“Actually, I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through my writing.”
Those who judge human nature an uncomplicated affair find humor and seriousness inconsistent. To be funny is to be frivolous and to be serious is to be – what? Grown-up? Smart? Sophisticated? Numbingly earnest, I should think. Humorlessness appears to be metastasizing across the body politic. A reader has admonished me for enjoying and writing about Philip Larkin, and especially for finding him funny. There’s nothing new about this reaction. The warriors of virtue will always disapprove, which merely adds a complementary layer of mirth. My reader writes: “There’s nothing funny about making fun of people.” On the contrary: few things are funnier. A writer’s job is to write well, not to serve as a cheerleading squad. Making fun of the deserving is a solemn obligation.
In All What Jazz (1985) Larkin refers to Miles Davis as “his usual bleak self, his notes wilting at the edges as if with frost,” and to one of his live albums as “an experience in pure duration.” He describes Erroll Garner’s “baroque floridity” and a live Bill Evans date as “more forthright, less Pierrot-and-Columbine.” All are from reviews that are positive but nuanced. I would describe myself as a longtime admiring, non-worshipful listener of Davis at his best, and a lover of Garner and Evans. Literal-minded readers of Larkin, beware.
The passage quoted at the top is from an interview Larkin gave the Observer in 1979. It’s a first-class performance described by his biographer, James Booth, as “sincerity and irony blended in an inscrutable mix.” For instance:
“I read everything except philosophy, theology, economics, sociology, science, or anything to do with the wonders of nature, anything to do with technology – have I said politics? I’m trying to think of all the Dewey decimal classes. In point of fact I virtually read only novels, or something pretty undemanding in the non-fiction line, which might be a biography. I read almost no poetry.”
You can hear the sophisticates tut-tutting. Readers and critics are unaccustomed to poets and other writers who are funny and who speak in varied voices. Humorlessness among poets takes many forms – pretentious incoherence (Charles Olson), pathological self-infatuation (Sharon Olds), gibbering daftness (Ezra Pound). It’s almost absent in Larkin, who isn’t afraid to give his readers a good time. In a record review from 1963, in which he celebrates the joy that was Fats Waller, Larkin expresses “a weakness for the entertainers of jazz (as opposed to more sombre characters who suggest by their demeanour that I am lucky to hear them).” The performances on the reissue Larkin is reviewing are middling, he says, but “what saves them is the clean, ringing professionalism of the playing, the energy and good humour, and the moments of irresistible charm.”