Friday, August 09, 2013

`A Merry-Go-Round, Not a View to a Death'

Just as we prefer our friends to be friends, for that cozy sense of closing the circle, so are we reassured when the writers we admire agree to admire one another. Henry James disapproving of Edith Wharton, or vice versa, would violate the natural order of things and prompt us to reexamine our judgment. Here is Philip Larkin in 1984 reviewing The Middle of My Tether, a collection of essays by Joseph Epstein: 

“Epstein is a great deal more sophisticated than they [English essayists “in the Addisonian line of succession”] were, and a great deal more readable. His subjects are tossed up, turned round, stuck with quotations, abandoned and returned to, playfully inverted, and finally set back on their feet, as is the reader, a little breathless but quite unharmed. But it is essentially a merry-go-round, not a view to a death.” [Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 2001] 

We hear the distinctive Larkin critical voice – tart, witty, obliquely dissenting from fashionable literary tastes – in the service of capturing Epstein’s manner. There is, in other words, a complimentary resonance, a cozy closing of the circle. The writer has discovered a temperamental affinity in his subject. His reaction is not nepotistic bootlicking but – what? A sense of confirmation that one is not alone or deluded? Relief at finding a kindred spirit? All of the above and more? 

Nine years later, after Larkin’s death, Epstein reviewed Andrew Motion’s     Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. He notes that Larkin composed “a small number of perfect poems” and credits him with evolving a poetic manner readers immediately identify as “Larkinesque.” He goes on to write as fine an encomium as I know to any poet: 

“Through self-mockery, comic derision, a fine firm control of language, a nicely subdued sense of lyricism, and an impressive talent for facing awkward and unpleasant facts, Larkin took poetry away from the academics and brought it back within the grasp of the intelligent ordinary reader who looks to poetry for insight, delight, and even consolation.” [“Mr. Larkin Gets a Life,” Life Sentences: Literary Essays, 1997] 

In 1988, in “Who Killed Poetry?” -- his famously contentious and accurate essay published in Commentary – Epstein quotes Larkin with approval and cites him (along with Elizabeth Bishop and L.E. Sissman) as among the rare recent poets whose work he admires and enjoys. And earlier this year, in advance of the annually observed death watch of National Poetry Month, Epstein writes, in more qualified terms: 

“Philip Larkin, who may not have been a major poet, at least created some memorable but not necessarily newspaper-publishable lines and phrases: `They [you-know-what] you up, your mum and dad.’” 

In his 1961 review of Charles Delaunay's life of Django Reinhardt [Jazz Writing: Essays and Reviews 1940-84, 2004], which carries the Johnsonian title “Lives of the Poets,” Larkin pushes aside poets and other writers to make way for jazz musicians, our rightful representatives: 

“In a way it has been the jazzman who in this century had led `the life of the Artist.’ At a time when the established arts are generally accepted and subsidised with unenthusiastic reverence, he has had to suffer from prejudice or neglect in order to get the unique emotional language of our age recognised.” 

Larkin, too, made a memorable contribution to the “unique emotional language of our age." He was born on this date, Aug. 9, in 1922, in Coventry, and died in 1985 at age sixty-three in Kingston upon Hull.


Roger Boylan said...

Thanks, Patrick. I missed this one, and I love Larkin.

Unknown said...

Epstein's prose and Larkin's poetry. Mmmmm as Homer Simpson might say.

Epstein credits Larkin with just a handful of perfect poems, just as Larkin says of Emily Dickinson (I think he allowed her 7). Certainly, "Aubade" is a masterpiece of unending delight. Follow "Churchgoing", "Whitsun Weddings", "Mr. Bleaney", "The Old Fools", "An Arundel Tomb", "The Trees", "First Spring" -oops, I'm up to 8 already. I wonder if 50 might still be considered a "small number"?

Epstein's essays are, as Larkin says, full of marvelous qualities. As a reader, it is nice to be treated in such a way. His longer works, such as his book "Friendship", are perhaps less successful, merely above average.

This collegiality or kindredness of spirit between writers, and readers, is a wonderful thing. If Lewis was right in saying that we read to know we are not alone, then your blog goes a long way to dispelling loneliness.