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This review is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

CORE OF THE WOUND MAEVE BRENNAN, The Philip Larkin I Knew (Manchester University Press), £40 hb, £14.99 pb

Sheer inaccuracy; this is the verdict, in Larkin's poem `Reasons for Attendance', on the view that the lion's share of happiness is found by couples. The poem sets up a dichotomy between the men on the inside, avid for `[t]he wonderful feel of girls', and the man on the outside, proudly singled, drawn by art's `lifted, rough-tongued bell'. The tension between these two poles seems, in the penultimate line of the poem, to reach a momentary equilibrium - both insiders and outsiders are satisfied with their lot. But the last line admits a characteristic note of doubt: such satisfaction only subsists `[i]f no one has misjudged himself. Or lied'. This tension between coupling and singleness plays through other notable Larkin poems - `Dockery and Son', `Self's the Man', `The Whitsun Weddings' - which pose it in normative, nineteen-fifties terms: a coupling whose only end is marriage and procreation, or a singleness that courts sterility but preserves the possibility of artistic vision. These terms, however, block the exploration of other kinds of relationships - the kinds of relationships that, as we now know, Larkin had. He could not resist coupling but, in his not unsatisfactory prime, he eschewed the exclusivity of the couple, maintaining complex triangular or quadrangular arrangements. His poetry, however, rarely engages explicitly with the ethical and social implications of these arrangements; which is one reason, beyond those of curiosity and prurience, for taking an interest in them.

The most enduring of the triangular relationships was ...


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