Description: Philip Larkin was that rare thing among poets – a household name in his own lifetime. Lines such as ‘Never such innocence again’ and ‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three’ made him one of the most popular poets of the last century.
Larkin’s reputation as a man, however, has been more controversial. A solitary librarian known for his pessimism, he disliked exposure and had no patience with the literary circus. And when, in 1992, the publication of his Selected Letters laid bare his compartmentalised personal life, accusations of duplicity, faithlessness, racism and misogyny were levelled against him.
There is, of course, no requirement that poets should be likeable or virtuous, but James Booth asks whether art and life were really so deeply at odds with each other. Can the poet who composed the moving ‘Love Songs in Age’ have been such a cold-hearted man? Can he who uttered the playful, self-deprecating words ‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’ really have been so boorish?
A very different public image is offered by those who shared the poet’s life – the women with whom he was romantically involved, his friends and his university colleagues. It is with their personal testimony, including access to previously unseen letters, that Booth reinstates a man misunderstood – not a gaunt, emotional failure, but a witty, provocative and entertaining presence, delightful company; an attentive son and a man devoted to the women he loved.
Read by Michael Pennington
Written by James Booth
Abridged by Libby Spurrier
Produced by Joanna Green
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4
1/5 Aged 17, Larkin goes up to Oxford to read English and meets a jazz-loving kindred spirit.
2/5 Philip meets Monica Jones, an assistant English lecturer at Leicester University.
3/5 Philip begins work as librarian at Hull University and oversees plans for expansion.
4/5 As middle age approaches, Larkin’s private life is as complicated as ever.
5/5 Despite having two continuing relationships, Larkin brings another woman into his life.
Would you have shagged him? Not me. It is a question of liking the output, disliking the outputter. And Oh! how he disliked his parents, and families in general, which is why he penned these:
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.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
and in reply, this:
They suss you out, your girls and boys.
You may not know it, but they do.
They find out all your faults and foibles
Because they concentrate on you.
Their eyes and ears are sharp, perceptive,
Slicing through your best disguise.
And if you grit your teeth and take it,
Their advice might make you wise.
They cannot cure your old compulsions;
They will not stroke away the aches
That plague your heart and grieve your bones
But they can learn from your mistakes.
They tuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not want to, but they do.
They give you games and stories they had
And make up new ones, just for you.
And they were tucked up in their turn
By parent figures in the past,
Who helped them, growing up, to learn
That pain and misery end at last.
Your kids can comfort smaller kids.
And get some pleasure from this chore.
The fretful baby’s drooping eyelids
Move our hearts to ask for more.