Saturday, May 25, 2019

'Always the Statement of the Simple Fact'

Thanks to Archie Burnett and his edition of The Complete Poems (2012) we have a fair accounting of the work, from smutty ditties to masterworks, produced by Philip Larkin in his sixty-two years. Never prolific, always grudging in evaluations of his own poetry, Larkin left a small body of poems that approach perfection. Now we have the luxury of reading among the poems Larkin chose never to publish (ninety-nine pages of them). Some are eminently discardable, of interest only to Larkin enthusiasts. Others, we find, were worthy of publication. Still others are second-rate poetry but of interest because Larkin was the author, and he was trying out ideas that would later mature into excellent poetry. In that final category is an untitled poem dated “before Sept. 1940” by Burnett, meaning it was written when Larkin was no older than eighteen. The first three lines are unpromising:

“Art is not clever
Art is not willing
Art is rather silly.”

We can already detect the famous anti-pretentiousness and anti-Modernism of Larkin and his pal Kingsley Amis, whom he wouldn’t meet until the following May. As statements, each of the three lines is defensible, but not as poetry. The next stanza:

“And for ever
Art has been recalcitrant
To the searcher who meant
To capture art and glory like a swan.”

This stinks of Yeats, dead a year earlier. The best part of the abandoned poem comes in the final section, especially in the final three lines:

“Art is the performing
Of the single act
Of love or accepted duty;
Is sometimes beauty,
But is always the statement
Of the simple fact.”

Art is not always beautiful (a complex, varied quality). Larkin’s best poems are starkly beautiful, but seldom conventionally pretty. The young poet is declaring himself a realist, perhaps announcing his liberation from the influence of Yeats. One thinks of the phrase Larkin uses to describe death in “Aubade,” his last great poem: “nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”

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