I bought the day’s New York Times from the newsstand on the first floor of the Albany County Courthouse, and rode the elevator to the third floor where my newspaper had an office. My beat was courts. The room was narrow, shabby, high-ceilinged and dim, and I generally preferred writing in the main office out in the suburbs. It was Dec. 3 and already cold in upstate New York. The steam radiator banged away as usual without producing much heat. I looked at the Times and learned Philip Larkin was dead. I have few site-specific memories of where I was when I’ve learned of the deaths of public figures – JFK, Louis Armstrong, Bill Evans – but none is so detailed in sense impressions as Larkin’s. I remember the cracks in the wall and the checkerboard linoleum.
For an American, my love of Larkin is of longstanding. I knew little of his private life, and nothing revealed since his death has surprised or offended me. We’re big boys and girls, well-versed in our own failings, so nothing human ought to shock us. The publication two years ago of James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love has helped correct the P.C.-driven post-mortem caricature of the poet that still prevails. “There is, of course, no requirement that poets should be likeable or virtuous,” Booth writes, adding, “Larkin’s negative public image is built neither on his poetry nor on the evidence of those who knew him well.” Read cold and without prejudice, his best poems are evidence of an extraordinarily gifted, witty, sensitive poet and man. If we are honest, we concede that few writers know us so well. In “Larkin’s Voice” (ed. Dale Salwak, Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work, 1989), the American poet X.J. Kennedy gets him just right:
"Unlike the typical American Orphic bard of the moment, Larkin never says, `Behold! I am one hell of a brilliant visionary, and my life is the most important thing in the world – admire me, damn you, or die.’ By contrast, the voice of Larkin, modest and clear and scrupulous, is that of a man who sees himself as just a bit silly. . . . In the end, I think, we love Larkin for admitting to a quality we recognize in ourselves – a certain dull contentment with our lives, for all their ignobility.”
I remember reading Leonard Garment’s memoir Crazy Rhythm not long after it was published in 1997. As a young man he had played tenor saxophone and clarinet in Woody Herman’s band, but is remembered as an adviser to President Nixon, and his special counsel during the final two years of his administration. That a professional jazz musician (and a Democrat) could eventually advise a troubled president is sufficient reason to read his book, but Garment’s closing paragraphs are what I remember best. I’ll transcribe them without context:
“All of us were aging; but all of us were made happy, for a moment immortal, by the sense of completeness and love in the house.
“Philip Larkin had something to say about this [Garment quotes “Long Sight In Age”]:
“`They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves- all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.’
“In the middle of the journey, as Larkin knew more than most, we find ourselves in dark woods where the right path seems lost. But even so melancholy a poet saw for a prophetic moment that at the end of the confusion there is sometimes a clearing in whose sunlight things appear more distinct and precious than ever before.”
Larkin died on this date, Dec. 2, in 1985.