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This review is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

IN AWKWARD REVERENCE Harry Chambers (ed.), An Enormous Yes: in memoriam Philip Larkin (Peterloo Poets) £4.50.
Terry Whalen, Philip Larkin and English Poetry (Macmillan) £25.00.

'It is possible to feel about him, as people felt about Eliot,' writes Peter Levi, 'that he was the last great poet.' The implied comparison is an apt one: two private, bookish men, each widely supposed to have been lonely and unfulfilled, each incomparably wise and witty in his work. Literature seldom chooses to enact its greatness through the superficially successful, and in Larkin's case the poetry is tightly entwined with the privacy. What has steadily emerged during his later years and since his death in 1985, however, is a stream of occasional prose, twinkling interviews and impish anecdotes to which Andrew Motion's forthcoming biography will doubtless add: anyone who still labours under the misapprehension that the author of poems such as 'Ambulances', 'The Old Fools' and 'Aubade' must have been a miserable old sod is in for a shock.

Harry Chambers' rather sombre-looking memorial volume is a useful interim collection. Larkin the poet is represented by two slight but interesting unpublished poems about the University of Hull, and by two much more substantial uncollected poems. One of these, 'Fiction and the Reading Public', first appeared in Essays in Criticism as long ago as 1954, an intriguing example of Larkin's fascination with the workings of popular fiction. One can see in its exclusion from his collections a process which recurs in his work: in impulse if not in detail, this is a prototype for 'A Study of Reading Habits', just as the uncollected 'Breadfruit' and 'Heads in ...


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