Philip Larkin: Rather Than Words
DOI link for Philip Larkin: Rather Than Words
Philip Larkin: Rather Than Words book
It is something of an understatement to say that Larkin’s is a poetry of conservative attitudes. His political sentiments range from the stolidly right-wing to the vituperatively xenophobic. Although he read broadly, no one could have accused him of eclecticism or catholicism in his literary tastes. Early in his career, he rejected what he took to be the stupendous innovations and affirmations of High Modernism in favor of a muted, Late Victorian pessimism. Formally, many of his poems appear to have ignored the twentieth century altogether. His beliefs about what literature could accomplish were limited to a tendentiously narrowed ambition. To affirm that poetry could legislate for mankind or fashion the soul or sing the body electric or propound a supreme fiction would be to invite his contempt. Because he saw the poet’s world as an untransformable world, given not made, he described his avocation as a specific and circumscribed one:
I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think that the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. (Required Writing 79)
As Larkin describes it, experiences of seeing/thinking/feeling place the poet under an obligation. The obligation is to preserve, to keep the experience “from oblivion for its own sake.” This is the positive aspect of the obligation, the obligation to do something. There is a negative obligation as well, an obligation not to do something else. The poet can do no more than preserve. He cannot, Larkin implies, elevate, extrapolate, mythologize, etherealize, or transcendentalize. Preserving, then, requires the poet to be faithful to the experience and only to the experience (whatever faithfulness and experience might prove to mean in this circumstance).