Ian Hamilton

Philip Larkin 

The following interview was first published in the November 1964 edition of The London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. British literary critic, reviewer, editor and publisher Ian Hamilton interviews poet Philip Larkin as one of four interviews, in which he similarly speaks to Thom Gunn, Christopher Middleton and Charles Tomlinson. Larkin achieved critical success with his collections ‘The Less Deceived‘ (1955), ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘ (1964) and ‘High Windows‘ (1974). A librarian at the University of Hull for thirty years, he was offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1984 following the death of John Betjeman but declined.

I would like to ask you about your attitude to the so-called “modernist revolution’ in English poetry; how important has it been to you as a poet?

Larkin: Well, granted that one doesn’t spend any time at all chinking about oneself in these terms, I would say that I have been most influenced by the poetry that I’ve enjoyed–and this poetry has not been Eliot or Pound or anybody who is normally regarded as ‘modern’-which is a sort of technique word, isn’t it? The poetry I’ve enjoyed has been the kind of poetry you’d associate with me, Hardy pre-eminently, Wilfred Owen, Auden, Christina Rossetti, William Barnes; on the whole, people to whom technique seems to matter less than content, people who accept the forms they have inherited but use them to express their own content.

You don’t feel in any way guilty about this, I imagine; would you see yourself as rebelliously anti-modern-you have talked about the ‘myth-kitty’ and so on…

What I do feel a bit rebellious about is that poetry seems to have got into the hands of a critical industry which is concerned with culture in the abstract, and this I do rather lay at the door of Eliot and Pound. I think that Eliot and Pound have something in common with the kind of Americans you used to get around 1910. You know, when Americans began visiting Europe towards the end of the last century, what they used to say about them was that they were keen on culture, laughably keen – you got jokes like ‘Elmer, is this Paris or Rome?’ ‘What day is it?’ ‘Thursday.’ ‘Then it’s Rome’ you know the kind of thing. This was linked with the belief that you can to a view of poetry which is almost mechanistic, that every poem must include all previous poems, in the same way that a Ford Zephyr has somewhere in it a Ford T Model – which means that to be any good you’ve got to have read all previous poems. I can’t take this evolutionary view of poetry. One never thinks about other poems except to make sure that one isn’t doing something that has been done before – writing a verse play about a young man whose father has died and whose mother has married his uncle, for instance. I think a lot of this ‘myth-kitty’ business has grown out of that, because first of all you have to be terribly educated, you have to have read everything to know these things, and secondly you’ve got somehow to work them in to show that you are working them in. But to me the whole of the ancient world, the whole or classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots but dodges the writer’s duty to be original. 

You are generally written up as one of the fathers of this social movement; did you have any sense at the time of belonging to a group with any very definite aims?

No sense at all, really. The only other writer I felt I had much in common with was Kingsley Amis, who wasn’t really at that time known a writer – Lucky Jim was published in 1954 – but of course we’d been exchanging letters and showing each other work for a long time, and I think we laughed at the same things and agreed largely about what you could and couldn’t write about, and so on. But the Movement, if you want to call it that really began when John Wain succeeded John Lehmann on that BBC programme; John planned six programmes called First Readings including a varied set of contributors – they weren’t all Movementeers by any means. It got attacked in a very convenient way, and consequently we became lumped together. Then there was an article in The Spectator actually using the term ‘Movement’ and Bob Conquest’s New Lines in 1956 put us all between the same covers. But it certainly never occurred to me that I had anything in common with Thom Gunn, or Donald Davie, for instance, or they with each other and in fact I wasn’t mentioned at the beginning. The poets of the group were Wain, Gunn, Davie and, funnily enough, Alvarez.

To what extent, though, did you feel consciously in reaction against Thomas, the Apocalypse, and so on?

Well, one had to live through the forties at one’s most impressionable time and indeed I could show you, but won’t, a lot of poems I wrote that you wouldn’t – well, that were very much of the age. I wrote a great many sedulous and worthless Yeats-y poems, and later on far inferior Dylan Thomas poems – I think Dylan Thomas is much more difficult to imitate than Yeats – and this went on for years and years. It wasn’t until about 1948 or 9 that I began writing differently, but it wasn’t as any conscious reaction. It’s just that when you start writing your own stuff other peoples’ manners won’t really do for it.

I would like to ask you about reviews of your work; do they bore you, do you find any of them helpful? In general, how do you react to what is said about you?

Well, one can’t be other than grateful for the kind things that are said. They make you wish you wrote better. Otherwise one tries to ignore it – critics can hinder but they can’t help. One thing I do feel a slight restiveness about is being typed as someone who has carved out for himself a uniquely dreary life, growing older, having to work, and not getting things he wants and so on – is this so different from everyone else? I’d like to know how all these romantic reviewers spend their time – do they kill a lot of dragons, for instance? If other people do have wonderful lives, then I’m glad for them, but I can’t help feeling that my miseries are over-done a bit by the critics. They may retort that they are over-done by me, of course.

You usually write in metre, but now and then you have rather freer poems. I wonder if you have any feeling of technical unrest, of being constricted by traditional forms. Do things like syllabics, projective verse, for instance, have any interest for you?

I haven’t anything very original to say about metre. I’ve never tried syllabics; I’m not sure I fully understand them. I think one would have to be very sure of onself to dispense with the help that metre and rhyme give and I doubt really if I could operate without them. I have occasionally, some of my favourite poems have not rhymed or had any metre, but it’s rarely been premeditated.

I’d like to ask you about the poem, ‘Church Going’, which has been taken fairly generally as a kind of ‘representative attitude’ poem, standing for a whole disheartened, debunking state of mind in post-war England. How do you feel about that poem, do you think that the things that have been said about it are true? How do you feel about its enormous popularity?

In a way I feel what Hardy is supposed to have said about Tess; if I’d known it was going to be so popular I’d have tried to make it better. I think its popularity is somewhat due to extraneous factors – anything about religion tends to go down well; I don’t know whether it expresses what people feel. It is of course an entirely secular poem. I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all. Religion surely means that the affairs of this world are under divine superveillance, and so on, and I go to some pains to point out that I don’t bother about that kind of thing, that I’m deliberately ignorant of it – ‘Up at the holy end’, for instance. Ah no, it’s a great religious poem; he knows better than me – trust the tale and not the teller, and all that stuff. Of course the poem is about going to church, not religion – I tried to suggest this by the title – and the union of the important stages of human life-birth, marriage and death – that going to church represents; and my own feeling that when they are dispersed into the registry office and the crematorium chapel life will become thinner in consequence. It certainly haven’t revolted against the poem. It hasn’t become a kind of Innisfree, or anything like that.

I have the feeling about it – this has been said often enough, I suppose – that it drops into two parts. The stanza beginning ‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ seems significantly different in tone and movement to the rest of the poem and it is almost as if it sets up a rejoinder to the attitudes that are embodied in the first part. And that the first part is not just about religious belief or disbelief, it’s about the whole situation of being a poet, a man of sensibility, a man of learning even, in an age like ours – that it is all this exclusiveness that is being scoffed at in the first half – it is seriousness in general. Somehow the final stanzas tighten up and are almost ceremonial in their reply to the debunkery; they seem to affirm all that has been scoffed at, and are deliberately more poetic and dignified in doing so. In this sense it seems a debate between poet and persona. I’d like to know if you planned the poem as a debate.

Well, in a way. The poem starts by saying, you don’t really know about all this, you don’t believe in it, you don’t know what a rood-loft is – Why do you come here, why do you bother to stop and look round? The poem is seeking an answer. I suppose that’s the antithesis you mean. I think one has to dramatize oneself a little. I don’t arse about in churches when I’m alone. Not much, anyway. I still don’t know what rood-lofts are.

A number of poems in The Less Deceived seem to me to carry a final kick in the head for the attitudes they have seemed to be taking up. In a poem like ‘Reasons for Attendance’, say, where you have that final ‘Or lied’; somehow the whole poem doubles back on itself. What I want to know is how conscious you are of your poems plotting a kind of elaborate self-imprisonment. Do you feel, for instance, that you will ever write a more abandoned, naive, kind of poetry where you won’t, as it were, block all the loopholes in this way? I think this is why I prefer The Whitsun Weddings book, because it doesn’t do this anything like as confidently.

Well, I speak to you as someone who hasn’t written a poem for eighteen months. The whole business seems terribly remote and I have to remember what it was like. I do think that poems are artificial in the sense that a play is artificial. There are strong second act curtains in poems as well as in plays, you know. I don’t really know what a ‘spontaneous’ poem would be like, certainly not by me. On the other hand, here again I must protest slightly. I always think that the poems I write are very much more naive – very much more emotional – almost embarrassingly so – than a lot of other people’s. When I was tagged as unemotional, it used to mystify me; I used to find it quite shaming to read some of the things I’d written.

I didn’t mean that there is not strong personal feeling in your poems, or that they don’t have a strong confessional element. But what I do rather feel is that many of them carry this kind of built-in or tagged-on comment on themselves, and I wonder if you will feel able to dispense with this. I can see how this might mean being less alert, in a way, less adult and discriminating even. It’s probably a stupid question.

It’s a very interesting question and I hadn’t realised I did that sort of thing. I suppose I always try to write the truth and I wouldn’t want to write a poem which suggested that I was different from what I am. In a sense that means you have to build in quite a lot of things to correct any impression of over-optimism or over-commitment. For instance, take love poems. I should feel it false to write a poem going overboard about someone if you weren’t at the same time marrying them and setting up house with them, and I should feel bound to add what you call a tag to make it clear I wasn’t, if I wasn’t. Do you see what I mean? I think that one of the great criticisms of poets of the past is that they said one thing and did another, a false relation between art and life. I always try to avoid this.

I would like to ask you about your novels, and why you haven’t written any more.

Well, because I can’t. As I may have said somewhere else, I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote one, and then I wrote another, and I thought, this is wonderful, another five years of this and I’ll be in the clear. Unfortunately, that was where it stopped. I’ve never felt as interested in poetry as I used to feel in novels – they were more theatrical, if you know what I mean, you could do the strong second-act curtain even better. Looking back on them, I think they were oversized poems. They were certainly written with intense care for detail. If one word was used on page 15 I didn’t re-use it on page 115. But they’re not very good novels. A very crude difference between novels and poetry is that novels are about other people and poetry is about yourself. I suppose I must have lost interest in other people, or perhaps I was only pretending to be interested in them.

There was a review recently in the Times Literary Supplement which gave this portrait of you as being some kind of semi-recluse, almost, deliberately withdrawing from the literary life, not giving readings, talks, and so on. I wonder to what extent this withdrawal from literary society is necessary to you as a writer; given that it is true, that is.

I can’t recall exactly what the TLS said, but as regards readings, I suppose I’m rather shy. I began life as a bad stammerer, as a matter of fact. Up to the age of 21 I was still asking for railway tickets by pushing written notes across the counter. This has conditioned me against reading in public – the dread that speech failure might come back again. But also, I’m lazy and very busy and it wouldn’t give me much in the way of kicks. I think if there is any truth in this rumour or legend, it’s because I do find literary parties or meetings, or anything that considers literature, in public, in the abstract rather than concretely, in private, not exactly boring – it is boring, of course -but unhelpful and even inimical. I go away feeling crushed and thinking that everyone is much cleverer than I am and writing much more, and so on. I think it’s important not to feel crushed.

Of contemporary English poets, then, whom do you admire?

It’s awfully difficult to talk about contemporaries, because quite honestly I never read them. I really don’t. And my likes are really very predictable. You know I admire Betjeman. I suppose I would say that he was my favourite living poet. Kingsley Amis I admire very much as a poet as well as a novelist; I think he’s utterly original and can hit off a kind of satiric poem that no-one else can (this is when he is being himself, not when he’s Robert Graves). Stevie Smith I’m very fond of in a puzzled way. I think she’s terribly good but I should never want to imitate her. Anthony Thwaite’s last book seemed very sensitive and efficient to me. I think one has to be both sensitive and efficient. That’s about as far as I can go. I don’t mean I dislike everyone else, it’s just that I don’t know very much about them.

What about Americans?

I find myself no more appreciative of Americans. I quite liked Lowell’s Life Studies but his last book was all about other poets – well, I think that is the end; versions of other people’s poems are poor substitutes for your own. Occasionally one finds a poem by Donald Justice or Anthony Hecht, but I don’t know enough about them to comment. Actually, I like the Beat poets, but again I don’t know much about them. That’s because I’m fond of Whitman; they seem to me debased Whitman, but debased Whitman is better than debased Ezra Pound.

Do you have many poems you haven’t collected? Are you more prolific than you seem to be?

I’m afraid not. There was a whole period between The North Ship and The Less Deceived which produced a book with the portentous title of In the Grip of Light, which went round the publishers in the middle and late forties, but thank God nobody accepted it. Otherwise I hardly ever finish a poem that I don’t publish.

One final, rather broad question. How would you characterize your development as a poet from The North Ship to The Whitsun Weddings?

I suppose I’m less likely to write a really bad poem now, but possibly equally less likely to write a really good one. If you can call that development, then I’ve developed. Kipling said somewhere that when you can do one thing really well, then do something else. Oscar Wilde said that only mediocrities develop. I just don’t know. I don’t think I want to change: just to become better at what I am.

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