts about the stature of the deceased genius was to whistle against the wind.

The whole of All What Jazz is a losing battle. Larkin is arguing in support of entertainment at a time when entertainment was steadily yielding ground to portentous significance. His raillery against the saxophonists is merely the most strident expression of a general argument which he goes on elaborating as its truth becomes more clear to himself. In a quieter way he became progressively disillusioned with Miles Davis. In January 1962 it was allowed that in an informal atmosphere Davis could produce music ‘very far from the egg-walking hushedness’ he was given to in the studio. In October of the same year Larkin gave him points for bonhomie. ‘According to the sleeve, Davis actually smiled twice at the audience during the evening and there is indeed a warmth about the entire proceedings that makes this a most enjoyable LP.’ But by the time of ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ a year later, Davis has either lost what little attraction he had or else Larkin has acquired the courage of his convictions. ‘ ... his lifeless muted tone, at once hollow and unresonant, creeps along only just in tempo, the ends of the notes hanging down like Dali watches .. .’ In 1964, Larkin begged to dissent from the enthusiastic applause recorded on the live album ‘Miles Davis in Europe’. ‘ ...the fact that he can spend seven or eight minutes playing "Autumn Leaves" without my recognising or liking the tune confirms my view of him as a master of rebarbative boredom.’ A year later he was reaching for the metaphors. ‘I freely confess that there have been times recently, when almost anything — the shape of a patch on the ceiling, a recipe for rhubarb jam read upside down in the paper — has seemed to me more interesting than the passionless creep of a Miles Davis trumpet solo’. But in this case the opening blast was followed by a climb-down. ‘Davis is his usual bleak self, his notes wilting at the edges as if with frost, spiky at up-tempos, and while he is still not my ideal of comfortable listening his talent is clearly undiminished.’ This has the cracked chime of a compromise. The notes, though wilting as if with frost instead of like Dali watches, are nevertheless still wilting, and it is clear from the whole drift of Larkin’s criticism that he places no value on uncomfortable listening as such. A 1966 review sounds more straightforward. ‘ ...for me it was an experience in pure duration. Some of it must have been quite hard to do.’

But in Larkin’s prose the invective which implies values is always matched by the encomium which states them plainly. He jokes less when praising than when attacking but the attention he pays to evocation is even more concentrated. The poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’ (‘On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes’) can be matched for unforced reverence in the critical prose: ‘ ... the marvellous "Blue Horizon", six choruses of slow blues in which Bechet climbs without interruption or hurry from lower to upper register, his clarinet tone at first thick and throbbing, then soaring like Melba in an extraordinary blend of lyricism and power that constituted the unique Bechet voice, commanding attention the instant it sounded.’ He is similarly eloquent about the ‘fire and shimmer’ of Bix Beiderbecke and of the similes he attaches to Pee Wee Russell there is no end — Russell’s clarinet seems to function in Larkin’s imagination as a kind of magic flute.

The emphasis, in Larkin’s admiration for all these artists, is on the simplicity at the heart of their creative endeavour. What they do would not have its infinite implications if it did not spring from elementary emotion. It can be argued that Larkin is needlessly dismissive of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. There is plenty of evidence to warrant including him in the school of thought known among modern jazz buffs as ‘mouldy fig’. But there is nothing retrograde about the aesthetic underlying his irascibility. The same aesthetic underlies his literary criticism and everything else he writes. Especially it underlies his poetry. Indeed it is not even an aesthetic: it is a world view, of the kind which invariably forms the basis of any great artistic personality. Modernism, according to Larkin, ‘helps us neither to enjoy nor endure’. He defines modernism as intellectualised art. Against intellectualism he proposes, not anti-intellectualism — which would be just another coldly willed programme — but trust in the validity of emotion. What the true artist says from instinct, the true critic will hear by the same instinct. There may be more than instinct involved, but nothing real will be involved without it.

The danger, therefore, of assuming that everything played today in jazz has a seed of solid worth stems from the fact that so much of it is tentative, experimental, private ... And for this reason one has to fall back on the old dictum that a critic is only as good as his ear. His ear will tell him instantly whether a piece of music is vital, musical, exciting, or cerebral, mock-academic, dead, long before he can read Don DeMichael on the subject, or learn that it is written in inverted nineteenths, or in the Stygian mode, or recorded at the NAACP Festival at Little Rock. He must hold on to the principle that the only reason for praising a work is that it pleases, and the way to develop his critical sense is to be more acutely aware of whether he is being pleased or not.

What Larkin might have said on his own behalf is that critical prose can be subjected to the same test. His own criticism appeals so directly to the ear that he puts himself in danger of being thought trivial, especially by the mockacademic. Like Amis’s, Larkin’s readability seems so effortless that it tends to be thought of as something separate from his intelligence. But readability is intelligence. The vividness of Larkin’s critical style is not just a token of his seriousness but the embodiment of it. His wit is there not only in the cutting jokes but in the steady work of registering his interest. It is easy to see that he is being witty when he says that Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman stand in evolutionary relationship to each other ‘like green apples and stomachache’. But he is being equally witty when he mentions Ruby Braffs ‘peach-fed’ cornet. A critic’s language is not incidental to him: its intensity is a sure measure of his engagement and a persuasive hint at the importance of what he is engaged with.

A critical engagement with music is one of the several happy coincidences which unite Larkin’s career with Montale’s. If Larkin’s Listen articles on poetry were to be reprinted the field of comparison would be even more instructive, since there are good reasons for thinking that these two poets come up with remarkably similar conclusions when thinking about the art they practise. On music they often sound like the same man talking. Montale began his artistic career as a trained opera singer and his main area of musical criticism has always been classical music, but he writes about it the same way Larkin writes about jazz, with unfaltering intelligibility, a complete trust in his own ear, and a deep suspicion of any work which draws inspiration from its own technique. InItaly his collected music criticism is an eagerly awaited book, but then in Italy nobody is surprised that a great poet should have written a critical column for so many years of his life. Every educated Italian knows that Montale’s music notices are all of a piece with the marvellous body of literary criticism collected in Auto da féand Sulla poesia, and that his whole critical corpus is the natural complement to his poetry. InBritain the same connection is harder to make, even though Larkin has deservedly attained a comparable position as a national poet. InBritain the simultaneous pursuit of poetry and regular critical journalism is regarded as versatility at best. The essential unity of Larkin’s various activities is not much remarked.

But if we do not remark it we miss half of his secret. While maintaining an exalted idea of the art he practises, Larkin never thinks of it as an inherently separate activity from the affairs of everyday. He has no special poetic voice. What he brings out is the poetry that is already in the world. He has cherished the purity of his own first responses. Like all great artists he has never lost touch with the child in his own nature. The language of even the most intricately wrought Larkin poem is already present in recognisable embryo when he describes the first jazz musicians ever to capture his devotion. ‘It was the drummer I concentrated on, sitting as he did on a raised platform behind a battery of cowbells, temple blocks, cymbals, tomtoms and (usually) a chinese gong, his drums picked out in flashing crimson or ultramarine brilliants.’ There are good grounds for calling Larkin a pessimist, but it should never be forgotten that the most depressing details in the poetry are seen with the same eye that loved those drums. The proof is in the unstinting vitality of language.

As in the criticism, so in the poetry, wit can be divided usefully into two kinds, humorous and plain. There is not much need to rehearse the first kind. Most of us have scores of Larkin’s lines, hemistiches and phrases in our heads, to make us smile whenever we think of them, which is as often as the day changes. I can remember the day in 1962 when I first opened The Less Deceived and was snared by a line in the first poem, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’. ‘Not quite your class, I’d say, dear, on the whole.’ What a perfectly timed pentameter! How subtly and yet how unmistakably it defined the jealousy of the speaker! Who on earth was Philip Larkin? Dozens of subsequent lines in the same volume made it clearer: he was a supreme master of language levels, snapping into and out of a tone of voice as fast as it could be done without losing the reader. Bringing the reader in on it — the deep secret of popular seriousness. Larkin brought the reader in on it even at the level of prosodic technique.

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s ...

He got you smiling at a rhyme. ‘Church Going’ had the ruin-bibber, randy for antique, ‘Toads’ had the pun on Shakespeare, ‘Stuff your pension!’ being the stuff dreams are made on. You couldn’t get half way through the book without questioning, and in many cases revising, your long-nursed notions about poetic language. Here was a disciplined yet unlimited variety of tone, a scrupulosity that could contain anything, an all-inclusive decorum.

In The Whitsun Weddings, ‘Mr Bleaney’ has the Bodies and ‘Naturally The Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses’ has the ineffable Mr Lal. ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ features Titch Thomas and in ‘Wild Oats’ a girl painfully reminiscent of Margaret in Lucky Jim is finally shaken loose ‘after about five rehearsals’. In ‘Essential Beauty’ ‘the trite untransferable/Truss-advertisement, truth’ takes you back to the cobra-coaxing cacophonies of Calcutta, not to mention forward to Amis’s nitwit not fit to shift shit. Even High Windows, the bleakest of Larkin’s slim volumes, has things to make you laugh aloud. In ‘The Card-Players’ Jan van Hogspeuw and Old Prijck perhaps verge on the coarse but Jake Balakowsky, the hero of ‘Posterity’, has already entered the gallery of timeless academic portraits, along with Professor Welch and the History Man. ‘Vers de Société’ has the bitch/Who’s read nothing but Which. In Larkin’s three major volumes of poetry the jokes on their own would be enough to tell you that wit is alive and working.

But it is working far more pervasively than that. Larkin’s poetry is all witty — which is to say that there is none of his language which does not confidently rely on the intelligent reader’s capacity to apprehend its play of tone. On top of the scores of fragments that make us laugh, there are the hundreds which we constantly recall with a welcome sense of communion, as if our own best thoughts had been given their most concise possible expression. If Auden was right about the test of successful writing being how often the reader thinks of it, Larkin passed long ago. To quote even the best examples would be to fill half this book, but perhaps it will bear saying again, this time in the context of his poetry, that between Larkin’s humorous wit and his plain wit there is no discontinuity. Only the man who invented the golden tits could evoke the black-sailed unfamiliar. To be able to make fun of the randy ruin-bibber is the necessary qualification for writing the magnificent last stanza of ‘Church Going’. You need to have been playfully alliterative with the trite untransferable truss-advertisement before you can be lyrically alliterative with the supine stationary voyage of the dead lovers in ‘An Arundel Tomb’. There is a level of seriousness which only those capable of humour can reach.

Similarly there is a level of maturity which only those capable of childishness can reach. The lucent comb of ‘The Building’ can be seen by us only because it has been so intensely seen by Larkin, and it has been so intensely seen by him only because his eyes, behind those thick glasses, retain the naïve curiosity which alone makes the adult gaze truly penetrating. Larkin’s poetry draws a bitterly sad picture of modern life but it is full of saving graces, and they are invariably as disarmingly recorded as in a child’s diary. The paddling at the seaside, the steamer in the afternoon, the ponies at Show Saturday — they are all done with crayons and coloured pencils. He did not put away childish things and it made him more of a man. It did the same for Montale: those who have ever read about the amulet in ‘Dora Markus’ or the children with tin swords in Caffè a Rapallo are unlikely to forget them when they read Larkin: A third name could be added: Mandelstam. When Mandelstam forecast his own death he willed that his spirit should be resurrected in the form of children’s games: All three poets represent, for their respective countrymen, the distilled lyricism of common speech. With all three poets the formal element is highly developed — in the cases of Larkin and Mandelstam to the uppermost limit possible — and yet none of them fails to reassure his readers, even during the most intricately extended flight of verbal music, that the tongue they speak is the essential material of his rhythmic and melodic resource.

In Philip Larkin’s non-poetic poetic language, the language of extremely well-written prose, despair is expressed through beauty and becomes beautiful too. His argument is with himself and he is bound to lose. He can call up death more powerfully than almost any other poet ever has, but he does so in the commanding voice of life. His linguistic exuberance is the heart of him. Joseph Brodsky, writing about Mandelstam, called lyricism the ethics of language.

Larkin’s wit is the ethics of his poetry. It brings his distress under our control. It makes his personal unhappiness our universal exultation. Armed with his wit, he faces the worst on our behalf, and brings it to order. A romantic sensibility classically disciplined, he is, in the only sense of the word likely to last, modern after all. By rebuilding the ruined bridge between poetry and the general reading public he has given his art a future, and you can’t get more modern than that.