On Bringing Philip Larkin Back from the Dead

Philip Larkin memorial in Westminster Cathedral

Doubtless, Philip Larkin wouldn’t have received any valentines on that secular sacrosanct day during his years in grammar school. Post-mortem, his fate has not been so different. Critics either lament the paucity of his lifetime output, or that he put out anything at all. He has been labeled, not a hack, for artful he undeniably was, but a curmudgeon, a sugarless lemon tart, a whiner of nimble yet hollow wit.

I can’t say my own poetic temperament is steadfastly like Larkin’s, or that my compositions tend toward the saucily bleak. But if I read one of his poems (or any of his poems) on the right day, it hits. My son’s ex-girlfriend’s sister, a drug addict, not long ago fell asleep in her car while babysitting her parents’ puppy. It was an extremely hot day. By the time she woke up, the puppy was dead. Genuinely, that sort of occurrence could lead one to rend one’s hair in the fashion of Antigone. My son, tender in heart, was devastated. But it got worse. Yesterday, I called him when he’d been out of touch for a few days. He let me know he had just returned from a funeral in Dallas. That of the drug-dependent sister. Presumably from an overdose, though tact precluded me asking further. I consoled him (and by proxy, everyone else concerned) as best I could.

This morning, I found myself reading Larkin’s “Aubade.” Usually the very title of such a poem turns me away. I find Louise Bogan’s aubade “I do not know how we can bear/The river struck by the gold plummet of the moon,” nothing less than fulsome and preciously maudlin. The word bear reaches too sentimentally heavenward, casting her Atlas-like as she who assumes the world’s burdens. If she were referring to an actual bear, the kind that scoops river water trying to catch salmon, I might give in to her offhand melodrama. But Larkin’s aubade, a meditation on death, with its combination of real fear and a slight nasty streak—consoles. I’d like to read it at somebody’s funeral, even a stranger’s.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

It’s grim, to be sure. Yet he’s not trying to make a political or facilely metaphysical point. He’s not yearningly trying to be profound. He’s punching me in the face to help me come to my senses. He’s lucid, eloquent, scared shitless. No ideological tendency can coopt him. The existentialists wouldn’t let him in their street gang, the one they formed to shake off the impression that separately they’d been bullied and beat up all through their forms of school. The sneering, belatedly macho Sartre, with his faux-leather jacket and thick-lensed glasses masquerading as aviator goggles, would have snubbed Larkin, disinvited him from sitting to smoke Gauloises on the stoop with the rest. Their rejection would have issued from the fact that Larkin would have disagreed that “existentialism is a humanism.” Sometimes warm overtones don’t help you shake off winter’s chill. You just have to accept that it’s fucking cold, colder than a witch’s tit, colder than the grave. If called upon to give a snappy retort, Larkin could do no better than come back with this single-line apologia from “Aubade”: Death is no different whined at than withstood.

I advocate bringing back Larkin’s reputation from the dead, as many times as necessary (as reputations do wax and wane), zombie-style, for truly he is our foremost undead dead poet, disinterring him bodily if necessary, so that his fragile skeleton can parade around with unexpected hardiness making salient points with the epigrammatic speed that was his trademark and biting people when necessary. 

For our poetic culture is deep in the throes of a fatal sincerity.

Everybody wants to complain about Amanda Gorman, as if she really were the chief suspect of mediocre hope-message-bearing homilies about social injustice and other mass dilemmas. But whether it’s Sharon Olds’ Balladz, Ada Limon’s The Hurting Kind, Ocean Vuong’s Time is Mother, or Warsan Shire’s Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, or simply David Lehman’s Best American Poetry 2022, we are in the grip of a self-help, sincere, saccharine uplift, an earnest didactic collective verse lecture on civic virtue that brooks no dissent. It is unwittingly sinister in its rejection of the biting, the satiric, the verbal smackdown, and the intransigent obfuscation of trite, heartwarming faux-hope administered by poets who are the equivalents of a temperance group staring down, beady-eyed, the profligate habitués of a pub who have gone to throw darts at the wall and celebrate the life of their favorite reprobate.

Saeed Jones’s apocalypse-lite “Alive at the End of the World,” unsurprisingly published in The New Yorker and topping recent best-of lists, is exhibit A in this stampede of virtue.

The End of the World was a nightclub.
Drag queens with machetes and rhinestoned

machine guns guarded the red and impassable
door on Friday nights. Just a look at the crowd,

all dressed up and swaying outside, made people
want to yell the truth about themselves to anyone

who’d listen, but no one heard. The End of the World
was loud. The End of the World leaked music

like radiation, and we loved the neon echo, even
though it taunted us or maybe because it taunted us:

kids leaning out of windows hours after bedtime,
cabdrivers debating fares at the curb just for an excuse

to linger, pastors who’d pause at the corner and vow
that if they ever got inside, they’d burn it all down.

Having this guided awakening located at a nightclub with drag queens marks the speaker as tolerant of difference. Putting rhinestones on the machine guns makes the poem dangerous and sassy. Signaling that the patrons want to “yell the truth about themselves” offers a neatly expository gloss on the rest—THIS POEM IS ABOUT TOLERANCE. Don’t forget. By all means lead with theme. That’s the road to subtlety. Music like radiation. An earnest simile, easy to decipher! Neon=hip street cred. Kids leaning out windows mean this is a family-friendly poem, for the people and by the people. The cabdrivers are the common man. The pastors provide a telegraphic villain (don’t be like him, e.g., INTOLERANT). Above all, don’t burn anything down, especially with your words. This is a safe space for language. 

I am more hospitable to Larkin’s notion of wit as a pitchfork. The connotations of deviltry in that metaphor are appealing, suggesting driving out, concisely, brilliantly, the droves of earnest, self-satisfied pretenders crowding the temple/warehouse of virtue that contemporary poetry has largely become. Larkin’s “slender output” by itself is almost enough to achieve that task, if he’s given the full reconsideration he deserves. The onslaught of verse dreck that’s currently overwhelming the culture of poetry desperately needs Larkin’s incisive penchant for putting things as they should have been said in the first place.