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This item is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

Letter from John Lucas
Parker's Hair


According to Neil Powell, in his informative and enjoyable 'Playing Snooker with Dice' (PNR 167), jazz for Larkin is '"the natural noise of good", and as such is opposed to "long-haired grief" (Parker-and-after modern jazz), and "scored pity" (all that classical stuff) a wilfully wrong-headed and polemical ending which almost wrecks the poem'. But that isn't what Larkin is saying. In jazz argot of the 1950s 'long hair' meant a classical musician. (Parker, in common with those who upheld the 'cool', kept his hair close-cropped.) Admittedly, this would seem merely to strengthen Powell's claim that the ending of the poem is wrong-headed, but I don't think it does - quite. For the puns on long hair and scored surely allude to Niobe and her sorrows? And if we want to know what the relevance of this is, we need look no further than the 'natural noise' that scatters grief and pity. To be sure, the phrase hovers close to that perilous cliché 'a natural sense of rhythm', so that what Larkin appears to be saying is that Bechet's music does away with any need to attend to the actual, tragic history of Black Americans. But this, as he knows, is only possible while we accept whatever 'appropriate falsehood wakes' when we hear the music. And this falsehood is bound to be distortion of the truth, however beautiful or seductive. Hence, the opening lines: 'That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes / Like New Orleans reflected on the water'. ('On' not 'in' by the way, as either Powell or a typo has it.) This isn't a true reflection. Larkin's 'falsehood' allows him to entertain a version of pastoral - a golden-age primitivism - though he knows it's flawed. I will accept that the emotional feel at the poem's end is one that suggests he wishes it were true (don't we all?), but though the puns on 'long-haired' and 'scored' undoubtedly recall Amis's 'filthy Mozart', I don't think you can fairly call the line wrong-headed. At all events, it guards against the kind of unsaveable silliness (offensiveness?) of Amis's praise for the 'simple joy and simple sorrow' he claims for early jazz and its performers - where the clichés 'simple peasant', 'simple country-folk' caper all too obviously behind his words. No such simplicity about Larkin. And it's worth noting that in his most famous poem he similarly indulges an appropriate falsehood when, peering from his carriage window at the wedding groups, he sees 'it all again in different terms'. The terms are his and his alone. It's only inattentive readers who think Larkin blandly believes himself to be reporting the actual.


Neil Powell replies: Of course I didn't mean to suggest that Charlie Parker had long hair (I know he hadn't); but, when I was growing up, arty, intellectual, student types with a preference for modern rather than the traditional jazz were often loosely called 'long hairs'. It didn't necessarily describe them (us?) physically, any more than 'egg-heads' applied only to those with especially egg-shaped heads. However, John Lucas is older than I am and surely right about the 'jazz argot of the 1950s'. The point doesn't affect my reading of the poem.

This item is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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