Writers Influences 9: John F Keane on Phillip Larkin

My own love of poetry grew during my university days, between 1998 and 2001. Some poets meant much more to me than others, as I have discussed previously. One poet I grew to love in those days was Philip Larkin, a love shared by John F Keane:

“In my youth I was attracted to early Romantic poetry, ‘men of dreams’ like Coleridge, Goethe and Wordsworth,” he begins, clearly warming to the topic. “Apart from the various British war poets, modern poetry never had the same appeal until I discovered Philip Larkin. He was the first poet who really spoke to me in an honest and intimate way about issues like religious doubt, personal failure, false media expectations, feeling ‘left out’, involuntary celibacy and life generally not living up to its promise.

“Larkin’s best poems describe modern experience in a way that anyone can relate to, which is not true of much modern poetry,” opines John expansively. “The Beat and Punk poets were full of revolutionary pipe dreams that never came to pass. Modern Irish poetry might be technically impressive but as an agnostic, its underlying fixation on religion leaves me cold. Yeats’ occult mysticism serves as a good example; an elegant farrago of beautiful fictions. Nor can I relate to upper-middle class English poetry by the likes of W H Auden, in which Christian belief persists as a cultural corollary to social privilege and naivety. By contrast, Larkin expresses a rugged secular perspective rooted in everyday life. Although I find aspects of English culture profoundly alienating – for example, hypocrisy and deference – I strongly identify with its rugged and reflexive atheism.

“While resolutely modern in sentiment, Larkin remains a true poet through his unstinting respect for form,” continues John, his tone becoming more serious. “For me, form and structure serve as structural metaphors of cultural order. Poetry without form, metre and other devices is typically the product of a society without moral or cultural integrity. Soviet poetry is a perfect example of this: wild, lawless ramblings by bitter men like Esenin, Mayakovsky and other cultural criminals. Rap lyrics are another manifestation of this hideous ‘pseudo-poetry’. While strict adherence to classical forms is not obligatory, poetry that does not apply traditional techniques such as metaphor, alliteration, assonance and metre is essentially prose masquerading as poetry. It is certainly not art, by any definition.

“At a more general level, Larkin is distinguished from most modern poets – in fact, most creative people – by his deep social and political conservatism. A poem like ‘Here’, with its sneering reference to a ‘cut-price crowd’ snapping up bargains, is a perfect example of his somewhat elitist perspective. Not that Larkin is alone in this, of course. For example, Yeats believed that what he called ‘the unintelligent classes’ should be systematically sterilised. However, Larkin is unusual for retaining a conservative standpoint well into the post-war era, when right-of-centre values had become deeply unfashionable among musicians, writers and artists. Speaking as a libertarian who favours minimal state intervention in social and economic affairs, I can draw inspiration from Larkin’s conservatism while remaining detached from his more distasteful attitudes and opinions. His anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny never mar his best poetry, in any case.”

John frowns, his cobalt gaze settling on unknown vistas. “Another highly relatable aspect of Larkin’s work is his fixation on social class,” he reflects. “Class differences are indispensable to understanding contemporary English life, after all. Most upper-middle class people still pass through private schools and elite universities without ever having to interact with other types of people. Similarly, most members of the precariat think crime, violence and welfare dependence are immutable features of human existence. This is why foreign people raised on bourgeois British media like the BBC are often astonished by the reality of Britain, with its rabid xenophobia and crime-infested slums. While the BBC assumes everyone accepts gay rights, gay students in comprehensive schools face daily violence and abuse. This lack of coherent social experience is what caused Brexit, ultimately.

“Larkin’s best poems reflect the fact that different classes live parallel lives.” John concludes, with a gloomy air of finality. “Because social differentiation remains so central to English life, it is a topic with perennial appeal. This is why Larkin remains such a popular and relevant poet.”

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John F Keane runs Write Out Loud’s Stockport Group (Write Out Loud Stockport). Winner of Bolton Station’s 2020 Community Partnership contest, his books include The Two Cultures, The Drunken Bag-Lady’s Arcadia and Cremation Please.

More about John can be found at: https://www.writeoutloud.net/profiles/jfkeane

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Philip Arthur Larkin CH CBE FRSL (9 August 1922 – 2 December 1985)

was an English poet, novelist, and librarian.

His publications include: The North Ship (1945), Jill (1946), A Girl in Winter (1947),

and the Whitsun Weddings (1964).

You can read more about Larkin at: http://philiplarkin.com/

Andy N is the author of four full length poetry collections - the most recent being the Streets were all we could see. He is also the host / creator of 'Spoken Label' - a author / writer chat series as well as Podcast series such as Reading in Bed, Comics Unity, Wrestle-Up and the Koll, Andy N and Amanda show. He also ambient music under the name of Ocean in a Bottle. His official blog is onewriterandhisplc.blogspot.com Occasionally he does sleep.