It’s the birthday of English poet Philip Larkin (1922) (books by this author), born in Coventry, England, and best known for his clipped, spare poems that explored post-war England. Larkin’s father was a city treasurer and a Nazi enthusiast; his mother was pathologically anxious, and she homeschooled Larkin until he was eight years old. Larkin had poor eyesight and a stammer that persisted into adulthood. He sought refuge in books and wrote stories every night. His father introduced him to the works of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. Larkin was convinced at first that he would be a novelist, and by the time he enrolled at Oxford (1940), he’d already written five full-length novels, but destroyed them.
At Oxford, he studied literature and found his footing with friends like Kingsley Amis and John Wain, with whom he drank and stayed up late at night, talking about books and listening to jazz records. He became such good friends with Amis that when Amis was writing his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), Larkin advised him on the manuscript. Amis was so grateful that he dedicated Lucky Jim to Larkin and they became lifelong friends. After graduating from Oxford, he was turned away from military service because of his eyesight, so he joined the staff at a small public library in Shropshire and completed two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). He also published his first collection of poetry, The North Ship (1945), which received good reviews. Larkin tried to write another novel, but he simply couldn’t finish it. He said, “I didn’t choose poetry; poetry chose me.”
Philip Larkin spent more than 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull. He was intensely private, rode a bicycle to work five days a week, 45 weeks a year, and published only four short volumes of poetry in his lifetime, fewer than 100 pages total. His collections include The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and The High Windows (1974). He wrote first with a pencil in a notebook and then typed his poems and revised them. In a rare interview with The Paris Review, he declared his writing routine to be, “Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings.”
Larkin never married and lived alone, cultivating a curmudgeonly, glum persona. He once said: “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any — after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think? Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
Larkin never traveled to America and never gave readings of his poems, though he did consent to recording them once, an experience he regretted. He said a poem “represents the mastering, even if just for a moment, of the pessimism and the melancholy, and enables you, you the poet, and you, the reader, to go on.”
He liked detective stories by Dick Francis and Gladys Mitchell, and when Kingsley Amis said he was likely to be nominated for poet laureate, Larkin responded: “I dream about that sometimes — and wake up screaming. With any luck, they’ll pass me over.” He declined the position when it was offered, but remained England’s best-loved poet.
When asked how a young poet could know if his or her work was any good, Larkin answered: “I think a young poet, or an old poet, for that matter, should try to produce something that pleases himself personally, not only when he’s written it but a couple of weeks later. Then he should see if it pleases anyone else, by sending it to the kind of magazine he likes reading. But if it doesn’t, he shouldn’t be discouraged. I mean, in the 17th century every educated man could turn a verse and play the lute. Supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn’t make Wimbledon? First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God.”