“To exact of every man who writes that he should say something new, would be to reduce authors to a small number; to oblige the most fertile genius to say only what is new, would be to contract his volumes to a few pages. Yet, surely, there ought to be some bounds to repetition; libraries ought no more to be heaped for ever with the same thoughts differently expressed, than with the same books differently decorated.”
I thought of Johnson’s common-sensical observation often while reading James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury Press, 2014), and again when reading Joseph Epstein’s review of it in the Wall Street Journal. Epstein reminds us that Larkin “passes the ultimate test of having written poetry that is memorable.” The poet himself reminds us that poetry is “inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having . . .” Not even their most rabid enthusiasts would claim that Stein & Co. give pleasure – too bourgeois, too conventional, reader be damned.
“. . . or the vast most part, far from being depressing, Larkin’s poems, written with a wondrous precision and lucidity, and a comic élan that can produce outright laughter, have the effect of lifting one’s spirits, as truth-telling often does. Not only aesthetically but in just about every other way, Larkin was a man set against his time: modernism in the arts, left-wing politics of the kind that appeals to academic intellectuals, admiration of youth—none of it was to his taste.”
Larkin didn’t make it new; he made it well-written.