Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Celebrating with the Birthday Boy

Today is Philip Larkin's birthday. If he were still alive he'd be 94, but it never seemed likely that he'd make that kind of age, or want to - Larkin wasn't exactly Mr Lust for Life. For his 60th birthday (three years before he died), he was interviewed for the South Bank Show by Melvyn Bragg, who recalled that a drunken Larkin had to be evicted by police from the restaurant where the two men had enjoyed a rather too liquid lunch. The resulting documentary - in which nothing was seen of the 60-year-old Larkin but his hands turning the pages of a book - was a typically bland South Bank product, but there was also a sour half-hour TV special in which the politician and hack writer Roy Hattersley (once represented on Have I Got News for You by a tub of lard) attacked Larkin for his exaggerated pessimism, relentless gloom and parochial narrowness of view. If more had been known at that time about Larkin's personal life, he'd have had a lot more ammunition...
 As it was, Larkin told a friend that watching the programme 'gave me some idea of what being a writer in Russia must be like, arraigned in public for bourgeois formalism, counter-revolutionary determination and anti-working-class deviation. That great bloated unsmiling accuser and his silent audience was the most depressing thing I've had to endure for a long time.'
Ten years earlier, as he hit 50, Larkin looked back and forward with equal dismay:

'The view is fine from fifty,
Experienced climbers say;
So, overweight and shifty,
I turn to face the way
That led me to this day.
Instead of fields and snowcaps
And flowered lanes that twist,
The track breaks at my toe-caps
And drops away in mist.
The view does not exist.
Where has it gone, the lifetime?
Search me. What’s left is drear.
Unchilded and unwifed, I’m
Able to view that clear:
So final. And so near.'

(That's quite a rhyme in the last stanza - 'lifetime', 'unwifed I'm'!).
 By the time his 60th birthday came around, Larkin was all but written-out, but if he'd had another birthday poem in him it would surely have been no cheerier. Never mind - his is still a birthday worth celebrating, for the rest of us if not for him, for the poems he left us if not for the man who wrote them. 

1 comment:

  1. Art its own justification I 'spose.
    "In the prison of his days,
    Teach the free man how to praise."
    it ain't though. I understand the - 'he was a maker' angle (and he was a supreme one) but when one reads a poem one can't help but see the content as well as the artifice. Indeed, it might be tentatively suggested that communication of content is one of the aims of a poem. Remove that content or 'argument' and you have nothing left to hang it on. One can't pretend not to notice the content and be affected by it,therefore. One would have to be inhuman to do so. That being the case it can weary one. Try applying this to Shakespeare's age when, in spite of a greater awareness of 'the thousand ills which flesh is heir to" a duty to be optimistic in public was a given and a failure to do so just that, a failure. There's only so much Eeyore one can take. I suppose I'm saying I'd like the artifice and the content together and many have achieved that.