Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 by Philip Larkin; Farrar Strauss Giroux, New York.
Philip Larkin is a rare thing among literary journalists—his own man. When he edited the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, he filled it with his own eccentric choices, many of them rhymed and often by uncelebrated poets. His own verse, as recent as it is, owes very little to most of the modem masters, unless we are willing to include Sir John Betjeman (as Larkin does) in the Pantheon. Larkin seems to have given up writing verse these days. On the other hand, he writes essays and re views only under compulsion. Required Writing is an anthology of various pieces written over a period of nearly 30 years. They are as cranky and original as his verse or his taste in modern poetry.
Where else will we find a weighty essay on the virtues of Ian Fleming? Or an appreciation of Betjeman’s greatness? Or an essay on Marvell from the perspective of his hometown, Hull? Larkin says what he likes and about what he likes with very little attention to the usual politics of the “arts.” He can do this, partly because he early on decided to work for a living rather than depending on his earnings as a writer or the literary welfare state of grants, awards, and creative writing professorships, In his address “Subsidizing Poetry” he warns against the danger of a campus poet becoming a critic. By studying literature and teaching it, he will in the end be good for nothing except writing about books: “He will become obsessed with poems that are already in existence, instead of those it is his business to bring into being….” The poet has to struggle with more than just his medium of words but with “the fundamental nexus between poet and audience.” All the Arts Council grants, TV appearances, and university lectures succeed in doing is to eliminate that struggle: “The poet is paid to write, and the audience is paid to listen. Something vital goes out of their relation, and I am afraid that something vital goes out of poetry too.” These are unwelcome sentiments. But Larkin is no more acceptable in his judgments on the sacred cows of modern art. He refers repeatedly to the three P’s, the unholy trinity of modernism: Picasso, Pound, and Parker (Charlie), each the creator of an art which “helps us neither to enjoy nor endure.” Modernism will “divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged … it has no lasting power.” He is even more offensive on the subject of America. Explaining why he wouldn’t dare visit the U.S., because of his deafness, he told the Paris Review:
Someone would say, What about Ashberry, and I’d say, I’d prefer strawberry I suppose everyone has his own dream of America. A writer once said to me, if you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast: the rest is a desert full of bigots. That’s what I think I’d like: where if you help a girl trim a Christmas tree you’re regarded as engaged, and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don’t call on the minister. A version of pastoral.
If Larkin ever does come, he should be given the keys to Ft. Wayne, Indiana