Larkin, prophet of postmodernism

  • Themes: Great Books, Poetry

The Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century English Verse, published fifty years ago this year, is the best expression we have of what Larkin thought poetry could and should be.

A projection of the original manuscript of the poem 'Toads' by Philip Larkin.
A projection of the original manuscript of the poem 'Toads' by Philip Larkin. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, ed. Philip Larkin

Few poets have been as unwilling as Philip Larkin to – in his own words – ‘lay down the law’ on literature. There is no Larkin’s Guide to Poetry, no magisterial Larkin lecture series and definitely no Larkin critical theory. Poetry anthologies, as the historian Clare Bucknell writes in her recent survey, seek ‘to shape… the society in which they are to be read’, and The Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century English Verse, published fifty years ago this year, is the best expression we have of what Larkin thought poetry could and should be. Even here, however, he shied away from making an explicit argument. ‘I’m not a theorist,’ he told his friend Anthony Thwaite. ‘I’m not a critic, I’m not an academic… the selection itself is my preface, if that’s not too metaphysical… I hope it is a broad-minded anthology.’

That ‘broad-mindedness’ had its limits. Larkin’s editor had to bend his arm to include anything by the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (‘I am so averse from his work I can hardly bring my eyes to the page.’) Eligible poets, moreover, had to have been born ‘on these islands’ or have lived in them for an undefined but ‘appreciable’ portion of time, thereby excluding, in one fell swoop, the entire literature of the Commonwealth, as well as the United States. The inclusion of the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, who did not meet either criteria, suggests that someone involved in the book must have known these borders were indefensible, but they will come as little surprise to anyone aware of the poet’s unwillingness to read (or even go) outside the country of his birth, or who has come across the racist language he was, around the same time, beginning to drop into his letters.

For many contemporary reviewers, it was Larkin’s broad-mindedness that was the problem. One complained that ‘the reader is left unable to say… what taste is reflected.’ In a sense, the anthology was not so much the successor to W.B. Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse, the book he had been commissioned to update, but to another influential anthology in the same series, W. H. Auden’s 1938 Oxford Book of Light Verse. Less a book of humorous verse than a celebration of ‘the popular voice’ in poetry, Auden’s provocative collection included everything from ballads and sea shanties to Shakespeare. Larkin picked up where Auden had left off, including poems by the likes of Noel Coward, George Orwell and J.B.S. Haldane. The selections from more professional poets told a similar story: Auden’s poem ‘Night Mail’ written as a commission for a promotional documentary about the postal service, makes an appearance, as do T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats and Journey of the Magi, both of whom (rightly) make the cut at the expense of his Hollow Men.

Larkin’s inclusion of a great deal of so-called light verse was only the start of what begins to look a lot like a concerted effort to undermine the very idea of an authoritative, critical anthology: he also set out to include a wide range of poems which justified their inclusion because they ‘could only have been written in the 20th century.’ Examples included a poem about having cancer [Haldane’s], a poem about being a homosexual [Christopher Isherwood’s ‘On His Queerness’] and ‘a poem – or a part of a poem – about strikes.’ The striking thing about English poetry in the early twentieth century, on Larkin’s reading, was not the arrival of modernism but just how much verse was in dialect, or dedicated to giving voice to the ordinary man or woman: poems like John Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ or E. Nesbit’s ‘The Things That Matter’ (You kept the things straight in my head, / Please God, if you can make it so, / Let me know something when I’m dead.). This kind of interest in social history was not a world away from the research being carried out by Larkin’s colleagues in the postwar universities where he was working as a librarian.

For the most part, history for Larkin meant war: both World Wars, as well as the Cold one. Our idea of the ‘war poet’ is still bound up with rats and trenches, but having spent most of the forties at Oxford, Larkin was well aware of the various ways in which total war conscripted writers, from propaganda to espionage, and he is an instructive guide to what that kind of work does to a poet’s conscience. In Arthur Waley’s, ‘Censorship’, for instance, Waley’s understated, ironical account of the constantly shifting subjects permissible for mention in wartime letters breaks out finally into uncensored despair: ‘What is hard today is to censor one’s own thoughts -/To sit by and see the blind man/On the sightless horse, riding into the bottomless abyss.’

Larkin’s Orwell, meanwhile, grinding out ten stanzas of sub-Byron in a verse-battle with Alex Comfort, is at once familiar and, perhaps, surprising: ‘But you don’t hoot at Stalin – ‘that’s ‘not done’ -/Only at Churchill; I’ve no wish to praise him,/I’d gladly shoot him when the war is won,/Or now, if there was someone to replace him.’

It wasn’t the anthology Larkin set out to collect. In a letter to his friend Judy Edgerton, he explained that he had ‘always vaguely supposed that the by-ways of twentieth century English poetry were full of good stuff hitherto suppressed’ by the arrival of Yeats and Eliot. In conversation with Thwaite this became ‘an English tradition coming from the 19th century with people like Hardy, which was interrupted partly by the Great War…’ The best candidates for this opening were the so-called ‘Georgians’, a group of early twentieth century poets writing in traditional forms and on romantic, often pastoral, themes. Yet, Larkin conceded, having done the research: ‘I find that this isn’t so.’ It was Eliot and Yeats (‘even Pound’) who had ‘sharpened up the language’, while certain Georgians, like Lascelles Abercrombie, hadn’t, he thought, written a single decent poem (though he still felt compelled to include a few of them in the final selection).

Instead, Larkin found he had to take poems on their own terms. J. C. Squire, for instance, was an advocate for the Georgians, but ‘The Stockyard’, perhaps the standout poem in the entire collection, is the opposite of a pastoral lyric: Squire’s long, grotesque, unflinching journey through the industrial slaughter of a Chicago abattoir moves between prose and a variety of metres, while the final image of a bullock on its knees, ‘bewildered, appealing, as against a dread mistake’, is more effective than any animal activist video.

For Larkin, modern poetry was a kind of unruly democracy: after Dylan Thomas, he explained to Thwaite, the anthologist’s ‘loyalty turns perforce to poems rather than to individuals.’ That loyalty to individual poems over individual poets subverted another central pillar of the traditional poetry anthology, which has so often been a manifesto for a particular style or (you do not get one without the other) particular set of poets. One result was the inclusion, alongside the ‘big names’, of a number of poets who are now out of print or otherwise neglected, from Murial Stuart to Molly Holden and Tony Connor. Larkin had also put his finger squarely on the main problem that has faced every anthologist since then: when it comes to poetry, there is no such thing as universality; for better or worse, and probably for both, the days of the authoritative, prescriptive selection are over.

Larkin’s main worry about The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse was that had had projected himself on to the poems. Posterity has tended to agree that he did: only the writer of ‘At Grass’, for instance, could justify quite so many horses. But his selections did not only flatter his own work: they also extended, commented on and at times even challenged it. Thomas Hardy, for instance, to whom Larkin gifted the first twenty-five pages, is the presiding spirit of the entire selection, and Hardy-esque concerns and approaches seep down through the rest of the selection like an ink blot: an attentiveness to sex, death and suffering, a sentimentality, a broad cast of society, and an energetic, idiosyncratic use of traditional forms. You can hear them in the generous selections from Charlotte Mew and Walter de la Mare, in Stevie Smith and Gavin Ewart – they are there in Larkin’s favourite newcomers, the ‘Mersey Sound’ poets Roger McGough and Brian Patten. But this isn’t the Hardy Larkin set out to find, and it isn’t one which maps neatly onto his own poetry: he was always more of a highbrow than he liked to admit.

If not for an accident, Larkin would never have edited the book in the first place: OUP’s first choice of anthologist, Louis MacNeice, died shortly after the commission, aged just fifty-five. But the book that resulted from that tragedy suggests a more complex figure than the anachronism some of Larkin’s critics, and even some of his most ardent admirers, might like to remember: an instinctual conservative who was profoundly sceptical of cultural authority (his own included); a Little Englander genuinely committed to poetry as a popular, humane art; and an opponent of modernism who, in searching for, and failing to find, a neglected English tradition, became one of the first post-modern anthologists.


Jeremy Wikeley