Larkin was a gift from my father. Three slim volumes of his work. Their edges already yellowed from years on his bookshelf. They followed me from bedsit to studio flat, uncooked, unread. They were too thin, too closely associated with my absent parent and his tastes to read, but important because they were once his before being given to me.
Then one day I took ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ from its exile on the IKEA bookshelf, and after reading a few poems the power of good writing wiped its past clear away. Like hearing an old band for the first time and feeling like you alone had discovered them. Philip Larkin’s poetic presence was from then on, a new companion.
The words of a librarian living on the edge of Europe, written in the decades after the second world war drew me in, as they have done to countless admirers. His character subtly familiar to many. The isolate observer, conditioned to be in control of emotions, disgusted by routine, fearful of the alternative. A single point of being making sense of life from a safe distance, identifying and then preserving the beauty that made (and makes) the mundane so powerful, in carefully crafted verses.
His poems are a kin to that of a display cabinet, one filled with things once living, then laid out so precisely that the viewer can not help but stop to marvel at what is captured there, pinned to the paper for us to observe a fresh.
Journeys through provincial stations, parks on a weekday, the long shadow of childhood, the parental flaws bestrode one life to the next, the deserted churches of our sprawling towns as marks of comic meaning, the amnesia of comfort and conformity.
The world he described is already passed into the mid-distance, but as we come up to a hundred years since his birth in 1922, his verse reflects the character of our own industrial and social decay, like a scientific law he discovered, predictable and certain no matter what the decade.
His writing is refreshing and transferable to our later worlds through the human frailties that remain unchanged, like a look in the eye of a renaissance painting, recognizable to the ‘here’ and now whether we work in a Hull library in the later half of the twentieth-century or are taking up a back room desk job on a moon of Mars four hundred years from now.
There is a constant chime to each generations experience of life, nature, the passage of time, the day that repeats with the approach of death. All are ever present, as potent in the shifting present, as it was in his time and no doubt as it will be in the decades to come.
Larkin, in his slender volumes demonstrates the power of poetry, his work makes its irrelevance impossible.