Philip Larkin’s verses are tender. His prejudices are controversial

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Jhe world verses by Philip Larkin is far from glamorous. Its natural habitat was the English suburbs, a realm of gray dawns, hollow afternoons and low horizons. He has spent most of his adult life working as a librarian – the last 30 years at the University of Hull, a city he has denigrated as “on the way to nowhere”. His poems recount mundane activities: visiting churches, deciding to attend a party, browsing old photos.

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But Larkin is more than the unofficial winner of banal Englishism. His poems, rather than practicing British habits of escapism and fantasy, speak directly. Many begin with an invigorating immediacy: “I work all day and I’m half drunk at night”; “I take care of the farmers, things like dips and food”; “The mower stalled twice; on my knees I found / A hedgehog stuck against the blades.

Larkin writes candidly and sometimes devastatingly about sadness and mortality. He describes “the instantaneous grief of being alone”, death as “anesthesia from which no one returns” and the way in which misery, transmitted from parents to their children, “deepens like a coastal shelf”.

Yet often his manners are less yellowish than tender. He notes the “miniature cheerfulness of the seaside”, imagines the “head of petalled flames” of the sun and addresses a newborn as a “tightly folded bud”. Speaking sparingly, he focuses on physical details that are either revealingly ugly or downright unpoetic. One of his best poems, “The Whitsun Weddings”, details what he sees while traveling by train on a hot Saturday afternoon (“acres of dismantled cars”, “canals with billowing industrial scum”), and in doing so builds to an unexpected and transcendent climax.

The centenary of Larkin’s birth on August 9 should be an occasion for appreciation. But the controversy pursues his name. When her letters were published in 1992, less than a decade after her death, they exposed a seam of racism and misogyny, as well as a childishness at odds with the grave craftsmanship of her finest verse. Its reputation has weathered the outrage, but now, in a time of heightened sensitivity to prejudice and the personal failings of artists, it is under threat again, as is its place on the UK schedule.

On the one hand, academics concerned with modernizing and diversifying the canon. On the other, there are traditionalists who think removing Larkin from poetry anthologies is cultural vandalism. His defenders rightly cite his technical virtuosity, though they may exaggerate the breadth of his vision. David Blunkett, a British politician, defended the “glory” of Larkin’s language while fancifully claiming that it captured “geographical diversity”.

There’s no escaping Larkin’s flaws. Rarely a charitable soul outside of his verse, he could be grossly vitriolic – whether about fellow poet, Ted Hughes, a “boring old monolith”, or about the Bible, which was “balls absolute”. But few writers have so skillfully fused wit and pathos, lyric and conversation. Few have been so free from illusions. And few are those who can so often make their readers smile and, at the same time, make them shiver.

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