A collection of Clive James’ writing on the great British poet makes for inspiring reading.
James has been describing himself since 2011 as “near to death”, but has outlived the Japanese maple tree that, he wrote in a fine 2014 poem, “[would] be there beyond my time”. He turned 80 this month and for more than half of those years he has been at pains to argue that Philip Larkin was the greatest English-language poet of last century’s second half.
The present volume collects a baker’s dozen of pieces spanning 44 years from 1974, which satisfyingly fill out the knowledge of those who already love Larkin and make an urgent case for everyone else to explore beyond the dinner-party joke of This Be The Verse (“They f--- you up, your mum and dad …”).
Little wonder that James takes aim, with the precision of a marksman, at those who took little interest in Larkin’s poetry when he was alive but have feasted on salacious disclosures about his (actually rather unremarkable) private life since his death in 1985. Reporters for the “lifestyle press”, as he deliciously describes them in a disappointed assessment of Andrew Motion’s biography, had “a marvellous time patronising Larkin as a lonely, furtive, perverted misogynist utterly unlike themselves”.
This is not to say he ignores his subject’s racist utterances (though he notes that none was public); indeed, he faces them head-on, while asking us to consider the duty of genius to be decent. He imagines God saying, “You think [Larkin] was strange? Wait till I introduce you to Michelangelo.”
Mostly, though, James, always peerless as both wordsmith and critic, does a wonderful job not just of praising Larkin, but of showing, by close textual analysis, just how great was his “compressed but always strictly parsable syntax” and how his “urban pastoralism” was both original and influential. Anyone with an interest in poetry or criticism will be enthralled.
SOMEWHERE BECOMING RAIN: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin, by Clive James (Macmillan, $27.99)
This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.