Washing the corpse

BY SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK

Larkin’s readers, writes James Fenton, “pay him the tribute of a sort of possessiveness and concern: they want their poet to look his best.” Literary executors may well share a similarly “possessive concern” for their authors, and with the manner in which they are presented to the public. The executor, however, realises that such literary tailoring – the fussy techniques of nip and tuck designed to disguise a sagging line or a flabby stanza – runs up against a potentially unbecoming obligation, namely, to present the figure in full – warts and all, at least as far as the writer’s will might allow.

Anthony Thwaite’s Collected Poems (1988) and its revised 2003 edition, and the Collected Letters, have all contributed to a more complete picture of Larkin, both as a poet and as a person. Archie Burnett’s The Complete Poems (2013), a sprawling annotated edition which hopes to redress inconsistencies, occlusions and absences in the Thwaite editions, but which according to Fenton is both “comprehensive” and “obnoxious to use”, is the most recent addition to Larkin’s posthumous canonical construction. What, then, to make of Faber and Faber’s 2011 Philip Larkin: Poems Selected by Martin Amis? Amis’s edition appears to share a similarly “readerly” sense of “possessiveness and concern” for Larkin – both as person and as poet.

This is unsurprising. Amis’s father, Kingsley, was one of Larkin’s closest friends, literary companions and, perhaps, rivals. Amis remembers Larkin as “a large, grave, cumbrous yet mannerly figure – and someone distinctively solitary: unattached, unconnected,” and he thinks of Larkin, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “definingly, a novelist’s poet.” His selection of Larkin’s work suits his introductory portrayal: Amis’s tastes tend toward a Larkin that is distinctly “anti-poetic”, eschewing poetic afflatus in favour of his “conversational idiom”, his penchant for “scene-setting”, and more interestingly, for his ability to “demoralise the spiritual impulse”. Yet, when Amis claims that “Larkin siphoned all his energy, and all his love, out of the life and into the work,” we might well suspect that he is invoking the ghost of Yeats for his own singular purposes. This is Larkin as Amis wishes him to be, rather than as he actually was.

In Amis’s Selected Poems, therefore, we find the opinion that “Larkin’s four volumes of verse are logarithmic, like the Richter scale: they get stronger and stronger by a factor of ten.” This reflects a form of conventional wisdom that is by no means beyond debate. More troublingly, Amis’s idiosyncratic approach to selection yields some surprising and disappointing exclusions. While most of the more familiar and celebrated examples of Larkin’s work are included, I searched in vain for an untitled poem, from The North Ship (1945), that I have always found disturbingly compelling. “I see a girl dragged by the wrists / Across a dazzling field of snow,” it begins, before adding, bafflingly, that “she laughs and struggles and pretends to fight.”

Amis also excludes “Days”, a poem which, though slight, asks curious questions (“What are days for?”; “Where can we live but days?”) and offers an even more curious answer (“…solving that question / Brings the priest and the doctor / in their long coats / running over the fields.”) He ignores the stylised (yet disturbing) violence of “Sunny Prestatyn”, (“Someone had used a knife / or something to stab right through / the moustached lips of her smile”), and he overlooks the painful admission, in “Sympathy in White Major”, that “While other people wore like clothes / the human beings in their days / I set myself to bring to those / Who thought I could the lost displays). It is sad, too, that Amis fails to find a place for “the men in pitboots / Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke, / Shouldering off the freshened silence” so lovingly rendered in “The Explosion”.

Still, Amis’s idiosyncratic approach is a breath of fresh air gusting through stuffy academic basements where the comprehensive retrieval, collection, annotation, exhumation and archiving that has courted Larkin’s published work and marginalia since 1988 continues to bloat the poet’s body out of all proportion. Amis washes the corpse, and Faber has solicited Fay Godwin’s classic image of Larkin (described by Sean O’Brien, writing for The Guardian, as “death-suited”), as much for our pleasure as, one suspects, their own. Luckily, the poems remain, and they remain to be read – no matter how prettily or poorly their author happens to be dressed.

Philip Larkin: Poems Selected by Martin Amis is published by Faber and Faber, R219.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *