The Lyrical Racist

On the occasion of Philip Larkin's recently released The Complete Poems, Michael Wood considers Larkin's politics. The British poet relished playing the part of "a lonely, irreverent Tory in a world governed by solemn lefties" – and in some ways, he was that – but Wood also sees the nuances in Larkin's work:

Larkin’s dreary rear-guard nationalism … yielded what he called his “one political poem,” the lamentable “Homage to a Government.” He said in a letter that he felt 537px-Art_installation_Larkin_with_Toads_28“deeply humiliated at living in a country that spends more on education than on defence.” (Humiliated, it should be noted, not just in disagreement with a policy choice.) But even in these regions Larkin has his surprising moments. His satirical poem “Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses” pictures a jet-setting academic glad to be away from the “solemn-sinister/Wreath-rubbish” of English war-remembrance ceremonies, which Larkin honors as a patriot should. Except that on at least one occasion, he said he didn’t see why the figure in his poem “should be blamed for not sympathizing with the crowds on Armistice Day.”

This may have been a moment of perversity—teasing an interviewer—but it tips us back toward the complicated performances we have seen in “Poetry of Departures” and “As Bad as a Mile.” The poet has views, but the poem presents an occasion or a set of attitudes. There is no reason why the poet himself should not look at it, or them, from a different perspective now and then, and a good poem makes the multiplying of perspectives almost obligatory for the reader.

Recent Dish Larkin-love here, here, here and here. There was in his reactionary politics a constant gleam of irony, and the relish of offending the establishment. That shouldn't, however, distract from his rank racism. But it was a posture, not an argument.

(Photo: The Larkin Toad, painted to resemble the poet himself, in the Princes Quay shopping centre, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire. Part of the Larkin with Toads series. By Paul Harrop.)