Sunday, November 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #315: Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

Oh this is not going to go well. I don't read a whole lot of poetry these days, and I never really had the right critical vocabulary to talk about it at the best of times.

I'd like to say something like: we all read poetry, and go on to say something about why. But I think I lot of you never read poetry, and never would. That's sad, but I never read romances, and maybe you think that's sad. (Am I equating the two? See, here I go, tipping over into banalities and silliness when I haven't even gotten to the title of the book.)

Look: lot of people who know more about poetry than me say that Philip Larkin is one of the greats. That's why I read his Collected Poems, actually: that was the point.

Larkin is a 20th century British poet. That is to say his work is grumbling, gnarly, hermetic and he himself seems to have been deeply repressed and in-drawn in that way that only British men have. His most famous poem is "This Be The Verse" -- that's the one that starts "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."

I read the second edition of his Collected Poems. Somewhat reading between the lines of the introduction by editor Anthony Thwaite, the first edition came out in 1988, only a few years after Larkin's death, and included all of Larkin's poetry (possibly including things otherwise unpublished) in strictly chronological order. And the critical response to that organization was not what Thwaite would have liked, so, in 2003, he retreated with this edition to running the four books of poetry Larkin published in his life (one in the middle of each decade from the '40s through the '70s) and then putting only a few of the other works in Appendices, covering those years first and then the last decade of his life.

So I get the sense there is substantially less Larkin in the book I read than in its predecessor, and that everyone though that was the right thing to do. Since the book is only 218 pages long with indexes and all, that does seem odd to a boy reared on the bug-crushers of fantasy, but poetry is a different world.

I do think reading poetry is vital, important. It doesn't work like prose and requires closer attention. Anyone who is serious about reading does need to dip into poetry every so often, for that depth and that different perspective. (I mean poetry and not verse, and I'll make that distinction even if I can only offer a Whizzer White-level demarcation between the two.)

Larkin was a small-city British man: from his poetry, almost stereotypically so. His poetry was all about his world, and his world is not at all my world. There are a lot of churches in here, a lot of not talking to people, a lot of being quietly angry at aspects of life that he didn't want but couldn't avoid. Poetry throws you even more strongly into a stranger's head than prose; it's that much closer to pure thought. So, if I were being expansive, I would say that reading books like this is the point of poetry: getting that full-blast glimpse into someone else's inner life.

Larkin can be hard to like, hard to understand, hard to sympathize with. But that's what makes his work poetry. If it were easy, it wouldn't count. It is worth it, at least for this span. Maybe the longer book wasn't worth it. But this one is. He's worth reading, and trying to understand.

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