“How many poets qualify under the night-owl test? When everyone else has gone to bed, how many poets compete successfully with a new recording of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor as accompaniment to the final Scotch?”
If the role of literature were merely social – political, book-clubbable, whatever -- it would long ago have withered away. The true test calls for one reader alone in a room with one book, so honesty has a fighting chance. What do we read when no one is watching, when no one is left to impress? Public announcements of reading tastes and accomplishments are always suspect. Even in a post-literate age, books carry cachet, and readers are no different from fishermen when it comes to boasting. The test Kingsley Amis proposes above, of course, is self-regulated. Why bother lying to yourself? Amis replies:
“In my case, the answer to this question (a more searching and serious one than anything involving hierarchies of merit) is—remarkably few: Housman, parts of Graves, Betjeman, the early Tennyson, the Macaulay of `Horatius’, the early R.S. Thomas, and Philip Larkin.”
Amis’ “night-owl” category is utterly subjective and inarguable, not subject to peer review. We know what bores us (though such books might impress the naïve) and what moves us to stay up too late on a work night (though it might offend sophisticates). Amis describes what the writers on his list have in common: “The quality they share is immediacy, density, strength in a sense analogous to that in which the Scotch is strong.” To his list of “night-owl” prerequisites I would add humor and linguistic interest. Flat-footed writing will never do. Amis’ home-administered litmus test of reading appears in his review of Larkin’s High Windows in the Observer in 1974 (collected in The Amis Collection, Hutchinson, 1990).
My list would start with Larkin. All the ingredients are there: black wit, insight into human folly, technical perfection, often a good story. Housman, yes. E.A. Robinson, J.V. Cunningham, Swift, Richard Wilbur. More than sustenance, call them poetic comfort food, conveniently located on the shelf.