‘A Study of Reading [and Writing] Habits’
Radical Larkin, John Osborne’s second book on Philip Larkin is (like the first) polemical: ‘Larkin died in 1985. No-one now under 40 (and few enough aged 50) can really be said to have known the man. The future of his reputation is passing irrevocably out of the hands of those who knew him and into those who did not’. It also strikes postures: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, in place of the obdurately English poet of the critical consensus, I offer you Philip Larkin, master of deterritorialization’.
The pugilistic Osborne (a light heavy-weight) throws some below the belt punches at such distinguished Larkin commentators as Andrew Motion, who believes that the poems are autobiographical (‘as Larkin’s biographer he would say that, wouldn’t he?’), Trevor Tolley (‘A master of thinking inside the box’), Anthony Thwaite (who ‘twice recycled Larkin’s Betjeman review without referencing the source’), and James Booth (‘not because he is the worst exponent’ of ‘the conventional view of Philip Larkin as a lyric poet….but its best’.) David Timms and Richard Palmer stand jointly accused of having ‘converted [Larkin] from what he is, the greatest poet of doubt and ambiguity since Hardy, into a poet of certitude, often to the point of bigotry’. Even Archie Burnett, editor of Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (2012), to which Osborne declares himself greatly indebted, is taken to task for including ‘mere scraps of verse’ (Burnett’s own phrase) in his magisterial compilation.
Osborne’s reiterated contention is that Larkin’s poems are not autobiographical but rather the creations of ‘a professional intertextualist’ which require ‘a post-authocentric’ reading and analysis. He focuses on such seminal poems as An Arundel Tomb, The Whitsun Weddings, This Be the Verse and Aubade – as well as his second novel A Girl in Winter.
Warming to these themes, Osborne liberally sprinkles his text with such unattractive words and phrases as ‘Phonocentrism’, ‘Anti-Textualism’, ‘Radical Ekphrasis’, ‘Radical Deterritorialization’ and ‘Radical De-essentialism’. At one point his taste for neologisms leads him astray. He heads one section ‘A monstrance against the sexing of texts.’ The word monstrance either means ‘demonstration or proof’ in Middle English or ‘an open or transparent vessel in which the host is exposed’ in contemporary English. Osborne actually wants to launch ‘an assault’ upon ‘biographicalism’ and his choice of words is baffling.
Unlike Larkin’s, much of Osborne’s language is convoluted, and presumably directed at a ‘post-modernist’ readership. Summarising his contentions in Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence, Osborne reminds his readers that Larkin’s techniques ‘include ellipsis, a four-act structure with closing reversal, asymmetrical stanza lengths and rhyme schemes, plus a battery of disaggregative linguistic devices such as split similes, negative qualifiers, oxymora and rampant paronomasia’. In this new book, such doubtful coinages as ‘the sexing and racing of narrators or addressees’ do little to aid comprehension.
In his chapter on The Whitsun Weddings, Osborne triumphantly ‘proves’ – largely thanks to Burnett’s researches – that Larkin’s famous train journey (from Hull to King’s Cross) never took place, and cautions that most of his poems ‘tell one nothing about the gender, race, class or nationality of either their narrators or their addressees’. Yet Larkin’s champions and detractors ‘fill in the missing information by jumping to the conclusion that the protagonist is always and only a white, male, middle-class Englishman named Philip Larkin’. Osborne presses his ‘intertextual’ reinterpretation of The Whitsun Weddings to a ludicrous conclusion when he suggests that the line ‘Free at last!’ reflects not only the poet’s well-known passion for jazz and its roots in African-American spirituals and blues, but also echoes Martin Luther King’s famous peroration in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington, DC so ‘the reader has been licensed to speculate whether the narrator might be an American visitor to these shores, and not necessarily a white one’. These putative Americans (whatever their ‘racing’ or ‘sexing’) might well expostulate: ‘Pur-leeze!’
But Radical Larkin does contain original insights into some of the poet’s ‘greatest hits’. Four examples substantiate the point. As a poem, Vers de Société relates ‘the foibles of polite society. In Larkin this becomes something else: a meditation on the merits of social life, the life lived in company, versus those of the meditative life, the life of solitude’. Then, This Be The Verse, with its much-quoted opening lines
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
is described as ‘a tweet-sized poem of atomic destructiveness detonated by laughter’. Larkin’s last great poem, Aubade, is ‘a masterpiece which affords a barometric reading of late millennial Western culture as encapsulated in its ideologies of death’. And finally, commenting on At Grass, Osborne shows that he is perfectly capable of writing clearly while offering a perceptive analysis:
…it surely offers as complex a statement as may be found in our literature of the mixed emotions with which we approach the constraints and the liberations of the later stages of life. This subsuming of the elegiac into a more nuanced address to the neglected subject of retirement is a good example of Larkin’s genius for involving poetic genres only to elude them…
Unfortunately, such astute judgements are few and far between in the densely-packed pages of Radical Larkin. Too much space is taken up by Osborne’s (generally informed) comments on Western art, sculpture and literature. And, unless one applauds his statements that ‘it would do no harm to Larkin studies if for the foreseeable future we desisted from visiting the (imaginary) certitudes of the life upon the work but rather visited the (real) polyvalency of the work upon the life’, or ‘not only do [Larkin’s] poems sabotage conventional pieties regarding church, state, nationality, marriage, gender, race and capital, but in the process they play a central role in the cultural transition to postmodern indeterminacy’, I can only recommend this book to those willing to struggle with the postmodern terminology.
© John White 2014
John Osborne, Radical Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 292, ISBN: 0230348246