Philip Larkin
Life, Art and Love
James Booth
England, faced with the full might of the Axis on the cusp of World War Two, chose not to induct Philip Larkin because of his terrible eyesight. Instead, he returned to Oxford in 1942, moved in with a medical student named Philip Brown, and "they became a homosocial couple." Because Larkin was a poet, a would-be librarian, looked to be a bit of a priss, isn't it possible that . . . ? But no; he was "homosocial," whatever that means.

According to the delightfully named Andrew Motion, who wrote the first of an alarmingly growing avalanche of biographies, memoirs, speculations about Larkin, Brown later reported, "Philip may have been in love with me . . . there were a few messy encounters between us, yes. Nothing much."

    Philip's sexuality was so obscured by his manner of approach and his general diffidence that frankly I would be surprised to hear that he ever had sex with anyone.

Besides, says Brown, completely covering his ass, "I was extremely interested in girls." Whew. Another rumor laid to rest.

And, in early Larkin years, there is, too, his appallingly bad writings. Trouble at Willow Gables, where Larkin, dba Blanche Coleman, tells what is archly called "a girls'-school story." It takes Booth almost seven pages to dispense with this bit of juvenilia, which includes passages like,

    With a smile she stroked Margaret's cheek where her blows had landed, and felt under her hand a solid body . . . Moth-winds of passion ran all over her body, and she released Margaret's wrists . . .

All of which sets us to wondering why the biographer wants to drag us though these sludge-ponds of shenanigans in some imagined girls' school, a bit of fluff that one of our favorite poets in the English language indulged in when he was twenty or so. What in god's name can this have to do with the author of "This Be the Verse" or "Money" or "Aubade."

Do we care?


Should Booth? "Let's don't and say we did," as my sweet non-school-girlish sister would say.

Should anyone?

Only, we think, serious students of the art form of stories the ilk of Mademoiselle de Maupin or Niece of the Headmistress.

To spend so much time on such trifles says much about Booth's tunnel vision. And his chosen path. For, I suggest, if you are going to spend a lifetime traipsing around in the footsteps of a stupendous writer like Larkin, it would behoove you to look seriously for the keys to the man's greatness. I doubt that the slightly licentious romps between sixteen-year-old-girls is the essence of one who coud write lines as gorgeous as,

    I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
    From long french windows at a provincial town,
    The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
    In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Larkin spent quite some time keeping a dream journal as many of us from the darker ages of Freud did. Booth chooses to tell us what we are supposed to look for in the dreams of Larkin, like

    someone took the lid off a hamper, which was filled with a huge snake. It began uncoiling and I fled in horror.

"Some of the dreams have obvious 'Freudian' interpretations," Booth then observes. Of what, James? And sez who?

For this may be one of the hoariest tricks of what Nabokov called "the dream machine." If you think a snake is a weenie, then the subconscious will be sure to send you a snake, or even more, a veritable bumperfull of snakes . . . and good luck with them.

But to those who don't happen to think that a snake automatically equals a big pizzle, and I am one of those, it could mean anything: a fear, perhaps. A surprise. A love.

The dreamscape is tremendously tricky (even Booth's, if he ever bothered to pay any attention to it: it might help figure out his unseemly obsession with a great poet). And this sucker punch catches him square. The same, when Booth writes "Other dreams are purely absurd, such as one [of Larkin's] concerning an extremely savage rabbit 'that I made kill someone.'"

"Absurd?" If Booth were Larkin --- and sometimes biographers begin to believe they are the person they think they are writing about --- the word "absurd" might apply. But dreams are manufacturers of potent symbols that have meaning, mostly, for the individual concerned, and (if he or she happens to be sage enough) a good therapist. For the biographer to tell us that one of Larkin's symbols is absurd is proof that we should begin to think Booth himself is absurd.

Larkin's rabbit has meanings that he (nor I nor any of us) could never dream of. His rabbit, tucked at the back of his mind, might mean passion, a feeling of composure, or death. Booth's absurdity is just that: his personal tic.

"In a dream recorded on Christmas day he is driving a car that grows smaller and smaller until he can push it along with his foot." This too is absurd says Booth. But to the author, it is an intensely personal symbol, one that has meaning for him and him alone.

If the poet had chosen one day to unravel it, he might have had an aha! moment. I did dream work for almost five years with a fine and perceptive Jungian. It just so happened that different cars represented important psychic periods in different times in my life. My early mental and physical set was represented by, are you ready? A zippy red Jaguar XK120. (Middle age turned up as a VW bus.) An outsider wouldn't have had a clue to what was going on in these dreams that came anchored by an odd car.

§   §   §

Finally, Booth is a sloppy generalist. Writing about Larkin's "Toads," he comments that Larkin is "virtually alone among twentieth century poets in writing in a natural, first-hand way about work in the sense of paid employment."

    No other significant poet, except Wallace Stevens, held down a nine-to-five job with no expectation of becoming a 'full-time' professional writer.

Hello William Carlos Williams? T. S. Eliot?

Finally, Booth indulges that exasperating literary microstudy, a metrical/sound examination of a poem involving the computer-speak mumbo-jumbo like the instructions that come with a new vacuum cleaner or toaster. This on the last two lines of "No Road,"

    With a listless wordplay ('wills/Willing'), pentameter runs into abrupt trimeter and the poem ends on the wearily offhand misrhyme 'fulfillment / ailment'. The ten high short 'i' or 'e' syllables, and seven 't' sounds in these two lines force the poet's self-distaste aggressively on the reader.

Dear reader: think of picking up Archie Burnett's edition of the complete poems from Faber. It will cost you less than $20 from ABE. Larkin is a breathtaking poet, and you (and he) deserve better than the priggish claptrap to be found in this so-called biography.

--- Lolita Lark
Total pages in book: 532
Total pages read: 212

The sketch of Larkin above was made by the poet,
and included in a letter he sent to
the six-year-old daughter of one of his friends.

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