It is often the way that prolific artists and authors do not receive appraisal in their own life; indeed, it may be only after the curtain call when their work becomes recognised and their character celebrated. However quite the opposite is true for one of Britain’s greatest and most controversial poets: Philip Larkin.
Hailed as a literary celebrity throughout most of his adult life, Larkin published four revered poetry collections before his death, as well as being credited with a number of honours from the British Government, and offered the post of Poet Laureate in 1984. It was only posthumously that Larkin’s reputations suffered, with the publishing of Andrews Moen’s first biography: a book that left the poet’s reputation in cinders. Larkin’s wonderfully contemplative ‘quiet–man’ persona that had defined works such as The Whitsun Weddings of 1964 became irreconcilable with the torrid, bitter, porn-addict that his personal correspondences betrayed him to be. Lyrics that has been on the tip of Britain’s lips for over three decades faded and Larkin sank into the past.
This then is the stage that James Booth sets his new biography, Philip Larkin, Life Art and Love on. Booth has worked with the same letters and poetry that Moen used in 1992 to present an entirely different Larkin; a man whose poetry did not hide the darker sides of his personality but rather tried to battle with it. Indeed when looking at the poet’s twenties, Booth emphasises the cathartic nature that both poetry and Jazz had on quelling Larkin’s demons.
The biography takes us from his life at Oxford to his death in Hull and attempts to understand the miscreant character of Larkin, whilst also revelling in his magnificent lyrics. Booth does not shy away from muddling into the world of literary criticism either: the biography is as much about interpreting the poetry as it is about interpreting the man.
Indeed this seems to be the rationale behind the book. Booth is trying to advocate a reading of Larkin that forgets the man behind the magic, emphasising the elegance and wit of his poetry, rather than the faults of his character. Moreover, we learn a great deal about the peripheries of Larkin’s career rather than just his poetic life. His time as a Jazz critic and a novelist capture the attention of Booth and we are told at length about the poet’s successes and failures as a writer. Such experiences become foundational in creating a three-dimensional Larkin.
Whilst the biography succeeds in rekindling the reader’s enthusiasm for Larkin’s poetry, there is something dissatisfying with the conclusions reached. Perhaps this is the fault of Booth’s total exaggeration of Larkin’s ‘darker side’, and this is translated into a tone that feels a touch too defensive. The bottom line is that the biography has left Larkin’s reputations untouched; as a man we question him, as a poet we adore him.
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