Curriculum Vital

    The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, chosen by Philip Larkin

    Which event of the year 1966 would you say was the more propitious: England winning the World Cup, or Dan Davin, of the Delegates of Oxford University Press, asking Philip Larkin to edit a successor to W.B. Yeats' Oxford Book of Modern Verse?

    The two moments have several things in common. England's World Cup victory meant that the country that invented football was now officially the best at it, while the choice of Larkin as heir to Yeats was proof (if any were needed) that Hull's most famous resident was the foremost critic of English-language poetry, if not the language's finest poet. Yes, whether you liked football or verse (or both, like Alan Ross, whose poem 'Stanley Matthews' made Larkin's final cut), England was the place to be in 1966. Sadly, since that momentous year the country has produced neither a World Cup winner nor a poet on a par with Larkin.

    There is an inverse relationship between this decline in quality and the significant injection of cash into each discipline. Premier League footballers have never enjoyed such high salaries; and today's poets can choose from a plethora of poetry awards from which to fund a decent meal. It's a glitzier world, but not always a better one, something Larkin warned of. 'I listen to money singing', he writes in 'Money',

    It's like looking down
    From long french windows at a provincial town,
    The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
    In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

    Yes, it is acutely depressing to think both that England may never win another World Cup (match) and that there may never be another spotlight-shunning master of verse in the mould of Larkin. Worse still, even if such a poet does emerge and is called on to compile the sequel to Larkin's anthology, he or she will have to operate in a framework restricted to the point of asphyxiation.

    Sensing the magnitude of the project he was about to accept, Larkin took two liberties that reduced his task from the Sisyphean to the merely Herculean: he narrowed the definition from the unwieldy term 'modern' to simply '20th century'; and he took the term 'English verse' to mean, as he writes in his preface, 'verse written by writers born in these islands (or resident here for an appreciable time)'. Though the latter might be deemed a controversial criteria (even before the days of Scottish referenda), it offered Larkin some much needed scope. As we shall see, the man who never married found little to excite him in the world of modern poetry. 

    Irish people tend to take a dim view of the term 'these isles' when uttered by an Englishman, especially an Oxford alumnus, but to be fair to Larkin, Yeats set himself the same parameters, albeit under the more diplomatic term 'Anglo-Irish.' The two men also made some controversial omissions, Wilfred Owen for Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett for Larkin.

    In explaining his decision on Owen, Yeats wrote:

    I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war... The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy—for all skill is joyful—but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.

    It's a poetic justification, though somewhat negated by the fact that Yeats did opt for Siegfried Sassoon. By contrast, Larkin in his preface offers no specific justification for not choosing two of Ireland's best known poets.

    In the case of Heaney the reason may appear to have been timing. In a letter to Judith Luna of OUP in November 1982 about a possible revision of the anthology, Larkin wrote, '[S]ince its cut off date (1966) not very much has happened in English poetry. I should have to put Seamus Heaney in, and expand the entries for writers already represented such as Ted Hughes...'

    This must mean that Heaney's first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which won four awards following its publication in 1966, came just too late for consideration. Case closed.

    But wait. Larkin selected five poems that were published after his nominal cut-off year. Why, then, could he not find room for the Ulster man's work? The answer lies in a number of other letters found in The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, edited by one of Larkin's friends, the English poet Anthony Thwaite. They show that, far from lamenting Heaney's late arrival on the scene, Larkin was probably glad to have an excuse not to include him.

    In October 1969, the year Heaney published his second collection, Door into the Dark, Larkin wrote to a friend, 'The listener called him [the poet Douglas Dunn] 'the best poet since Seamus Heaney', which is like saying the best Chancellor since Jim Callaghan.' This dim view had not abated when in 1981 Ted Hughes asked Larkin, Heaney and Charles Causley to join him in judging the Arvon Poetry Competition.

    The four men spent two days together evaluating the several hundred finalists, a process that left Larkin feeling that he 'had no idea 'how to read a poem'; either that, or no one had any idea how to write one.' Faced with what he regarded as an unremitting tide of tedium, he grew increasingly aghast at the idea that 'someone is going to get FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS for some utter ballacks.' A winner was eventually chosen, but Larkin maintained that he wouldn't have paid '10p' for any of the entries.

    Fittingly enough, first prize went to the man who wrote both the foreword to this edition of Larkin's anthology and a biography of the man himself, Andrew Motion. Following the announcement, Larkin wrote a polite letter of congratulation to Motion, only to claim two weeks later in a letter to a friend that he 'couldn't make head or tail' of 'Kneeless' Motion's winning poem, a rather unkind reference to the future Poet Laureate’s arthritic condition. Larkin then added, 'I was a bit cross at famous Seamus's implication that we were all in agreement. I had said explicitly that I didn't mind being outvoted, but the choice mustn't be presented as a unanimous decision.' In another letter that month, Larkin referred to Heaney as 'Seamus the Gombeen Man,' an apt if predictable insult from one who so resented handing over money. The real problem wasn't usury, though, but taste. 

    In a letter to Thwaite (a ‘Movement’ poet whose best work came after 1966, but who nevertheless has three excellent entries in the book) a few months after the painful panel experience, Larkin wrote, '[I]n confidence, I can't go much of the way with Douglas [Dunn] – his things seem heavy to me, no lilt, no ear, no tune. Of course that goes for lots of people – S. Heaney, for one. Practically everyone under 50.'

    The lack of 'lilt' might explain that other big absentee, Samuel Beckett, but it’s more likely that the author of Waiting for Godot lost points for living in Paris and writing as much in French as in English. 'I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile,' wrote Larkin in 1982 in an interview with (ironically) The Paris Review. 'Deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant.. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever. Hautes Fenêtres, my God! A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him.'

    Beckett fans might deem this a tad hypocritical given that Larkin included nine poems by T.S. Eliot, with all their sprinklings of Greek and Italian and German. In any case, let us continue to focus on who is in rather than who is out. Eliot is one of nine poets to have nine or more poems among the 584. The others are Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Sir John Betjeman, Robert Graves, D.H. Lawrence, Edward Thomas, W.B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. 

    Of the few women who make it, only Elizabeth Jennings reaches five poems, the same number as Ted Hughes. Although she became part of the Movement a few years before Hughes, Jennings might have considered it a compliment to be on equal footing with the man who would become Poet Laureate in 1984 (after Larkin had declined the offer). However, Larkin’s letters reveal that while he found Hughes’ musings on death rather tedious, Jennings had “an individual note” that he quite liked. Unfortunately, by the late 70s he felt she was writing 'too much, too loosely, bothering too much about Art and Religion.'

    Whatever they lack in quantity, though, the women make up for with quality: Jennings’ ‘One Flesh’ ('Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion / How cool they lie'); Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’ ('When I am an old woman I shall wear purple'), her only entry, is more meaningful than any of the five by Hughes (though Hughes fans should be happy he's included at all: judging by his letters, Larkin had even less regard for Hughes' poetry than he had for Heaney's); and in ‘Microcosmos’ Susan Miles achieves a poignancy that few other poets – male or female – can match ('From across the compound creeps a child / Naked and inevitable').

    As with the above, it is often the single entries that surprise and delight most. Alex Comfort and George Orwell’s ‘Wartime Exchange’ is marvellous, as is F. Pratt Green’s ‘The Old Couple’ ('The old couple in the brand new bungalow / Drugged with the milk of municipal kindness'). In such choices we see what Heaney, reviewing the anthology for the Irish Press, identified as Larkin’s 'poetic aspirations and predilections': form, humour, humanity and the odd dose of irreverence. 

    With great modesty, Larkin limited his own contribution (and that of anyone his age or younger) to a maximum of six poems, 'one pretty one, one funny one, one long one, and so on.' If one didn’t know the choices and had to guess, one’s selection for the 'funny' category might be ‘This Be The Verse’ ('They fuck you up, your mum and dad'), ‘Annus Mirabilis’ ('Sexual intercourse began in 1963'), or ‘Self’s the Man’ ('He married a woman to stop her getting away / Now she’s there all day'). Larkin, who spent most of his adult life working as a librarian at the University of Hull, opted for ‘Toads’:

    Why should I let the toad work
      Squat on my life?
    Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
      And drive the brute off?

    Asked in the aforementioned Paris Review interview how he came up with the ‘toad’ as a metaphor for paid employment, Larkin replied, 'Sheer genius.' Fittingly, this 'genius' appears towards the end of the collection. Having spent five mostly vexing years trawling through more than half a century of poetry, the man behind this rich and fulfilling book must have arrived at the conclusion that is obvious to anyone who reads it —20th century poetry reached its zenith with Philip Larkin.


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