Friday, 27 January 2012

Larkin's influence

In the light of the recent publication of Philip Larkin's Complete Poems, it's interesting to note a changing attitude to his work among contemporary British poets.

Back in the 1990s, emerging figures rushed to reject his verse. For example, Bloodaxe's The New Poetry seemed very much a representative reaction against it. It appeared forever tainted by misogyny, lack of ambition, racism and an insular view of the world, representative of a Britain that was seen as being backward both in poetic and social terms.

In the last few years, however, a certain balance has started to be restored. Few would deny that Larkin's views on certain subjects were distasteful to say the least, but there does seem to be a growing awareness of how he played to the gallery and cultivated a persona, such as in his stage managed pretence that foreign poetry hadn't influenced him. As a consequence, his poems are shaking off the hubris. Their depth of ambition is being acknowledged beyond their simple facade.

This change is noticeable in the number of poets who mention him in interviews. Even if they do so with qualified disparagement, there's an implicit recognition of his importance. What's more, he's also quoted frequently without the poet in question fearing a pigeonholing of his/her poetics. For example, Allison McVety uses an extract from his work at the start of a section of Miming Happiness. In fact, she also quotes from Wallace Stevens elsewhere in the book, showing that both poets can be read alongside each other. 

Well, I myself first fell in love with poetry thanks to Larkin's work. Even back then, I was aware of not sharing much of his world view, but I was captivated by the way he achieved new and precise clarity via a mastery of his particular poetics. His influence is still there in my work, albeit under layers of further reading and experience, just as I now spot him more and more often peeking out from under the stanzas of certain other contemporary British poets.

I'm not hinting at the take-off of some new "Movement", but I do have absolutely no doubt that a fresh perspective on Larkin is at work in parts of new, emerging U.K. poetry, not rejecting or kicking back against other influences in some insular way, but blending and enriching. These are exciting times!


  1. Maybe my reading's over-selective, but in the States too he seems to have lasted the pace. In contrast I rarely see Hughes mentioned (as a poet).

  2. I don't think his political and social views are relevant. But I do think the way he lived was in some ways narrow and insular, and that in his later poetry you can see him running out of freshness and material because of it - there are times he sounds tired, repetitive and altogether like a man who was in a rut, who needed to get out more and do new things.