Philip Larkin and the poetics of resistance
Acknowledgements The essays in this volume have been selected from papers originally presented at the University of Poitiers First International Conference of Larkin Studies, September 2004. Funding for the conference and publication of this volume has been generously made available by the FORELL Research Centre (EA 3816), the Humanities Faculty and the University of Poitiers. The editors and publishers wish to thank the following for permission to use copyright material: Faber and Faber Ltd. for Jacques Nassif’s translation of ‘Here’ from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Copyright 1988, 1989 by the Estate of Philip Larkin. Stephen Cooper, for ‘Resisting Tradition: The Decentred Perspectives of Larkin, Auden and MacNeice’ adapted from Philip Larkin: Subversive Writer (2004). Copyright 2004 by Stephen Cooper, by permission of Sussex Academic Press Advisory Board Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd, Maître de Conférences, Poitiers Adolphe Haberer, Professeur des Universités émérite, Lyon 2 Liliane Louvel, Professeur des Universités, Poitiers Paul Volsik, Professeur des Universités, Paris 7
CONTENTS Introduction Primary Sources Toward a Theory of Resistance An Enormous No!: Larkin’s Resistance to Translation Raphaël Ingelbien “Out of Reach”: Philip Larkin’s ‘Here’ Jacques Nassif “Why put it into words?” Philip Larkin’s Perilous Poetics of Resistance Jean-Charles Perquin Camping With Larkin Charles Holdefer Are Days Where We Live? István Rácz Classical Prosody in Philip Larkin’s Poetry Martine Semblat 19 37 9 15
Resistance in Context Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance to the Second World War Helen Goethals 109 Resisting Tradition: The Decentred Perspectives of Larkin, Auden and MacNeice Stephen Cooper “Alien Territory”: Resistance and the Poet’s Social Function in the Work of Philip Larkin David Ten Eyck Larkin’s Impulse to Preserve Adrian Grafe Resisting the Likes of ‘Money’ Andrew McKeown Resistance and Affinity: Philip Larkin and T. S. Eliot James Booth Afterword Adolphe Haberer
149 165 179 189 211 215 219 230
Notes on contributors Bibliography Index
Introduction Oscar Wilde’s infamous quip about being able to resist anything but temptation suggests that for some at least resistance is a losing battle. For others, like Larkin, resistance seems to be more a question of holding out regardless, unconquered by tempters and tyrants alike. Dictionary definitions tend to highlight this antagonistic tendency. The Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition), for example, indicates resistance as “hindering or holding off a moving body”. This suggests a number of ways we can expand our approach to the term. It allows us, for instance, to see resistance as a response to a contending, injurious body. This physicality reminds us that resistance is a profoundly human question, even if this volume is not directly concerned with historical occurrences of Resistance. In addition, resistance to a “moving body” suggests some form of immobility, an unmoving body holding out under attack, which raises the problem of fixity, and the extent to which resisting does or does not imply the adoption of conservative, even reactionary, stances. This means that the literary perspective on resistance given in this volume will not neglect political contexts. Of course, in literature confrontation of bodies is primarily a linguistic activity. That suggests not only a technical aspect to our question but also the existence of a
poetics of resistance, a language designed and modelled by the conditions of resisting. Further, it is possible to imagine texts adapting and even misusing such poetics in the interests of multiplying the stances taken against an injurious “body”, a twist we come to expect, perhaps, from literature’s love of obliqueness. The body of resistance is therefore doubly elusive: first, as it is literary; then, as it is by definition uncooperative. This particularity makes the nut of literary resistance that much harder to crack, which has significant repercussions for the translator. In all contexts, resistance throws into question not only the Other, the eternal adversary of difference, but also its own Self, which is caught in language, in time and in space. Its only “proper ground” is contingency. The act of resistance in such circumstances is in the last analysis then a philosophical question, embracing anthropos, logos and cosmos. Philip Larkin would have no doubt scoffed at such theorising about resistance. The most “philosophical” of British poets from the second half of the 20th century, he was also the most reluctant to “philosophise” about his work. In and out of his writer’s vocation, he was a staunch resister. Characteristically, Larkin refused the post of Poet Laureate, partly on the grounds that poetry was for him a highly personal affair that did not readily lend itself to public purposes. He wrote to a friend that he couldn’t face the “representing-British-poetry-in-the-‘Poetry-Conferenceat-Belgrade’-side-of-it-all” (Motion 1993, 510). Moreover, throughout his life he cultivated a prickly aloofness from academics and their concerns. Yet since his death interest in Larkin’s work has grown steadily, and has flowed across borders, beyond the United Kingdom. This volume reflects that interest. For its international emphasis, it is the first of its kind — but it is surely not the last. Tellingly, Larkin’s tenacious resistance to categories, his
refusal to be pigeonholed and his rejection of even the idea of centrality, has provided the unifying theme for this work. Larkin’s unapologetic individuality does not necessarily result in isolation. In fact, it allows him to reach across barriers. The first part of this volume, “Toward a Theory of Resistance”, draws on a variety of approaches to his texts and questions some of the more long-standing assumptions about his writing which classify Larkin’s resistance as static conservatism. One of these assumptions has been the writer’s resistance to translation. Raphaël Ingelbien re-assesses Larkin’s pronouncements on the subject through a detailed analysis of his poems in relation to post-war trends in British writing, especially poetry, whose mode of expression Larkin felt to be increasingly obscurantist and, consequently, alienating. Not only is Larkin inquisitive about the notion of linguistic determinism, a central question to translation problems, he is also sceptical of post-war moves in poetry politics to crown the (North American) Modernist mode as king. Jacques Nassif, Larkin’s French translator, approaches the question of resistance from a very different perspective. For Nassif, resistance in the text comes about at the point of conflict between speaker and signifier, those points of tension where the autonomy of both parties in the linguistic pact is called into question. Nassif’s account of translating Larkin, his commentary on these moments of resistance in the text and their relation with the translator, that is, the voice of the Other, offer insights into Larkin’s poems. Paradoxically, Larkin’s resistance to other-ness does not translate into aggressive self-proclamation — a technique favoured by some of the more colourful, purportedly Other-centric voices of Modernism (one thinks of Pound, for example). Instead, as Jean-Charles Perquin argues,
Larkin’s texts are in a sense self-resisting, open in their linguistic limits to the reality of non-verbal realities. Pursuing the idea that Larkin’s texts are supremely doubtful about themselves, Charles Holdefer puts forward the hypothesis that sexually-charged self-derision is sometimes a conscious modus operandi for Larkin. Bringing together poetry and prose, including the recently published Brunette Coleman novels, Holdefer makes the case for reading Larkin in the light of recent camp theories, questioning accepted readings of the more performative and “symbolic” texts in, for example, the collection High Windows. The role of images in Larkin’s work is crucial, especially so in texts concerned with Time. István Rácz explores how Larkin’s imagery provides visual figures of Time transposed into Space. The conflict between Time, both divisible and continuous, and humans, resisting the latter within the space of the former’s “days” and “afternoons”, gives Larkin’s writing a dialectic tension, elevating its subjects out of their divisibility, argues Rácz. In this way, they are able to “answer” the silence of Time’s non-verbal reality: death. No survey of Larkin’s poetics should overlook his use of form. Martine Semblat provides a detailed analysis of how Larkin resists the “appeal” of certain traditional poetic forms, while maintaining a degree of classical prosody. It is here in fact that the poems succeed in innovating, catalysing certain technical features normally associated with Modernism, re-working them in order to return them to their readers under the guise of “tradition”. Semblat’s account of “traditional innovation” closes this section of the volume with a challenging, different perspective on Larkin’s unwillingness to translate his voice into other, borrowed voices, that is, the resistance to “translation” on which this part of the volume opened.
The second part of this volume, “Resistance in Context” places Philip Larkin’s work in historical and political perspectives. It offers a rich array of interpretations of both his prose and poetry in the light of current scholarship. Earlier critics have frequently discussed Larkin’s putative relationship with “The Movement” in the 1950s. Helen Goethals shifts the emphasis to an earlier period, and demonstrates how Larkin’s early poetry can be read as war poetry. Although central to his novels Jill and A Girl in Winter, the importance of the Second World War in his early poetry has been generally overlooked. Steven Cooper suggests another kind of revisionist perspective by questioning many of the received images of Larkin: notably, his reputation as reactionary and sexist. By taking into account unpublished materials from the 1940s, and with comparisons to Auden and MacNeice, Cooper goes against the grain and proposes a much different reading. David Ten Eyck explores how such tensions frequently depend on a recurring strategy: Larkin’s isolated speakers are dramatized as trying to work within an “alien territory”. This territory can be a language system or a set of social conventions, but in either case, the problem of poetic discourse is to shape statements that are capable of opening up this territory, to make room for the representation of experiences that the inherited forms would not have been able to relate. At the same time, Larkin’s poetry is also animated by an “impulse to preserve”, and Adrian Grafe addresses the means by which the poet accomplishes this kind of resistance. A rigorously undeceived view of life is expressed by an interlocking triad of questioning language, understatement, and extreme forthrightness. These impulsive elements make for compulsive reading.
Andrew McKeown offers a close reading of ‘Money’, and demonstrates that earlier thematic readings overlook the crux of the poem, which is less a meditation on materialism than on language, and its failed attempts to possess ourselves and our desires. Moreover, this poem articulates a view that informs many of Larkin’s later and most admired texts, including ‘High Windows’ and ‘Love Again’. Lastly, James Booth questions the received idea of Larkin and T.S. Eliot as polar opposites. He offers a more nuanced view from the vantage point of the 21st century, observing that beneath Larkin’s vigorous resistance to Eliot, there in fact lies an intimacy, even a profound similarity in sensibility. Both poets aspire to a lyricism that approaches the very edge of words and meanings. Ultimately, this is a place where two great poets meet, where their ideologies and cultural politics become irrelevant. Larkin’s readership is growing and this volume is intended to contribute to this trend. In sum, a writer sometimes accused of being a “Little Englander” has become a subject of international interest. Larkin, a connoisseur of ironies, would surely have found something unsparing and trenchant to say on the matter. For the writers herein, it suffices to say that the opportunity to participate in this appreciation has proved irresistible. Andrew McKeown and Charles Holdefer University of Poitiers
Primary Sources This volume uses the following abbreviations in reference to Larkin’s work: CP AWJ RW FR SL Collected Poems All What Jazz Required Writing Further Requirements Selected Letters
Toward a Theory of Resistance
An Enormous No!: Larkin’s Resistance to Translation Raphaël Ingelbien “Foreign poetry? No!” (FR 25). On the face of it, this famous answer is a clear indication of Larkin’s literary and political conservatism; it emphatically expresses the philistine Little Englandism that he increasingly came to cultivate. Yet it is perhaps more complex than it seems. For one thing, it has been partly falsified by the critical focus on Larkin’s youthful interest in French Symbolist poetry: Larkin may have told the truth about what he was reading in 1964, when he was interviewed by Ian Hamilton, but he was obviously keeping silent about earlier influences. There have already been several valuable studies of Larkin’s relation to French Symbolism (see Everett 1980 and Chesters 1998); my aim is not to rehearse the points they have made. Rather, I would like to ask what exactly Larkin meant when he flatly denied any interest in “foreign poetry.” As we will see, the phrase can turn out to be quite ambiguous. We should first wonder whether Larkin is rejecting poetry written in a language other than English, or poetry written in a foreign country (other statements by Larkin can point either way). Although the distinction might seem otiose, the various ways in which Larkin justified that enormous “No!” to “foreign poetry” can
reveal unsuspected complexities in his attitude as well as that of his critics. I will first of all consider the possibility that Larkin’s “No!” is directed at poetry written in a language other than English. Since his resistance to foreign languages is bound up with a radical scepticism about translation, I will use translation theory to assess the implications of Larkin’s stance. When examined through that prism, Larkin’s “No!” can be seen as something more subtle than a crude form of Little Englandism or an attempt to cover the Symbolist tracks of early influences. It can be re-interpreted as an expression of linguistic determinism, as a brand of aestheticism, or as an indirect but strategic form of resistance to specific developments within English poetry. The link between a rejection of the foreign and English political conservatism might seem to be firmer if we adopt the second hypothesis, that is, if we regard Larkin’s “No!” as motivated by cultural rather than linguistic isolationism. Yet Larkin’s insistence on what he called the “compelling argument in support of provincialism” (RW 69) also needs to be qualified in view of other statements. This contrast will give us yet another insight into the nature of Larkin’s opposition to foreign poetry. Although we should be wary of ascribing a coherent view to Larkin, I will suggest that his resistance to “foreign poetry” is mostly a blend between radical aestheticism and a suspicion of certain trends within English literature. Larkin’s “No!” dates from 1964. The interviewer (Ian Hamilton) did not challenge Larkin to explain his rejection; in fact his question — “I wonder if you read much foreign poetry” — was probably disingenuous. Hamilton went on to ask Larkin about “contemporary English poets,” and then “Americans” (FR 25-26). By “foreign,” then, the interviewer seems to have meant “not written in English,” although his own distinction between English and
American might point to the sense “written abroad.” If there is a slippage between the cultural and linguistic definitions of foreignness in Larkin’s statements, the slippage can also result from his interviewers’ own confusion. The confusion persists in critical commentary on Larkin: those who take Larkin to task for his resistance to foreign poetry rarely try to define the term. “Foreign poetry” mostly functions a vague but convenient Other, a stick with which to beat those suspected of Little Englandism. However Larkin interpreted the question, the answer was of course clear enough. But if Larkin’s “No!” became notorious, the shifting nature of what he rejected was less often noticed. In a speech delivered in Hamburg in 1976, Larkin deplored the tendency of modern poets to travel “from country to country and from continent to continent until [their] sense of cultural identity becomes blurred.” Pondering whether this was a good thing, he commented: “politically it may be, poetically I’m not so sure.” Larkin explained that he himself was an exception, since “this is only the second time since 1945 that [he has] been abroad” (RW 89-90). Although Larkin remembered his trip to Paris in the early 1950s, he did not take his stay in Belfast and his holidays in Ireland with Monica Jones into account. Yet, as ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ reminds us, Larkin clearly experienced a sense of “strangeness,” of cultural otherness in Ireland, whether North or South (CP 104; Motion 1993, 392). In Ireland, of course, Larkin did not experience linguistic alienation, which is the factor he emphasized when pressed about his reluctance to travel. In 1981, John Haffenden asked Larkin to elaborate on the comments he’d made in Hamburg about the blurring of the modern poet’s sense of identity. Larkin’s answer first shifts the focus to his terror of linguistically foreign environments: “It’s a language thing with me: I can’t learn foreign languages. I just don’t believe in them.” He then considers cultural
difference: “as for cultural identities […] I think people get pallid if they change countries. Look at Auden.” Haffenden then reverts to the question of languages himself with his next question: “in not exposing yourself to European cultures or literature, you’re possibly cultivating a sort of narrow-mindedness or chauvinism…” Larkin’s answer was: “But honestly, how far can one really assimilate literature in another language? In the sense that you can read your own?” (FR 54) Linguistic competence would thus seem to be at the heart of Larkin’s resistance to foreign poetry. The last time Larkin was asked to clarify his position, the interviewer for the Paris Review (Robert Phillips) was actually quite specific. His question was: “you stated that you were not interested […] in any poetry but that written in English. Did you mean that quite literally? Has your view changed?” Larkin’s answer confirms his resistance, but introduces another element, namely a resistance to translation:
I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude: Byron and Poe and so on. The Russians liking Burns. But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a Fenster of fenêtre or whatever. Hautes Fenêtres, my God! A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him. (RW 69)
Here, apparently, is Larkin as a linguistic determinist. His rejection of foreign languages, however, is packed with ironies. His very choice of examples seems almost perverse on several accounts. Two years before that interview, Barbara Everett had suggested that the Symbolist mode of High Windows owed much to French Symbolism, and in particular to two poems by Mallarmé and Baudelaire both entitled ‘Les Fenêtres’ (Everett 1980, 237). Larkin knew about Everett’s readings, and comments he made about them in his letters were far from dismissive (SL 653, 658).
A further irony is that in the eponymous poem, “high windows” are supposed to be a purely mental image, rather than a verbal reality: “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows” (CP 165). The interview thus belies the very line in which the phrase “high windows” appears, since it draws attention to the verbal embeddedness of that pure thought which the poem tells us transcends words. It is tempting to turn this into a deconstructive lesson in the impossibility of finding anything outside the text, but the contradiction between the poem and the interview may also be symptomatic of another paradox in Larkin’s attitude to foreign languages. Larkin’s refusal to “believe in” foreign languages seems to partake of an extreme form of linguistic determinism: different languages shape different worlds, translation is vain, there is no equivalence between even the simplest words. The radicalism of this position looks surprising, all the more since Larkin betrays a certain command of foreign languages in the act of disowning them. He knows the French, even the German word for “window.” Many letters are peppered with asides or jokes in French which show that he remained fairly competent in the language; he even commented (sarcastically) on French translations of his poems (SL 497). In his published work, however, he seemed intent on stressing his lack of proficiency in the language. The description of the moon in ‘Sad Steps’ (CP 169) even suggests that French had become out of bounds for him:
High and preposterous and separate Lozenge of love! Medallion of art! O wolves of memory! Immensements! No, One shivers slightly, looking up there.
“Immensements” is an awkward English neologism that sends up the artificial poetic diction of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (from which Larkin borrows his title), but it can also
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