BBC Radio 4 ran a series of fifteen minute programmes last week, after The World at One, on the poetry of Philip Larkin (1922 – 85). It is the centenary of Larkin’s birth. As so often, centenaries become a raison-d’être for programming. Each programme took a poem and discussed it. I didn’t hear them all, but I picked up Aubade, Toads Revisited, Going Going, and The Whitsun Weddings. Larkin reads his own poems beautifully. For the rest, the discussion, the analysis, I could have done without it. And I could certainly have done without the ghastly musical drivel – I say “musical”, but it was just drivel – the programme’s producer felt compelled to superimpose upon Larkin’s mellifluous tones. But musical drivel is all-pervasive in broadcasting. I suppose it reflects the programme-makers’ terror of “dead air”. They even do it to Professor Brian Cox, whose explanations of the wonder of the universe need to be augmented by a sound track designed to inform you, “This is pretty awesome.” The producers don’t trust the listener to sit in quietude, and concentrate. Rather the listener’s consciousness must be inculcated with “mood”. So they talk about “mood music”. No thank you. I will respond to whatever’s on offer with whatever mood I choose. (It’s the sort of thing Philip Larkin might have said.)
So I would rather they had let Larkin recite The Whitsun Weddings, and leave it at that. I’ve grown weary of criticism. Somebody once asked T. S. Eliot what was the meaning of the line in Ash Wednesday:
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
And Eliot replied, “It means:
“Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.”
Eliot has a reputation for being a poor reciter of verse, which I think is quite unfounded. He too reads beautifully. He doesn’t “act”. He merely recites. Have you ever noticed that, if you flick the radio on and chance upon a conversation between two people, you can immediately tell whether you are listening to a radio play, or a real conversation in real time between real people? This is because, in the case of drama, the participants are “acting”. In fact, in the vanishingly rare occasion in which the thespians manage to conceal their craft utterly, the effect can be quite overpowering, and not a little unnerving. Michael Caine can do it. In front of the camera, he seems to be doing nothing at all. Brian Cox, in his autobiography – the actor not the scientist – is a little disparaging of Caine’s technique, but surely that is because the machinations of technique have so completely vanished. Caine’s depiction of vulnerability in Educating Rita, or The Quiet American, is more than convincing. It simply is. Who else can do this? Her Majesty. Her depiction of herself meeting Mr Bond at the 2012 Olympics was flawless. It’s not easy to portray yourself.
Musicians can also be guilty of portentousness. Pianists, I venture to say, are the worst, and Chopin, that least portentous of composers, is the composer who suffers most from it. Misplaced rubato and crocodile tears.
Just as portentous acting can smother the vessel of a poem in redundant barnacles, “criticism” seldom does much to enhance the original. Is there anything more soul-destroying than a GCSE sample-paper on English Literature? Who is the lady Eliot is addressing? Why are there three leopards and not two, or four, and why are they white? Why is the tree a juniper tree? This kind of close textual analysis by diktat, and its implication that the examiners know what they are talking about, is anathema to any true response to literature. They had much rather have asked, “Choose a poem you have enjoyed reading and say what you like about it.”
Aubade is a powerful poem, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. Larkin might have entitled it, “Timor mortis conturbat me”. I can’t help feeling that if he hadn’t gone to bed half-drunk, he wouldn’t have felt so bloody awful at four o’clock in the morning. I don’t know if GCSE would regard that as a valid piece of criticism. Yet all criticism need not be adverse. For me, the magic of Larkin lies primarily in the extraordinary vividness of the imagery. But I don’t want to turn into a critic. The lines speak for themselves. From Aubade:
…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring…
In Toads Revisited, Larkin observes, I think rather with compassion than with disdain, the unemployed killing time in the local park:
Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias
Going Going is a lament, ahead of its time, for an England vanishing under a heap of detritus:
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be so hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.
The Whitsun Weddings is, amongst other things, a fantastically vivid view from a swiftly moving railway carriage:
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
Then the poet notices what is in the shade rather than in the sun:
An uncle shouting smut…
Larkin has a reputation for being misanthropic but it seems to me that, if he is deprecatory at all, he is self-deprecatory. Look at the way he purportedly missed out on the Annus Mirabilis –
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L. P.
What would GCSE have to say about that?
Why did sexual intercourse begin in 1963? Who is Chatterley, and what connects her to Please Please Me?
Gimme a break.