Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight by James Booth (auth.)

By James Booth (auth.)

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Sample text

This should feel ‘better than work’; but it doesn’t. Instead of delighting in his freedom he finds himself grateful that he is not like the other visitors to the park: ‘Palsied old step-takers, / Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters, // Wax-fleshed out-patients’, and others too ‘stupid or weak’ to have a job. The price of living without having to make a living is, apparently, loneliness and failure. ’ he intones with horror (CP 147). The poem’s opening lyricism turns with a slight inflection into emptiness and despair: Watching the bread delivered, The sun by clouds covered, The children going home; Think of being them, Turning over their failures By some bed of lobelias… 42 Philip Larkin The poem is, however, no conservative call to the reader to get on his or her bike.

Money, personified in the poet’s quarterly bank or dividend statements, ‘reproaches’ him: ‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully? I am all you never had of goods and sex. ’ You are making a living, money tells him; so why are you not living? But the poet cannot understand how to construct concrete happiness out of the abstract happiness of his money. He looks at what other people do: They certainly don’t keep it upstairs. By now they’ve a second house and car and wife: Clearly money has something to do with life.

To speak of the ‘profession of poetry’ is to evoke contradictions. Either the poet should not stoop to the level of a professional, or he or she is deluded to aspire to it. On the one hand Christopher Ricks can speak of the ‘more-than-profession of artist’,3 on the other hand Larkin’s linemanager, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull, jokingly complained of paying the poet ‘a librarian’s salary to write poems’ (Motion 302). One may devote one’s life to poetry. But this is not the same thing as devoting one’s ‘working life’, full-time, to a profession.

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