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Required Writing and Further Requirements by Philip Larkin

24 February 2009

Now that I’ve managed to get my hands on the first of these two connected books of pieces by British poet Philip Larkin, I can finally combine these two short reviews into a single post.

Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin begins Required Writing by freely admitting that ‘I rarely accepted a literary asssignment without a sinking of the heart, nor finished it without an inordinate sense of relief’. It may seem an odd opening to this collection of various pieces written over nearly three decades as a poet, author, and jazz aficionado, but it illustrates the sort of disarming (or deliberately blunt, depending on how you regard it) honesty that forms a common, consistent theme across this selection of his works.

Larkin was exempt from service in World War II because of his poor eyesight, so he was able to finish his degree at Oxford University at a time when many of his contemporaries were on active military service or working in war industries or the Civil Service. He all but stumbled into his first library job as the ‘single-handed and untrained’ librarian-caretaker at a small public library in Shropshire, and then moved on to become an assistant librarian at University College, Leicester. Required Writing opens with several autobiographical pieces in which Larkin ruminates on his experiences in these first library positions, along with short introductions to his novel Jill and his poetry collection The North Ship, which reflect on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of these early works. But Required Writing mostly consists of review pieces of specific books or jazz records, along with several general pieces written for occasions such as the announcement of the 1977 Booker Prize. One or two of his general pieces have particular relevance many years later, such as an opening lecture which criticises the British literary establishment’s seeming lack of interest in preserving the manuscripts or collected papers of its greatest living authors and writers. Yet the book is best read as its title suggests: these pieces were requested or required of their author at one point or another, and Larkin brought them together in a single volume in the hope that doing so would make it less likely that his words would be quoted out of context in the future.

On the whole, Larkin makes no secret of his particular tastes as a reviewer. In Required Writing, he often refers to the unholy trinity of ‘Parker, Pound, and Picasso’ as examples of what he most dislikes about ‘modern’ art, literature, and music — ‘it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure’. He rails against what he regards as the narrow-minded, snobbish idea that one cannot properly understand what is good or beautiful or skilfully done about modern music or modern art unless one is a ‘musician’ or an ‘artist’. Small wonder, then, that on several occasions he expresses his fondness for the poetry of John Betjeman precisely because Betjeman is ‘a poet for whom the modern poetic revolution simply has not taken place’. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Larkin’s preferences or prejudices is of little importance, on the whole — Required Writing simply presents his opinions as one reviewer amongst many, with his biases generally unconcealed, and leaves it open to the reader to decide how to regard them.

Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952–1985 by Philip Larkin (edited by Anthony Thwaite)

Further Requirements is the second collection of Larkin’s prose writings, a posthumous compilation put together by Larkin editor and biography Anthony Thwaite from Larkin left death. As Larkin himself wrote, ‘The journalism of a major writer can be revealing. It shows his talent encountering the world outside his own imagination; we learn what he is prepared to write about, and what other people hope he will write about.’ Appropriately, much of the material in Further Requirements is drawn from Larkin’s written and broadcast journalism, beginning with a collection of transcripts from Larkin’s interviews and broadcasts, mostly from the BBC’s Third Programme (now Radio 3) or from Radio 4. Featured broadcasts include Larkin’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1976, a response to a birthday tribute in which he chooses ‘The Explosion’ as a personal favourite among the poems he wrote, and more short pieces about his love of jazz music.

The rest of the compilation, about 60 percent all told, consists of reviews that Larkin wrote for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and other literary periodicals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the reviews are of books of poetry, many of which were written by poets who have since faded into semi-obscurity. More than one review again shows Larkin’s fondness for Betjeman’s poetry and its general rejection of the modernist style of arts and literature that Larkin particularly disliked. The general impression one gets from the selections included in Further Requirements is that of Larkin’s sheer determination to write about ordinary things and ordinary people — and there are times when this sentiment becomes a little repetitive to read about, if only because the book brings together in one closely-packed volume a number of pieces that were otherwise spread out over many years. All the same, Further Requirements is a fine counterpoint to Larkin’s own selection of poetry and prose writings. (Readers who are interested in more Larkin-alia would do well to look for the edited collection of his letters, also compiled by Anthony Thwaite.)

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