In the fall of 1958, the second book by a young British poet named Philip Larkin made it across the ocean and into the consciousness of American poetry. The Less Deceived, wrote a reviewer for the New York Times, made him feel “as if my glasses had been miraculously wiped clean.” Included in it were some of the poems that would become Larkin’s most emblematic: “Toads,” with its characteristically cranky opening line “Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?”; the lovely, elegiac “Church Going,” which offers one of the most human moments in all of modern poetry, a description of the nonbeliever entering a sacred space in uncertainty: “Hatless, I take off/My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”; and “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” which sums up the muted passions and predilections of the poet who would become beloved in spite of his incessant gloominess.
But o, photography! As no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing-lines, and Hall’s Distemper boards,
But shows the cat as disinclined, and shades
A chin as doubled when it is
Larkin transposed his wry pessimism exquisitely into fluid, formal verse that reads like good conversation. If life was a repository for huge, existential disappointment, it was clearly best to just say so and get on with it. Or at least, this was what he announced in poems and public comments, which were often laced with high sardonic moments. (Interviewer: How did you arrive upon the image of a toad for work or labor? Larkin: Sheer genius.) By now, the catalogue of his quips on his disillusionment with everything from the thought of being poet laureate of England (“I dream about that sometimes–and wake up screaming”); to his own appearance (“a balding salmon”); to his general Weltanschauung (“deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”) is a familiar part of Larkin’s carefully built, curmudgeonly identity. His best-known poem, at least in the minds of those who are not in the habit of reading poetry, begins with the memorable stanza: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” This, of course, is Larkin lite; it’s missing the lyricism that rescues even his most depressive poems from whiny banality. A line further along in the same poem, however, hints at the true depth of both the poet’s pathology and his gift–“Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf.”
“This Be the Verse” appeared in Larkin’s extraordinary fourth book, High Windows. That he chose to include it is not insignificant, since he produced only four slender volumes of poetry in his lifetime (he died at 63 of throat cancer, reaching out for his nurse’s hand and croaking “I am going to the inevitable” as he did, grimly resigned even in his last moments on earth). In a Kafkaesque move, he planned to torch all his personal papers, and later, when he became ill, asked that all his journals, letters and uncollected poems be destroyed. Thankfully, his near and dear ones thought the better of this request and failed to carry it through in entirety. As it turned out, Larkin had included a series of contradictory instructions in his will, giving the lie to his dramatic statements about making a bonfire. One of his girlfriends (about which more later) disposed of his diaries in a shredder at the University of Hull, where Larkin had been a librarian for more than twenty-five years. The rest of his papers remained, including correspondence from as far back as his college days, when he attended Oxford with Kingsley Amis, who became a lifelong friend.