There could well be a quote from a Philip Larkin poem to suit every occasion.
He wrote about the big themes: life, death, love and sex, and the direct, economical and witty way in which he addresses those concerns gives his poetry such a potency that it has crept into our national consciousness.
Most people could probably recite the opening line of This Be the Verse – “They f***k you up, your mum and dad” – which sets out in no uncertain terms the damage that our parents do to us. What makes it so memorable, apart from the profanity, is that it deals in the truth – with humour and without compromise. Others might choose the equally humorous “sexual intercourse began in 1963”, the affecting and bittersweet “what will survive of us is love” or Larkin’s succinct take on mortality, the “sure extinction that we travel to”.
In his new biography of the poet, Philip Larkin Life, Art and Love, James Booth describes This Be the Verse as a contender for “the funniest serious English poem of the 20th century”. “Larkin’s reputation for being dull, downbeat and non-rhetorical in his writing is so untrue,” he tells me when we meet at his home in Hull where in the book-lined front room on top of the piano there is a maquette of Martin Jennings’ Hull station sculpture of Larkin, coat-tails flying as he hurries to catch a train. “He said ‘everyday things are lovely to me’. His poetry is so emotional and gutsy. There is a whole re-evaluation going on and my book is part of that.”
An academic at Hull University until his retirement in 2011, Booth arrived as a young lecturer in the English department in 1968. Larkin was by then already well-established as the university’s chief librarian, a post he held from 1955 until his death in 1985. Although they were colleagues for 17 years, the two men didn’t really get to know each other.
“I got a letter from him once about the library renewal period,” he says, laughing. “He had already got to the stage where he signed his letters with a stamp because so many students were deliberately incurring fines so that they could get his signature.”
Booth was always, however, a fan of Larkin’s work. “I didn’t really have a relationship with him but I had an affection for and feeling of identification with his poetry.”
At the time, with a new generation of writers coming through, Larkin was considered a bit of a relic of a bygone age. “He was like Elgar, too English, too unadventurous,” says Booth. “But I got the two discs of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings when they came out and I would sit in my flat looking out over the cricket pitch as it got dark, listening to Larkin reading his own poems.
“Larkin’s reputation slowly changed and people realised there was no reason to be embarrassed about liking his poetry. In time, of course, I ended up teaching Larkin in the department.”
Booth has written two academic works on Larkin, but his main motivation for writing the biography, he says, was a desire to set the record straight. He wanted to dispel the myth of ‘brilliant poet, horrible man” which seems to have gained currency since the publication in 1992 of Larkin’s Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite, and Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. The two books combined to create an image of Larkin – dour, duplicitous, misogynist, sexist and racist – which has prevailed ever since. It is true that Larkin had a complicated personal life – he maintained relationships with two women for decades without ever fully committing to either and then began a secret third affair in his fifties – but, Booth argues, he was also a loyal friend, a devoted son and a caring employer. Booth takes a more human and measured, less judgmental, approach to the contradictions in Larkin’s personality than Motion did. After all, none of us are without our flaws and we all, to some extent, compartmentalise our lives, though admittedly few would take it to the extremes that Larkin did. And although he may not convince every reader, there is no denying that Booth makes a compelling case for Larkin. “People think he must have been a really unpleasant man but if you read the poetry and the letters with a proper sense of what they are doing, that’s not what comes across,” he says. “Most of the people I have spoken to over the years who knew Larkin say what a sympathetic man he was, what good company he was and how witty and entertaining he could be.”
Booth interviewed, amongst others, the three main women in Larkin’s life – Monica Jones, an English lecturer at Leicester University, Maeve Brennan, a library assistant at Hull, and Betty Mackereth, his secretary. All three were in some sense muses. Larkin’s long-distance relationship with Monica lasted from 1950 until his death, while his relationship with Maeve was never a physical one due to her strict Catholic beliefs, creating a frisson that Larkin appears to have enjoyed and which fed into his poetry. Monica and Maeve knew about each other (Larkin was at least honest in his duplicity) but neither, it seems, knew about Betty, who Larkin seduced in 1975, 18 years after she first became his secretary.
“Up until 1959 the relationship with Monica, who was a very difficult person by all accounts, didn’t have to go on,” says Booth. “People often expressed surprise that he had such a gauche and odd woman as his partner, but then her parents died and Larkin found the emotional strength to console her only because of his relationship with Maeve. That is uncomfortable from a sexual political point of view, but it’s true. And if he had left Monica then, the guilt would have been appalling.”
Larkin’s relationship with Betty was uncomplicated and happy and, Booth suggests, the seduction was a deliberate act on the poet’s part. He had become stuck in his work and the affair with Betty allowed him to write again.
“The Betty poems are some of the best things he wrote,” says Booth. “And he couldn’t have written them if he hadn’t got together with her when he did. Because Betty wasn’t really interested in poetry, she was a muse of a much purer kind and it released him from the tensions in his other relationships.”
Booth counters the accusations of bigotry levelled against Larkin by explaining that he had a chameleon-like quality in relation to his friends, reflecting back to them what he thought they wanted to hear. This is particularly evident in his “laddish” correspondence with his long-time friend Kingsley Amis who he met as a student at Oxford. “One part of him was fed by Amis’s outspoken wit and some of the best quotes from Larkin are in his letters to Amis,” he says. “But what he writes is always in inverted commas, if you like. Monica had her prejudices and he went along with them – he would do anything to avoid conflict. When he writes to Amis or Monica he uses their language – and he does it better than they do. In a way, you could say it’s an excess of empathy that’s done him damage.”
While the unpicking of Larkin’s various relationships is fascinating, an equally important, and pleasing, aspect of the book is Booth’s focus on Larkin’s work. The narrative is peppered with close analysis of many of the poems which doesn’t detract from the life story, so much as enhance it.
Booth says he admires Larkin’s tenacity in sticking to the purity of the lyric form.
“Some of his poems you could translate into Ancient Greek and they would still be the same. That comes from his avoidance of ideology or politics or commitment to moral schemes. He was a decent man who was morally much better than he is given credit for and he was a great writer who always knew where he was going. If he was going to write the universal, common humanity, emotion-based poetry he wanted to write, then politics and ideology couldn’t play a part in it. All really good poets have something of that – the work goes beyond ideology.”
To paraphrase Larkin himself, what will survive of him is his poetry. There is a reason that in a 2003 Poetry Book Society survey, he was voted Britain’s best-loved poet of the previous 50 years – in an interview with The Observer in 1979 he said “I want readers to feel, yes, I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s how it is.”
• Philip Larkin, Life, Art and Love by James Booth, published by Bloomsbury, priced £25 is out now. James Booth will be appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival on October 5. www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk.