In the April 10, 1965, issue of The New Yorker, Louise Bogan published a joint review of Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead and Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings. Her assessment of the Lowell volume is respectful but tepid. Already, she senses the waning of Lowell’s hypertrophied reputation – a reputation once taken for granted by many of us, now baffling in its former intensity. Her reading of Larkin, on the other hand, is prescient of his present high standing among readers and some critics, English and American. Larkin, she says, “possesses formal gifts that are not only perfectly controlled and strongly sustained but capable of wide and interesting variation,” while saying nothing comparably admiring of Lowell. Here is the sole sentence in which Bogan weighs the two poets directly:
“A contrast with Larkin is interesting here; whereas the British poet was both formal and idiomatic from the first, and at ease in describing his environment, the American had to approach the present by working through circuitous avenues of history and religion.”
An acute reading. With Larkin we sense a direct engagement with recognizable persons, events and situations. His description of Barbara Pym’s fiction – “ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things” – applies to his work, and it’s useful to remember that Larkin started as a novelist. Today, much of Lowell's work isn fussy, show-offy and straining after effects. One can’t imagine him writing autonomous fiction that stands on its own without the scaffolding of the poet’s personality or the secondary framework of politics, personal melodrama and trendy topicality. Bogan says Larkin uses his formal and imaginative gifts
“…to describe the tough realities of his time—those sometimes major and sometimes marginal uglinesses that seem unassimilable in art unless they are caricatured: the hideous, the cheap, the wrecked object; the desolate, the devastated locale. Larkin’s realism (with Hardy behind it) is not inflexibly dour. A profound pessimism exists, but this bleak background is often unexpectedly broken to let through some calm and tender emotion.”
Half the space Bogan gives to Larkin is devoted to its title poem, “The Whitsun Weddings,” which she describes as “one of [his] most striking successes.” It reads like a precisely observed short story, like something Bogan herself might have written. The accumulation of social detail (Bogan praises the “odelike dignity to awkward material”) Larkin lends his poem, and the speaker’ cool withholding of judgment, is staggering:
“…and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”
Bogan says these lines release “a restrained lyricism that reverberates in the classic manner.” She notes his “touches and colorings of feeling [that] keep recurring,” a gift Bogan also possesses in her best poems. For a man who never raises his poetic voice, never shrieks or whines, Larkin's poems are among the most emotionally powerful in the language. Reading him, no matter how often, is always an education in what it means to be human.
Bogan was born on this date, Aug. 11, in 1897, and died on Feb. 4, 1970. The Lowell/Larkin review is collected in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005).