You'd be hard-pressed to name a modern poet more quoted or loved than Philip Larkin. His perfectly cadenced, precisely phrased lines come unbidden to the mind when you think of mortality (“Death is no different whined at than withstood”) or life’s bitter unfolding (“Life is boredom, then fear”), the potentially poisonous effects of family (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) or religion’s beautiful but—in Larkin’s view—false promises (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”). No poet has expressed a certain dark and death-haunted mood better than Larkin.
Yet the perfection of the work existed alongside a decidedly imperfect life. In 1993, Andrew Motion published his official biography of Larkin, and the picture it presented was ugly. Larkin was frequently unhappy in his work (he served as the librarian at the University of Hull) and in his romantic life, which for years consisted of a love triangle with Monica Jones, a lecturer in English literature, and Maeve Brennan, one of his colleagues at Hull. Larkin was nasty about other poets (“that shit Yeats, farting out his histrionic rubbish”), about women (he had a taste for pornography, going so far as to ask the wife of his friend Kingsley Amis to participate in what Amis called a “dirty-picture proposal”), and about large swaths of the non-British, non-white world.
In Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury, $35), James Booth wants to change the terms of the conversation about both Larkin’s life and his work. First, contrary to the popular vision of Larkin as the mid-twentieth century’s preeminent poet of unhappiness, Booth argues that Larkin was so horrified by death precisely because he was so in love with life: “Inexistence consists precisely of the concrete loss of vision, hearing, touch, taste or smell, and Larkin fears this loss.” “Everyday things are lovely to me,” Larkin once said in an interview, and Booth goes to great lengths trying to prove how lovely Larkin found bicycles and beer and jazz and delicious solitude.
To support this critical reevaluation, Booth focuses much of his attention on the affirmative moments that can be found in the poetry. He reads “The Whitsun Weddings,” for example, as “an Ode to Incipience”—that is, a poem that finds perfection in the just-about-to-be, the moment that, as Booth puts it, “distil[s] the livelong minute of life.” Booth will often acknowledge a pessimistic reading of a poem only to offer an interpretation that is more tempered, admitting the misery but insisting that it isn’t the whole story. Take his reading of “An Arundel Tomb,” a poem in which the speaker first describes seeing a fourteenth-century sculptured tomb and then how time has “blurred” its features. The poem ends with these lines:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Booth argues that the final two lines aren’t as cynical as we might think: “Logic tells us that love cannot defeat death, but…the contorted syntax, by making ‘love’ the poem’s final ringing word, strives to assert permanence. The poet knows that the concluding affirmation is mere rhetoric; but its ineffectuality is precisely what makes it so moving.” It’s a complex argument about a complex poem: understanding a statement as rhetorical does not leach it of all feeling, Booth suggests. Likewise, Larkin’s dark vision doesn’t leach the world of all beauty and meaning.
Booth’s readings of the poetry are usually convincing and always sensitive to matters of form. He does an admirable job of showing how subtly Larkin used enjambment and stanza breaks to reaffirm or complicate meaning. If there is a flaw in Booth’s method, it lies in his commitment to accounting for all the poems. Rarely does he allow himself to slow down and unpack a work at great length; even the masterpieces like “Aubade” get just a page or two. This means we too often get a drive-by reading: Booth will summarize a poem’s subject, mention a formal detail, and then, before you know it, he’s on to another poem. The reader learns something about almost everything Larkin wrote, but not enough about the best things he wrote.
What of the attempt to rethink Larkin’s “reputation as a man”? Booth’s main argument is that the most loathsome stuff the poet said in letters and interviews—the racism and misogyny especially—was an act that Larkin played for a particular audience. When Larkin remarks that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” for instance, Booth tells us, “these are not the words of a gaunt, emotionless failure, but of an ebullient provocateur with an instinct to entertain.” In other words: It’s all performance, so what’s the big deal anyway?
Of course, there is a difference between saying hateful things in a letter to a friend and actually doing hateful things in the world, and sometimes Booth’s defense of Larkin is convincing, as when he points to the fact that Larkin corresponded with the young Indian novelist and poet Vikram Seth and tried to help him get published. At other times, though, the defense just sounds like special pleading. In one of the stupidest moments you’ll find in this smart book, Booth writes, “In 1946 [Larkin] dreamt he was a black man walking through racecourse crowds with Amis’s future wife, Hilly Bardwell, sobbing with fear that he might be lynched. His subconscious was not racist.” That last sentence would be laughable were it not so sadly revealing of Booth’s desire to exonerate Larkin by any means. (Booth, who taught at the University of Hull, knew Larkin for years.)
Booth’s attempts to dispel the myth of Larkin as Mr. Nasty can themselves become nasty. For instance, here is Booth’s description of Larkin’s love triangle with Monica and Maeve: “He was the victim of the breadth and generosity of his sensibility and the narrowness of theirs. The rut of Monica’s reductive pessimism on the one hand, and the limitations of Maeve’s complacent Catholicism on the other, meant that to reduce himself to a one-legged relationship with either of them would have brought pain to all three. It would also have put an end to his poetry.” So Larkin’s stringing along these two women for years is justified not only on moral grounds (to end things with one or the other would have caused pain), but also on aesthetic grounds (he needed both women to write poetry). Again, this is just plain silliness. And it distracts from the book’s simpler truth: that whatever personal nastiness Larkin displayed—and there was plenty—he still wrote great poetry, and we shouldn’t let the nastiness distract us from the greatness. As a man, Larkin could be brutish. But as a poet, he enriches our lives. He is the like the sun at the end of his great poem, “Solar”: “Unclosing like a hand, / You give for ever.”
Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton, $19.95) is an entirely different kind of criticism. Where Booth’s book often reads like a brief for the defense, Tóibín’s reads like a love letter from one writer to another.
Tóibín is an Irish novelist noted for the restrained, disciplined style that he has displayed in works like Brooklyn (2009) and The Testament of Mary (2012). He finds the same stylistic virtues in Bishop. He begins his short, lyrical meditation of a book with this description:
She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling. The effort, then, to make a true statement in poetry—to claim that something is something, or does something—required a hushed, solitary concentration. A true statement for her carried with it, buried in its rhythms, considerable degrees of irony because it was oddly futile; it was either too simple or too loaded to mean a great deal. It did not do anything much, other than distract or briefly please the reader. Nonetheless, it was essential for Elizabeth Bishop that the words in a statement be precise and exact.
In a few words, Tóibín manages to capture much of what is distinctive about Bishop: her puzzlement before the world’s shifting nature; her frequent use of rhythm to carry poetic meaning; above all, her commitment to precision along with her acknowledgment that even the most precise language will always come up short and so must always be qualifying itself.
The most typical moment in a Bishop poem, after all, is the moment of self-correction, when the speaker says one thing only to quibble with herself immediately afterwards. In “The Map,” for example, the speaker looks at the boundary between land and ocean on a map and sees “Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges…” In “Sandpiper,” we hear that the titular bird “runs…watching his toes. // —Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them / where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains / rapidly backwards and downwards.” Perhaps shadows, but also perhaps shallows; not toes, but the spaces between toes. No detail is too small.
On Elizabeth Bishop doesn’t display much in the way of large-scale organization. It drifts and meanders, as Tóibín follows the issues raised by Bishop’s poetry—sexuality (Tóibín is gay, and so was Bishop); the relation between one’s life and one’s art—wherever they might lead him. The book doesn’t engage much with other critics of Bishop’s work, which is fine because his own insights are so sharp. Here he is on Bishop’s descriptive mode: “In Bishop’s work, much was implied by what seemed to be mere description. Description was a desperate way of avoiding self-description; looking at the world was a way of looking out from the self.” And here he is on “Roosters,” Bishop’s 1941 war poem that doesn’t actually mention war: “She managed to write one of the great poems about power and cruelty by not doing so, by describing, suggesting, by working on her rhythms and cadences, her rhymes and her half-rhymes, by leaving it at that, by understanding what might be enough.”
In the book’s best and most surprising section, Tóibín reads Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” alongside James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” He shows how both works display a similar trajectory: they begin with “very detailed and exact description”—the “benches, / the lobster pots, and masts” of “At the Fishhouses,” the “diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout” of “The Dead”—and then move toward “a moment that is totalizing and hallucinatory in its tone, which moves above the scene and attempts in its cadences to wrest meaning and create further mystery from the scene below.” Bishop’s poem ends with this vision of the ocean:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
We’ve moved from exact, everyday description to something different—something that is elemental and terrifying and awesome. Bishop’s language isn’t quite religious (she wasn’t a believer), but it almost is. Tóibín describes this moment wonderfully:
A sort of homecoming is enacted by allowing the image to transform itself, free itself from the shackles of the concrete, the positive, the world of things, and move like a boat sent to rescue someone, into an uneasy, shimmering, almost philosophical, almost religious space, using words with both freedom and restraint, suggesting something that has not been formulated or imagined by anyone before.
Tóibín here has identified the strongest moments in Bishop’s poetry: when the patient description of the ordinary cracks open something extraordinary in the language and in ourselves.
Tóibín reads Bishop as a poet who explores the new possibilities offered by a world in which faith in God has diminished, if not disappeared altogether. In this new world, “the language of transcendence can have a special power because it invokes something that was once familiar, once possible, and is now lost.” The ability of literature to invoke a sacredness that was once possible and is now lost has been a central topic of James Wood’s writing for the past two and a half decades. His first book of criticism, The Broken Estate, had the subtitle “Essays on Literature and Belief” and examined what Wood called “the distinctions between literary belief and religious belief.” His first novel, The Book Against God, likewise explored what might be left for life and for literature after God had been declared dead. The loss of religious belief and its relation to literary expression: it’s an itch that Wood can’t stop scratching, and he scratches it again in his newest book, The Nearest Thing to Life (Brandeis, $19.95).
The book consists of four essays, most of which have appeared in one form or another in the pages of the New Yorker (where Wood is a staff writer) or the London Review of Books. “Why?” is the title of the first essay, a shifty piece that moves from a consideration of death and theodicy (“Death gives birth to the first question—Why?—and kills all the answers”) to a longer, exhilarating discussion of how the novel is, by its very nature, torn between secular and religious modes of narration.
As Wood writes, “To read the novel is to be constantly moving between secular and religious modes, between what could be called instance and form.” By this, he means that the novel is secular insofar as it is interested in the sheer endless particularity of the everyday (“the novel is the great trader in the shares of the ordinary”) but it is religious insofar as it possesses the “tendency to see life as bounded, already written”—that is, to see the everyday not as endless but as determined and shaped by an end beyond itself. The secular focuses on the details and moments of a life, and it “strives to run these instances at a rhythm close to real time,” while religion “teaches us about the relation of instance to form,” how instance only gets its meaning by “being bounded by death.” For Wood, the novel is a secular form that can’t quite escape its theological underpinnings—and for him, that’s a good thing, since instance needs form in order to become meaningful.
Readers of Wood’s previous work will recognize many of the arguments articulated in The Nearest Thing to Life: for example, Wood’s privileging of fictional detail, which he imagines as “nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.” In “Using Everything,” he also offers a lovely account of good criticism as “a way of writing through books, not just about them.” The idea that criticism might be as metaphorical and imaginatively daring as the work it interprets is familiar from Wood’s earlier work, and it is exemplified in Wood’s own prose.
But the most fascinating bits of this book—and what makes it, in my opinion, his best—are the parts where Wood reflects on his own life, using his childhood reading and his exile (Wood moved from London to the United States in 1995 and has remained here ever since) as a new way to approach literary questions. We hear that when, as a child, Wood “asked where God came from, my mother showed me her wedding ring, and suggested that, like it, God had no beginning or end.” This story then leads to a consideration of the beginnings and ends of fiction. We hear about the young Wood’s headmaster, whose “ancient Oxford shoes were black, his thick spectacles were black, the pipe he smoked was black. He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago, turned into ash, and when he lit his pipe, it seemed as if he was lighting himself.” This leads to an account of the “pungency” of fictional detail. The play between biography and criticism is exquisite, and it’s unlike anything Wood has done before.
In “Using Everything,” Wood relates his encounter at fifteen with Martin Seymour-Smith’s Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction. The book contained a list of 1,348 author names, with short but impassioned summaries for each. Wood describes the excitement with which he dived into these capsule descriptions: “These short descriptions seemed like passionate messages sent to me from inside the world of literature: they had an intoxicating air of urgent aesthetic advocacy, an apparent proximity to the creative source, a deep certainty that writing mattered, that great books were worth living and dying for, that consequently, bad or boring books needed to be identified and winnowed out. This, I felt, was how writers spoke about literature!” Wood’s work has always expressed this critical urgency, this sense that books matter to the life of literary and religious culture. In The Nearest Thing to Life, he shows something different: how books have mattered, deeply and lastingly, to his own life.