So what if Larkin was reactionary? The poems still sing


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hilip larkin was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was also, among other things, a librarian at Hull University, an editor of the Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse, a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher, a prodigious writer of letters, an aficionado of jazz music and pornography, and an opponent of black immigration to the UK. But it is the poetry that always sticks in my mind; it is the poetry that really counts.

Two days ago was the 100th anniversary of Larkin’s birth, and there is something funny that a person so associated with traditionalism and Middle England was born in the same year as Modernism’s high point: the year of those great cosmopolitan and experimental texts, Ulysses and The Wasteland.

And this is not the only funny thing about Larkin. Although he is rightly associated with sadness, and hardly anyone else has captured the different shades of this emotion with such vivid insight, there is an amiable strain of humor that also runs through his work. You see it, for instance, in his poem, Church Going.

These lines stand out: “Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few/ Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce/ ‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant. /The echoes snigger briefly.” This is an instantly familiar scenario to anyone acquainted with British comedy: the bumbling Englishman aiming for solemnity, and having his hopes sharply deflated.

There is an online meme in which some people celebrate Larkin by posting pictures of the great comedian Eric Morecambe. And these two figures do bear a resemblance to each other, not just in terms of facial features and glasses, but also lifespan: Morecambe was born in 1926, four years after Larkin, and died in 1984, one year before Larkin. They also bore a resemblance in their appeal to the common man or woman.

In the case of Larkin, though, his life was untypical rather than common. For someone of his generation, he unusually never married nor had children; he also had an intense aversion to foreign travel at a time when it was cheaper for everyone.

He was essentially a hermit, bound up for much of his adult life in Hull. But his poems still reached out to readers, and do to this day.

I am very different from Larkin in terms of my background and beliefs, but lines from his poetry are indelibly impressed on my mind. Lines such as “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. / Not to be here, Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true” from Aubade. Another imperishable line comes from Wants: “Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs”.

Beneath it all, for me, the desire for Larkin’s poetry runs.

Tomiwa Owolade is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

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