First Chapters, Then Verse

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 4 2015 @ 5:24pm

We’ve featured reviews of James Booth’s new biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art, Love, over the last few months. Now, Dana Gioia notices an interesting wrinkle in the poet’s story – it was only after Larkin wrote two early novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, that he devoted himself to verse:

As his dreams of being a great novelist expired, Larkin poured his full talent into poetry. He discarded his lofty, early models, Yeats and Auden, and studied instead the homely genius of Thomas Hardy (another novelist-turned-poet). Larkin then brought a novelistic sensibility into his verse. Emphasizing the prosaic virtues of plot, setting, character, and narrative voice—the building blocks of fiction—he crafted a new sort of lyric poem, one firmly placed in the everyday world and yet charged with evocative power. His new poems also had personality; they were simultaneously savage and yet compassionate, very depressing and very funny. His language grew commonplace without losing its musicality, and he displayed a gift for using complicated verse forms in ways that sounded utterly conversational, as in the opening lines of “Annus Mirabilis”:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The change happened during his years in Belfast (1950–1955).

Always a good poet, Larkin suddenly became a great one, producing a series of works in quick succession that were destined for the anthologies—“Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” “I Remember, I Remember,” “For Sidney Bechet,” “Poetry of Departures,” “Toads,” and “Church Going.” Although these poems would become signature pieces of contemporary British literature, Larkin initially couldn’t find a publisher for them. After repeated rejections, the despairing poet sent his breakthrough volume, The Less Deceived, to George Hartley, a friend in Hull, who wanted to start a press. Larkin would regret the decision, but the small, unpublicized collection proved an immediate success with great reviews and steady sales. Larkin soon found himself named the central figure of “The Movement,” a celebrated group of young writers. To his own astonishment, he was famous.