Tuesday, March 13, 2018

`Without Contemporary Nonsense'

“Larkin seems to me to write with an amazing directness, which certainly conceals a great deal of art, but always appears just to flow out. He is a poet without contemporary nonsense, including the nonsense of having no nonsense about him.”

The word Anthony Powell brings to mind in his Larkin review is the elastic English monosyllable bluff. As an adjective, Johnson in his Dictionary gives “big, surly, blustering,” but that sense is too overheated for Larkin. The OED suggests a more measured meaning: “good-naturedly blunt, frank, or plain-spoken; rough and hearty.” It’s an old-fashioned English quality, perhaps near extinction, and could be applied to writers as various as Swift, Johnson, Cobbett, Macaulay and Orwell. “Rough and hearty” should not suggest crude or unsophisticated. Anti-Larkinites will mistake his anti-cant stance for "hate."  

More interesting is Powell’s praise for Larkin’s no-nonsense approach to poetry, prose and life. The literary world tends to be present-focused and fashion-minded, blind to tradition and fancying itself a sort of evolutionary culmination, much superior to the benighted past. In fact, it is a provincial village, a cultural backwater. You will note that Larkin’s severest critics are a humorless bunch, impressed with their au courant assumptions about everything, and cite “A Study of Reading Habits” as evidence of the poet-librarian’s philistinism.  

I’ve reread Powell’s Larkin reviews and others collected in Miscellaneous Verdicts (Heinemann, 1990) while reading Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). Larkin and Powell, while we were hardly looking, have become two of the most reliably pleasure-giving writers of the last century.

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