There ought to be a law of literary thermodynamics describing the way text tends to provoke and inspire more text, like a rolling stone gathering moss. A great writer, or even a not-so-great one, produces his or her novels and poems and essays; then scholars publish his diaries and letters and notebooks; then critics add their analyses and deconstructions; then biographers set to work on the writer’s life. In the end, the original work seems like the mere nucleus of, or excuse for, a great textual organism, which ends up living its own life, indifferent to the desires of the person who inadvertently gave it birth.
The publication of The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin caps off a spectacular example of this process. When he died in 1985, at the age of 63, Larkin was famous and beloved on the strength of three short books of poems, which appeared at long intervals: “The Less Deceived” (1955), “The Whitsun Weddings” (1964), and “High Windows” (1974). The slimness of this body of work was partly responsible for its power. A garrulous poet, like W.H. Auden, suggests that the world is endlessly interesting, that many things deserve to be talked over. A costive one, like Larkin, suggests the opposite: that the world is a barren, difficult place, in which only the great and central questions are worthy of discussion.
For Larkin, the truly poetic subjects were the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Almost all of his great poems deal with mortality, under a variety of disguises. The last poem in his first collection, “At Grass,” considers retired race horses in a pasture: “Do memories plague their ears like flies?/They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows./Summer by summer all stole away,/The starting gates, the crowds and cries….” “The Explosion,” the last poem in his last book, concludes with the widows of miners killed in an accident, imagining their heavenly reunions with their husbands:
for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed–
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them…
In between come poems like “The Old Fools,” a bitter depiction of senility; and “The Building,” about a hospital where “All know they are going to die./Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end”; and “Church Going,” where an old cathedral’s only remaining power comes from the dead buried around it. Larkin’s summing-up on the subject of death comes in one of the few poems he wrote in his last years, “Aubade”:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
–The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused–nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This poem appeared in a magazine after Larkin’s last collection was published, and had to wait for book publication until the Collected Poems of 1988. That volume, edited by Larkin’s friend and fellow poet Anthony Thwaite, included a dozen or so excellent poems that were either uncollected or unpublished by Larkin. Less happily, it broke up the sequence of the poet’s own collections in order to present all his work in chronological order, which meant mixing up masterpieces with squibs. Aware of the problem, Thwaite produced a second Collected Poems in 2003, which restored the integrity of the original three books. It also included the poems of “The North Ship,” Larkin’s very first collection, which he published in his early twenties and considered juvenilia.
Already you can see the accumulative process at work, as Larkin’s small, nearly perfect body of work is churned and re-churned. But this was only the beginning. The publication of his wonderful Selected Letters, in 1992, was a welcome addition to the canon. Then came separate books of his correspondence with Kingsley Amis, his best friend, and Monica Jones, the closest he came to a lifelong romantic partner. In 2002 came a collection of fugitive essays, Further Requirements; in 2005 a collection of truly minor Juvenilia. Even a few quasi-pornographic stories set in a girls’ school, written as a diversion, appeared between hard covers as Trouble in Willow Gables.
Now comes the Complete Poems, a brick of a book in which the flowers of Larkin’s work lie pressed. The volume, edited with great industry and accuracy by Archie Burnett, is 729 pages long; of these, Larkin’s three major collections occupy exactly 68. Throw in the other finished poems of his mature period, and you might reach 100 pages of genuinely good poems. This category includes both published works like “Aubade” and poems that Larkin presumably judged unworthy of publication, but that certainly deserve to be read, such as “Best Society”:
Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.
The other 629 pages will have little or no interest for the general reader, but they are a monument to the word “complete.” Burnett has assembled everything in the Collected Poems and the Juvenilia, plus verse extracts from Larkin’s letters, plus scraps from the workbooks. As near as possible, anything that flowed from Larkin’s pen in meter and rhyme is between these covers. Whether all of it deserves the name of “poems” is another matter. Take this quatrain:
And did you once see Russell plain?
And did he start at Condon’s nod,
Ten choruses of “Da-da Strain”?
You lucky fucking sod!
Readers of Larkin’s letters will probably guess that this profane squib about jazz musicians was originally written to Amis. Burnett’s note confirms this, and identifies the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, and explains that Larkin is imitating a famous poem by Browning (“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?”). The only way Burnett’s commentary could be improved, in fact, is if it were cross-referenced to the text by page number; as it is, finding the commentary to any particular poem is a laborious process. But the disproportion between the importance of the text and the amount of work that went into its annotation is striking, and a little comical. The Complete Poems gives the sense of having filed away Larkin’s oeuvre for good in some Platonic archive; it is ill suited for any reader who wants to encounter his poems as living works of art.