The Complete Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
768 pp., 28.00
Philip Larkin died when I was 18 years old. At that time I had been reading his work for just over two years, collecting the slim Faber & Faber volumes and memorizing some of the shorter poems. Why a curmudgeonly, reclusive librarian living in Hull, England, and penning such misanthropic lines as "Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And don't have any kids yourself" should have appealed to a teenager like myself, I can't really say. I loved, I guess, the music of his lines. And there was a certain compelling mystery to the way Larkin ended some of his more famous poems, such as "The Whitsun Weddings"
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow shower
Sent out of sight somewhere becoming rain.
or "High Windows"
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Whatever the reason, I was a fan of Larkin's work from a young age, and continue to be, to this day. Since I first memorized "The Trees," not a spring has passed without my reciting the poem either to myself while I walked in the woods, or to my wife at home, or to students in poetry writing class. The ambivalence contained in the single line (describing budding leaves), "Their greenness is a kind of grief," can stand up to three decades of re-reading, easily.
I'm not alone in my appreciation of this poet. Surveys from England's Poetry Book Society (in 2003) and The Times (in 2008) found that readers considered him the country's "best-loved poet" and "greatest post-war poet" respectively. In just over a quarter century since his death, interest in Philip Larkin has, if anything, grown. Recently two statues—one of Larkin striding down the concourse of the train station and another of him in amphibian likeness, a nod to his poem "Toads"—were erected in his adopted hometown of Kingston on Hull, where he lived and wrote almost all of his work. Both in response to and fueling this interest, an impressive Larkin literature has since emerged. It includes biography, critical scholarship, letters, and collected poems. Last year Farrar, Straus and Giroux released Larkin's Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett. As soon as I heard the news I ordered a copy, naturally.
My first impression, to be honest, was disappointment. I opened the package and saw the black-and-white photograph on the cover. There he was: Philip Larkin, mostly bald, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, dressed in a v-neck sweater and tie, resting his bare knuckles on a park bench near a shipyard, and looking like the world's most boring middle-aged library administrator. But it wasn't his likeness that made me not want to open the book. I know from multiple readings of his work that no one writes more interesting poems about life's dull moments than the author of such masterpieces as "Church Going," "Mr. Bleaney," and "Dockery and Son." What put me off was the book's massive size. During his lifetime, Larkin published four volumes of verse, none of them quite reaching fifty pages. The modesty of his books, as physical presences, prepared the reader for the poems inside. Holding a copy of The North Ship, his first-published collection, you begin by feeling thinness, a proper prelude to the poems' meditations on diminished joys and the need for lowering one's expectations. The Complete Poems, on the other hand, sat like a monument on my bookshelf, where I placed it for later. When I got up the gumption to tackle a tome.
I think it matters—the conditions under which you encounter a poem. An analogy might be drawn to artwork—how it's framed, where it's hung, what the light in the room is like, how much space separates it from its nearest neighbor. When, eventually, I browsed through Complete Poems, I discovered that not only were there three quarters of a thousand pages before me, but they were super-thin pages, like you find in a Norton literature anthology. Similarly, the poems are crammed together; often a new one begins on the same page as another; sometimes three poems are forced to bunk in the same bed. I found myself going back to the single volumes I've kept in my library since early days of college. Ah, "Days," one of my favorite poems, gets a whole page to itself and its ten lines. "Take One Home for the Kiddies" at only eight lines receives the same privilege. At first I couldn't understand why Complete Poems hadn't done the same, why it had to be "The Complete Congested Poems." But then I saw what I should have realized from the beginning. This book was not meant for reading Philip Larkin, but for studying him.
I needed that realization to appreciate (as I do now, very much so) the careful and thorough scholarship that went into this work—a work that will most likely stand as the definitive edition of Larkin's poetic oeuvre. In his introduction, Archie Burnett states the case for creating The Complete Poems. He notes that the book might seem superfluous since the world already has two editions of Philip Larkin: The Collected Poems (1988 and 2003) as well as Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005). But these works contain errors, especially the last, in which Burnett finds "72 errors of wording, 47 of punctuation, 8 of letter-case, 5 of word-division, 4 of font and 3 of format." Well, of course, accuracy matters—especially with poetry! I want to read the poems exactly as Larkin intended them to be read, and I value the commitment that Burnett and his assistants have shown in checking and re-checking each poem against originally published and archival sources. It must have been a slow, painstaking process. That we now have all of Larkin's complete poems—every single poem that, based on previously published versions, workbook drafts, typescript pages, and personal letters, he himself considered "finished"—and have them in a trustworthy form is, in itself, more than worth the cost of the book. That is, if you love Philip Larkin as I do. If you aren't already a fan, I would recommend beginning with one of the single volumes published during his lifetime, preferably his second collection, The Less Deceived (1955), which is where Larkin finds his mature voice.
Besides providing accurate texts, The Complete Poems offers something else that I found valuable. I could call it the book's built-in scholarly apparatus, but in truth it's more of a scholarly warehouse—or, better, a gold mine. For each poem, the book provides a detailed commentary based on the many sources made available in the years since Larkin's death. Burnett draws from letters Larkin wrote to his friends, interviews that he gave for the BBC and elsewhere, literary and cultural influences—some of which Larkin acknowledged and others he didn't—as well as an assortment of biographical facts now established by multiple studies. Reading these notes gave me insight into poems I've read dozens of times. "This Be the Verse," for instance, which I memorized in part because its first line contains the f-word and the shock of seeing it in a poem made a lasting impression on my teenage mind, receives a two-page note. Reading the note I discovered that, as I suspected, Larkin intended the shock-value of that first line, but what I didn't know is that he wouldn't have been satisfied with mere shock. The note quotes him as saying, "I've never shocked for the sake of shocking …. [The line] is funny because it's ambiguous." I went back to the poem and read it again, for something like the 100th time. Suddenly, I saw the ambiguity I'd missed all those previous times.
Along with the rich commentaries, Burnett also offers a window into the making of the poems. Through a study of Larkin's early drafts and corrected typescripts, Burnett shows us the variant wordings that Larkin tried out before arriving at his final versions. He also provides dates for when Larkin began and ended individual poems, details for locating the sources in Larkin's archives, and an estimate of how many workbook pages each poem took before the poet called it finished. Going back and forth between Larkin's poems and the editor's extra-poem commentaries, I felt as though I were observing the work in its organic unfolding. I could not have this experience without the editor's assistance. In a very real sense, though, I wasn't reading the poems so much as studying them.
This reminds me of an answer Larkin gave to the Paris Review in 1982 when asked about the poets he studied: "Oh, for Christ's sake," Larkin replied, "one doesn't study poets! You read them, and think, That's marvelous, how is it done, could I do it?"
I'm not sure if Larkin would approve of being another poet's subject of study. Probably not. But after living with The Complete Poems for several weeks now I've decided that, read or studied, Philip Larkin is a poet to be enjoyed. Over and over.
Thom Satterlee is Writer-in-Residence at Taylor University. He is the author most recently of a novel, The Stages, available as an e-book. His most recent translation is a volume by the Danish poet Per Aage Brandt, These Hands (Host Publications).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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