“Larkin Revisited” (BBC Radio 4)

The following review was published in the Spring 2023 issue of the Ver Poets members’ newsletter, Ver Poets Poetry World. To join Ver Poets and receive a free copy of the newsletter together with the other benefits of membership visit their website here.

Larkin Revisited (BBC Radio 4)

By Stephen Claughton

Last August, to celebrate the centenary of Philip Larkin’s birth, the BBC broadcast Larkin Revisited, a series of 15-minute programmes in which the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, explored ten of Larkin’s poems. It’s still available to listen to on BBC Sounds. Larkin himself reads all but one of the poems, albeit to an eerie musical accompaniment that makes it sound as if he is actually addressing us from the other world, and Armitage talks to various people—not only Larkin’s biographer, James Booth, and fellow poets such as Ian McMillan, Hollie McNish, Imtiaz Dharker and Daljit Nagra, but also to less obvious interviewees, including Stephen Bush, Associate Editor of the Financial Times, the novelist, comedy writer and former NME journalist, David Quantick, and Ben Tapley, the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at London Zoo.

Armitage singled out Larkin’s intelligibility and musicianship, together with his rigorous analysis of life, and said he had been trying to square the achievements of the poems with the uglier attitudes—towards race, class and women—revealed in Larkin’s letters. The aim of the programmes was to ‘road-test’ the poems in 2022, at a time when Larkin’s position as a poet of the examination syllabus was being questioned.

While there was little doubt that Larkin’s poetry addressed eternal themes that were still relevant today, Armitage noted that his genius for social detail, as in “Toads Revisited”, could also date a poem, although he later conceded, in relation to “The Whitsun Weddings”, that: ‘the best poems have a peculiar, mercurial power by which they keep on adapting and adjusting to circumstances they could never have anticipated, as if things keenly observed, set down in careful language will always pass the test of time.’ (To someone of my generation, Larkin’s precise evocation of the 1950s is one of his strengths.)

Larkin’s social attitudes were, predictably, more problematic. Joelle Taylor said that she wouldn’t have been able to ‘platform’ him at her Out-Spoken poetry readings in the Southbank Centre, because Larkin’s world was too narrow, though—prompted by Armitage—she thought that if a poem such as “Talking in Bed” were read without the audience knowing it was by Larkin, it would work very well. Sinnéad Morrissey took particular exception to the phrase ‘lucky girl’ in “Born Yesterday”. She’s written her own riposte to the poem. Called “On Balance”, it begins, ‘Even fully grown, / she’d be a “girl” to you. / You rarely mention women’, and contains the lines, ‘I wouldn’t let you near / my brilliant daughter’. However, she recognised that in advocating ordinariness Larkin was, in some ways, addressing himself (Armitage makes the same point about the work-dodgers in “Toads Revisited”) and while objecting to certain aspects of Larkin’s poems, she acknowledged that a few of them were so skilful and transcendent that they had become ‘monuments in the language’.

As well as considering broad themes, the programmes also put specific words, phrases and images under the microscope: ‘girl’ and ‘dull’ in “Born Yesterday”; ‘frank submissive chord’ in “Love Songs in Age” (Armitage asks Quantick to play one); ‘sun-comprehending glass’ in “High Windows”; and ‘listeners to the same seaside quack’ in “To the Sea” (Larkin’s parents met on the beach at Rhyl in the audience of a phrenologist called Arthur Cheetham). Particularly illuminating, I thought, was Sinnéad Morrissey’s take on the arrow-shower image at the end of the “Whitsun Weddings” (‘A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’) In a review of Booth’s biography, the poet and academic, Grevel Lindop, said of this and ‘postal districts packed like squares of wheat’: ‘Interestingly, commentaries on Larkin’s work tend to skirt around both passages, resorting to generalisation rather than admit that the images can’t be properly explicated because they don’t make sense.’ Morrissey, however, thinks that the poem is about the possibility of change (for the better), which makes the image perfectly comprehensible, although memories of the arrow-shower in Olivier’s film of Henry V do rather get in the way of a more literal interpretation of the word ‘rain’.

A key feature of the programmes is the way that Armitage takes the poems out on the road by travelling to different locations. These don’t necessarily have a connection with Larkin himself. Liverpool’s Institute for the Performing Arts was visited for the “Born Yesterday” programme simply in order to get the views of kids from a fame academy on a poem extolling the virtues of ordinariness. (They liked it.) A trip to Larkin’s home city of Coventry was probably inevitable, although Armitage linked it to “Love Songs in Age” simply on the basis that Larkin’s passion for music started in his youth. The Larkins’ house no longer exists, demolished to make way for a ring-road, so we listened to Armitage and local historian, Peter Walters, standing on a footbridge, imagining they were inhabiting the same space that was once occupied by Larkin’s attic or chimney.

I felt sorry for Glyn Maxwell and TLS Poetry Editor, Camille Ralphs, having to set their alarms for 4.15 am just to be able to sample “Aubade” in situ as the sun was rising. On the other hand, it was a neat idea to have Armitage and Toby Litt discussing “Toads Revisited” in Regent’s Park, so that after discussing the poem’s setting in a park (‘Walking around the park / Should feel better than work’), Armitage could move next door to London Zoo and interview the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians about real toads. We then cut to Larkin the librarian and his office in the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University, which seems to have been preserved just as he left it and where Armitage discovered a paperweight in the form of a toad. The toads in London Zoo had struck him as quite nimble and alert, but the paperweight worked perfectly in relation to the poem. (We weren’t told, however, whether the paperweight pre- or post-dated the poem or its predecessor, “Toads”.)

“Bridge for the Living”, which was commissioned for the opening of The Humber Bridge, could hardly have been discussed anywhere other than at the Bridge itself, although it wasn’t obvious why Armitage felt the need to read the last two stanzas from deep inside one of the anchorages. Did he really think that it might ‘throw light on the inner workings of the poem or unearth some of its metaphysical associations’? A bigger mystery is why he chose to include the poem at all. The ten poems cover a reasonable span (no pun intended) of Larkin’s career—one from The Less Deceived, four from The Whitsun Weddings, three from High Windows and two that were uncollected at the time of Larkin’s death. However, there are better poems to choose from than “Bridge for the Living”. It was written for a cantata by the Hull composer, Anthony Hedges, and Larkin was sufficiently self-conscious about it to ask his collaborator to mark their correspondence ‘Personal’. He didn’t want it to be used without the music and significantly, it’s the only poem that we don’t hear Larkin himself reading. The series includes another commissioned poem, “Going, Going”, which prefaced How Do You Want To Live?—a report on the human habitat prepared for the newly-formed Department of the Environment in 1972, and although it’s not among his best (Larkin himself described it as ‘thin, ranting gruel’), it’s better than “Bridge for the Living”, which Booth pointed out takes as its template the far superior “Here”. Perhaps the lure of place was just too much for Armitage. What it does demonstrate is that Larkin wasn’t a public poet and that he was no doubt right to turn down the Laureateship, when it was offered to him on the death of John Betjeman in 1984. (‘I dream of becoming laureate,’ he once remarked, ‘and wake up screaming.’)

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