“The Still, Sad Music Of Humanity”

Tomorrow night, I’m taking part in a celebration of the poetry of Philip Larkin at the Cooper Union in New York City at 7 pm. There will be readings by Meena Alexander, Archie Burnett, Billy Collins, James Fenton, Jonathan Galassi, Deborah Garrison, Adam Gopnik, Eamon Grennan, Mary Karr, Nick Laird, J.D. McClatchy, D. Nurkse, Katha Pollitt, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Saskia Hamilton, Vijay Seshadri, Paul Simon, Zadie Smith, and myself – along with live musical performances of some of Larkin’s favorite jazz by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington. (If you’ve never read Larkin’s jazz criticism, you’re missing something quite wonderful even for those immune to jazz’s appeal).The event is timed to coincide with the US publication of The Complete Poems, a must-buy for all of us Larkin fanatics.

One great Larkin fan, alas, will not be there. And his essay on Larkin is one of the best. I refer, of course, to Hitch, who had Larkin and Wodehouse at his side as he lay dying. This passage was actually read at his Memorial Service. It deserved to be. As with T.S. Eliot, Hitch was less concerned with Larkin’s sometimes reactionary politics and ugly racism than with the haunting beauty and sadness of the words he chose so carefully:

It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially Larkinacute one. Having quit Belfast, he removed himself forever to Hull, a rugged coastal city facing toward Scandinavia that, even if it was once represented in Parliament by Andrew Marvell, in point of warmth and amenity runs Belfast a pretty close second. Here he brooded biliously and even spitefully on his lack of privacy, the success of his happier friends Amis and Conquest, the decline of standards at the university he served, the general bloodiness of pub lunches and academ­ic sherry parties, the frumpy manipulativeness of women­folk, and the petrifying imminence of death. (Might one say that Hull was other people?)

He may have taken a sidelong swipe at the daffodils, but he did evolve his own sour strain and syncopation of Words­worth’s “still, sad music of humanity.” And without that synthesis of gloom and angst, we could never have had his “Aubade,” a waking meditation on extinction that unstrenuously contrives a tense, brilliant counter­poise between the stoic philosophies of Lucretius and David Hume, and his own frank terror of oblivion.

If you have never read Aubade, stop now, and give yourself a moment of transcendence this lunchtime.