Originality and modernity in the work of Philip Larkin

Throughout the poetry of Philip Larkin there seems evident a certain paradox in regards to the concepts of originality and modernity in his work. For upon first reading, particularly the 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings and 1974’s High Windows, Larkin’s innovation appears to be in its distinct unoriginality, with its reliance on traditional and comprehendible forms and structures, for example. However, a closer reading leads us to the idea that it is perhaps this use of simple, digestible formal devices that enables Larkin to become both original and modern, in that it allows him to discuss issues that concern him and the society in which he lives in a way never before seen in poetry. This essay will examine the deceptive and contradictive way in which Larkin is able to achieve a degree of originality in his work, paying particular attention to the aforementioned The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows.

One of the most significant ways in which Larkin’s poetry can be seen as original and modern is through the rejection of the overriding principles and characteristics of modernist poetry, and specifically those of T.S. Eliot. In his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Eliot states that:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.[1]

It is from this suggested importance of acknowledging one’s place in the poetic and artistic tradition that Eliot’s use of allusion, symbolism and intertextuality manifests. We can see this idea in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, for example, through the way in which past works of literature are alluded to, addressing the acknowledgement of tradition in a very literal and direct sense. It appears to be poetry such as this that Larkin is criticising in the titular statement, and that it is obscure, de-contextualised allusions that ‘[fill] poems full of dead spots’. Larkin himself has stated in ‘An Interview with Paris Review’, as anthologised in Required Writing, that:

My objection to the use in new poems of properties or personae from older poems…[is that] they don’t work, either because I haven’t read the poems in which they appear, or because I have read them and think of them as part of that poem and not a property to be dragged into a new poem as a substitute for securing an effect that is desired.[2]

So for Larkin, it seems, the appropriation of pre-existing phrases is inherently insufficient in adequately conveying the wholly different – or, at least, more personal – subject matter that Larkin wishes to address in his own work. It is for this reason that Larkin is most effective in using colloquial, even vulgar language in his work, free of any allusion or references that do not have a direct relevance to the scene in which he is depicting in any given piece. Take the opening stanza of ‘MCMXIV’ from The Whitsun Weddings, for instance: ‘Those long uneven lines / Standing as patiently / As if they were stretched outside The Oval or Villa Park, / The crowns of hats, the sun / On moustached faces / Grinning as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday lark’.[3] We can see from passages such as this how Larkin’s poetry can be regarded as both modern and original. We see originality here in the sense that Larkin is shunning the Modernist concepts of tradition and intertextuality, which forces Larkin to be original, in that he has to devise his own reference points and modes of expression, rather than acknowledging and utilising the works of those who have come before him. This in turn inevitably renders him a ‘modern’ poet, in that shunning allusions to that which is unfamiliar leads him to address contemporary events, objects and images that are familiar and relevant to both Larkin and his readers. It is for this reason that Larkin refers to crowds outside football and cricket grounds to create his desired image, rather than an obtuse reference to, say, Shakespeare or a scene from classical mythology.

However, the notion that Larkin has discarded the influence of his Modernist predecessors does not necessarily render him original or innovative by default. Moreover, while this rejection of Eliotian theories of originality may lead us to the conclusion that Larkin is original and modern himself, this is not strictly the case, as Larkin’s admiration for and influence from the poetic works of such poets as Thomas Hardy, for example, is too significant to ignore. In the aforementioned ‘Interview with Paris Review’, Larkin mentions that he learned from Hardy:

not to be afraid of the obvious. All those wonderful dicta about poetry: “the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own’, ‘the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel’, ‘the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own’ – Hardy knew what it was all about.[4]

It is this idea of a direct-speaking style that is free of superfluity, allowing the poet to convey an idea in a pure and uncontrived way that Larkin takes from the work of poets such as Hardy. We can see this manifest itself in poems such as ‘To the Sea’, the opening poem of High Windows, for example, in which Larkin describes an unspecified seafront:

Everything crowds under the low horizon:
Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand, and further off
A white steamer stuck in the afternoon –[5]

The language here is free of any metaphor or other rhetoric, and as such the scene is captured perfectly, with a pure and specific image created in the mind of the reader. This can be seen as somewhat original and revolutionary in that he is stripping any degree of excess in his work and writing in a pure, distilled poetic style. Yet we are still unable to fully accept that Larkin’s work is ‘original’, in the sense that he is adopting a noted style from previous poetic traditions, with the influence of specific poets clearly detectable.

However, quite paradoxically, it is the adoption of unoriginal styles and techniques that allows Larkin’s poetry to become original in itself. While the knowledge of poets that have deeply influenced Larkin may lead to the conclusion that he is not an original or modern poet, the adoption of styles previously seen in poets such as Hardy allows Larkin to become an original and modern poet not through stylistic or formal innovation, but rather through the originality of description and ideas that an adoption of such a style allows. As Harry Blamires suggests in Twentieth-Century English Literature, ‘Larkin is neither seer nor innovator, though his neo-Georgian craftsmanship does allow for the ready assimilation of colloquial vocabulary and rhythms, and for the cunning accumulation of impressionistic detail.’[6]

So thus we get the impression that Larkin’s originality is not found in the form and style of his poetry, but in its content. This plain-speaking, non-metaphorical method of composing poetry leads Larkin, somewhat inevitably, to use contemporary language, using contemporary reference points, alluding to current events, and so forth. This also leads Larkin to address issues that are relevant to his contemporary reader, thus reflecting the concerns of his time, and by extension seeming both original and modern in the sense that his poems are able to discuss themes and ideas that have never been discussed before. Perhaps the best example with which to express this idea is the titular poem of The Whitsun Weddings, particularly the following extract from the penultimate stanza:

A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
– An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl – and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat;[7]

This extract shows how Larkin is able to discuss universal issues – in this instance, loneliness, separation and the passage of time – and yet by infusing the lines with colloquial language and images of the everyday, a sense of the contemporary is added to these otherwise timeless feelings. As such we begin to get the impression that Larkin can be seen as original in the sense that he is adapting conventional – almost cliché – poetic ideas so that they are pertinent to the present day and resonate with the contemporary reader. As Laurence Lerner suggests in Philip Larkin, ‘Larkin was the…precise observer of daily life and class distinctions, the recorder of the ordinary, reaching beyond observation, often to boredom and anomie, but also to mysterious richness.’[8] Therefore, a distinctly unoriginal theme is rendered original by tying it so indelibly to the present, and as such presenting it in a wholly new way. It is this originality of subject matter that also allows Larkin to be deemed a ‘modern’ poet, in that by doing this he is also reflecting the world in which he lives as a consequence of conveying imagery in this colloquial manner.

This idea of Larkin’s work encapsulating his modern, contemporary context is enabled through the deeply personal nature of his verse. In 1956’s ‘Statement’, originally written for an introduction to the anthology Poets of the 1950s, Larkin professes that:

I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel my prime responsibility is to experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake…Generally my poems are related, therefore, to my own personal life[9]

From statements such as this – in addition to the somewhat insular, self-concerned nature of Larkin’s work – we begin to get the impression that the conveyance of the modern exists in his work only as the result of being the most suitable method with which to convey personal thought. Larkin seemingly only ever refers to that with which he is familiar, and so therefore personal feelings manifest not through abstract metaphor or allusion, for instance, but rather through their relations to the contemporary, modern world that surrounds the poet. Therefore any notions of modernity and originality of subject matter are somewhat incidental: an inevitable consequence of being so relentlessly personal. With this in mind then, we can say that Larkin is a modern and original poet, though this is primarily achieved as a consequence of his poetry being so personal and insular.

Thus we see that Larkin’s poetry very much can be seen as ‘modern’ and ‘original’, though not necessarily in the formal, innovative sense in which such terms are normally associated. Rather, the sense of originality or modernity that one can gather in Larkin’s work exists as a product of the style in which he chooses to write. It seems, therefore, that these terms ‘modern’ and ‘original’ are somewhat misleading when discussing Larkin’s work. Larkin is not original in a mannered, consciously innovative way, but more in the sense that his ideas are best represented in a depiction of the present: the everyday occurrences and concerns that are relevant to both himself and his contemporary reader. The notion of originality in this environment is rather inevitable when the poems of The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows are so deeply rooted in the present, thus depicting events and preoccupations that have never before been addressed in verse. This, of course, also leads to Larkin’s work being thoroughly modern, for much of the same reasons: the personal nature of his work, combined with the unadorned style of composition, leads to a depiction of current events as seen through his eyes, which of course manifests itself in a way that appears thoroughly modern.

[1] T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in The Waste Land and Other Writings (New York: Modern Library, 2002), pp.99-108, p.101

[2] Philip Larkin, ‘An Interview with Paris Review’ in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (London, Faber and Faber, 1983), pp.57-76, p.69

[3] Philip Larkin, ‘MCMXIV’ in The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp.25-6, p.25

[4] Philip Larkin, ‘An Interview with Paris Review’ in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, p.67

[5] Philip Larkin, ‘To the Sea’ in High Windows (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), pp.3-4, p.3

[6] Harry Blamires, Twentieth-Century English Literature (London: MacMillan Press Ltd.,1981) p.238

[7] Philip Larkin, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ in The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp.18-20, p.20

[8] Laurence Lerner, Philip Larkin, 2nd edition (Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 2005), p.23

[9] Philip Larkin, ‘Statement’ in  Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, ed. by W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis (Northumberland, Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2002), pp.150-1, p.150