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PNR 277
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This item is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

Letters from Neil Powell, John Lucas, Silas Gunn
How Not to Write About Larkin


Grevel Lindop’s piece about James Booth’s book Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (PNR 223) contains some strange misreadings or mishearings. For instance:

1. The cod-American in ‘Posterity’ is meant to be cod-American. Larkin isn’t ‘gesturing lazily’: he’s having fun getting it slightly wrong. And posterity, in the shape of critics who can’t hear this, is giving him the last laugh.

2. Those ‘iced lollies’ in ‘Here’: ‘an expression no one but Larkin ever used’, says Lindop. Well, as a child in the 1950s and 1960s, I’d certainly have spoken of ‘iced lollies’ (as opposed to the revolting unfrozen alternative, ‘sweet lollies’) and would still do so now, should the occasion improbably arise. The Bedfordshire, Huntingdon & Peterborough volume of Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, published in 1968, is memorably dedicated ‘To the Inventor of the ICED LOLLY’. So that makes three of us, for a start.

3. The second line of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ isn’t ‘the most vacuous line in all English poetry’: it’s an absolutely deliberate, calculated effect. The speaker is trying to remember the exact time his train left, scratching his head and pausing for a moment: ‘Not till about…’ gives us exactly that pause, which is perfectly balanced and completed by the rhyme of line four – ‘Did my three-quarters empty train pull out’ – which does indeed contain the actual departure.

4. The image of London ‘spread out in the sun, / Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat’ is composite rather than inaccurate. Yes, the sense of rectangular hay-bales is there if you want it; but this bird’s-eye view of London might equally suggest the postal districts as enormous fields. In that case, they are ‘packed’ with people, as a field is packed with growing wheat; among its definitions of ‘square’, OED gives ‘A square or rectangular area or piece of ground’. Larkin allows both senses to resonate.

5. As for the conclusion of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, which ‘commentaries on Larkin’s work tend to skirt around’, I devoted about four pages to this in a book as long ago as 1979 and have returned to the subject in essays and articles since then. So I’ll limit myself to two brief remarks here: (i) the transition from ‘shower’, whether or not of arrows, to ‘rain’ seems to me natural and effective; (ii) the ‘sense of falling’, for anyone who remembers arriving by steam express at a London terminus, needs no explanation either. Didn’t Larkin somewhere say that he also had in mind a memory of the bowmen shooting in Olivier’s film of Henry V? Anyway, what matters is that the lines work wonderfully for anyone with ears to hear them.

Writing in the same issue, Rory Waterman says that Helen Vendler’s review of Booth’s book in the LRB was ‘delightfully titled “How to write about Larkin”’. No, it wasn’t. But it was, more accurately, announced on the cover as ‘How not to write about Larkin’, which is a rather different matter.

Incidentally, both Lindop and Waterman are too kind to Booth, whose book is ill-­conceived, pedestrian in style and drearily complacent in tone.



Grevel Lindop’s excellent account of James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love is pretty well unanswerable in its dismissal of Booth’s special pleading. And as Lindop says, ‘it doesn’t greatly matter now whether Larkin was nice or nasty’. What will survive is the poetry, about some of which Lindop has justifiable doubts. His itemising of misused idioms could, in fact, be extended to include the line from one of the poems he exonerates from criticism, about Mr Bleaney who ‘kept on plugging at the four aways’. But you don’t plug at, you plug away at: Larkin, I’m sure, knew this but, metrical considerations apart, couldn’t afford the repetition of away/aways. Odd, though, that he didn’t put in some work to get round the problem. (It wouldn’t have taken much effort.)

Perhaps Lindop lets him off the hook in this instance because he admires ‘Mr Bleaney’, whereas he doesn’t seem to rate especially highly ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, complaining that ‘The simile of London’s “postal districts packed like squares of wheat” is perplexing. London postal districts were never square; and wheat is not sown, reaped or stored in “squares”. Is Larkin confusing it with hay, which can be packed in square bales?’ No, I don’t think he is. He was a traveller on an early summer train and he’d only to look from the window to see how many as-good-as-squared-off fields in that part of England ‘where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’ were, and still are, given over to arable farming, in particular the growing of wheat. And by Whitsuntide the wheat would be growing thick, right up to the field’s edge. The packed fields may not be geometric squares, but the hedgerows do make for a kind of squaring-off, one that by the grace of luck – the kind any good poet deserves – must have struck Larkin as linkable to the way postal districts are graphed or gridded in a London A–Z, where they are shown as what might be called elongated squares.

Lindop also finds fault with the famous closing lines. The final image is, he says, ‘[an] awkward attempt to link modern marriage-rituals to pagan notions of fertility […] it is incongruous with the poem it concludes, and the attempt to derive it from the train’s deceleration seems forced, a grasping for transcendence which the poem fails to sustain’. The lines are without doubt densely compacted, though no more so than lines by some of the French symbolist poets we know from Motion’s biography that Larkin read, even if he kept quiet about the fact. But anyone who travelled on one of the old steam trains will accede to the sheer accuracy with which Larkin reports on how ‘as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling’. Anticipation, a falling forward, the involuntary lurch from the application of brakes are exactly communicated by the line-break. Tumescence and release: hence the fertilising shower of rain, and hence, too, the rightness of the earlier line about girls who ‘stared / At a religious wounding’. This is surely great writing?



My enjoyment of PNR is always enhanced by the opportunities it offers me to be captious. I notice on the inside cover (PNR 223) that Mrs Lincoln suffered after ‘the assignation of her husband’, a historical footnote unknown to all except perhaps the imagination of the late Gore Vidal.

While Grevel Lindop’s example of Philip Larkin’s bad grammar seems an open-and-shut case, in his quotation of the last verse of ‘Self’s the Man’ I am inclined to wonder when I consider Larkin’s ability with compression and ellipsis, as in this example from ‘Life with a Hole In It’. I quote the whole verse to show how the first seven lines deliver the last highly compressed line:

When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your way
– A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.

You may also notice that line 5 begins with a dash in place of ‘which is’ or a new sentence entirely beginning with ‘It’s’. The effect of the ellipsis is similar to that of a volta in a sonnet, turning the argument on its head and containing it in the same sentence.

This leads me to Lindop’s quotation:

Only I’m a better hand
At knowing what I can stand
Without them sending a van –
Or I suppose I can.

Why the dash at the end of line 3? There’s no grammatical reason for its being there. It’s redundant. Perhaps Larkin was aware of his incorrect grammar and yet sufficiently aware of twentieth-century British English’s penchant for the principle of proximity, as in this example cited by C.S. Lewis: ‘Don’t take any notice of teachers and text-books in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “More than one passenger was hurt”, although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!’ Many poets might let ‘am’ in as an assonance rhyme and satisfy the grammatical purist. But perhaps Larkin was going for ambiguity here, letting the superficial sense ride as ‘I suppose I’m better at knowing…’ and by putting in the seemingly superfluous dash getting a darker sense of ‘I suppose I can stand what I know’. Larkin’s dashes have point.

Finally, I find it troubling that Adam Crothers has to gloss seventeenth-century English, ‘unexpressive’, for readers of PN Review. We may not all be Sir Geoffrey Hill, but we have the wit to notice unusual derivations.

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This item is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

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