“It is only the very young who think the vogue of the moment eternal.”
I know this to be the case because that was my unexamined, self-centered assumption. Thoughts, whims, fashions, impulses, precious opinions, ideologies – all subject to entropy and repudiation, and that’s a good thing. To think at forty the way we did at twelve is pathology – if acted on, even criminal. Not to mature is to wither as a human being.
Late in life, Robert Conquest wrote a memoir, Two Muses, unfinished at the time of his death at age ninety-eight in 2015. His widow and posthumous editor, Elizabeth Conquest, has given me permission to quote from the still-unpublished manuscript. The observation above comes from the chapters Conquest devotes to his friends Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. A protracted vogue among critics of all ages has been to savage both men not for what they wrote but for their personal lives. Conquest is not defensive about his friends nor does he whitewash their behavior. The chapter begins:
“It’s time I should say of Kingsley Amis not simply that he was a better poet, and better critic of poetry, than most—and a fair, though tough controversialist, whether over Pound or Guevara—but more personally, for most of the years I knew him, he was the most enjoyable company ever.”
Testimony any of us would be proud to receive. Conquest, the chronicler of Soviet crimes, had known Amis since 1952 and Larkin since 1955. Amis’s poetry is still underappreciated. Except for a handful of his best novels – Lucky Jim, Girl, 20, Ending Up – it’s his verse I most admire and most often reread. Conquest writes:
“Kingsley was a skilled versifier and, like many other poets, in the obscene and disruptive forms too. . . . Need it be added that this sort of activity is the purest, if not highest, creation? No considerations of money or publication apply. It is truly art for its own sake, taking up time which might otherwise have gone into the next novel. But it may also be thought of as the expression of that superfluity of energy on which a main body of work must subsist.”
One is tempted to go on quoting generously. It’s a shame the memoir will likely never be published. Liddie Conquest assures me she has tried. Her husband, we sense, knows he has nothing to lose in writing his memoirs. He can speak candidly of his dead friends and their critics (I’m tempted to write “enemies”). Of Amis’ work he says:
“One finds in them, rather, the mâle gaîté, si triste et si profonde which Musset saw in Molière. In our literature, it has always been the serio-comic writer who has had the resources really to face the lower depths. Like many men of great vitality, Amis was much opposed to death.”
This is not an old man celebrating himself and singing himself. Conquest’s default mode is acute, often comic observation. As ever, he is a realist without a drop of moony idealism, but he never hesitates to defend Larkin from the self-righteous onslaught of critics and readers. Dismissing the virtue-signaling rot about Larkin’s taste for pornography, Conquest writes:
“The poetry alone, in fact, refutes the biographical dissections. It can be seen as the formal statement on oath of his priorities; and also, as the bringing together into unity and coherence the disparate and contradictory elements in his character.”
The critics of Amis and Larkin often seem naïve, unacquainted with the complicated, contradictory nature of being a human being. Only a psychopath can be reduced to a single, undiluted essence, and even that defies understanding:
“Nowadays it is often held that the internal furies and fads are the essential and overwhelming part of a personality. On the contrary, the crux is the balance and control that, except in cases of near-insanity, imposes itself on, and disciplines, the lower drives, and creates a balance found—in Philip—in poems and personal relaxations. As John Bayley put it of Housman, a certain kind of poet ‘has a duty not to be happy. But for such a poet this can be happiness by other means, deprivation a way of getting in touch. . . becoming himself, his own personality’ Or, to put it another way, in his poetry, Larkin pulled himself together, mediated his tensions into a harmony, which in the most essential way was himself.”
By now we accept that that Larkin, with Richard Wilbur, was the last great poet in English. Here is a posthumously published poem, not among his finest, written by Larkin in January 1960. He knew himself, yes, but he also knew us:
“None of the books have time
To say how selfless feels,
They make it sound a superior way
Of getting what you want. It isn't at all.
“Selflessness is like waiting in a hospital
In a badly-fitting suit on a cold wet morning.
Selfishness is like listening to good jazz
With drinks for further orders and a huge fire.”
In a letter to Monica Jones in 1967, Larkin writes: “I think it is funny the way my idea of happiness is to be listening, part-drunk, to jazz.”
[As to my reader's comment, we can only hope.]