Posts Tagged ‘Philip Larkin’

Philip Larkin declared, “He is a genius”: the unpublished poems of Robert Conquest

Friday, November 2nd, 2018
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Conquest at work at his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

To say someone is “irreplaceable” is clichéd and self-evident. But there’s really no one quite like the late Robert Conquest – famous as the courageous and groundbreaking historian who exposed the horrors of Stalinism, and also as the poet who launched the influential “Movement” poets in England during the 1950s (a circle that included Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and others). He ran  a powerful sideline in light verse and limericks that tended to eclipse his elegant, serious lyrics.

Liddie Conquest extends the legacy.

The current issue of Britain’s Standpoint features some of his unpublished poems, with an excellent article by Elizabeth Conquest, his widow and executor – and a scholar in her own right. Thanks to her labors, The Collected Poems of Robert Conquest will be published by Waywiser Press on October 15, 2019. The 50th-anniversary edition of The Great Terror has just been published by Bodley Head. (Book Haven readers will remember that Standpoint also published his last great poem, “Getting On.”)

“Liddie” Conquest reflects on her husband’s long, productive life until his death in 2015, at age 98:

“Why do some creative people continue to write, while others retire from the field? Part of the reason is simply that people age at different rates. Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin that he was getting ugly, old, and fat, wrote: ‘What was that quote about free from care? Certainly applies to ole Bob. He just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, possessing characteristics of successful people noted by Diane Coutu in her Harvard Business Review article ‘How Resilience Works’: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly-held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.” …

Receiving Poland’s Order of Merit in 2009 (with Radosław Sikorski)

“Seven years later, the week before he died Bob was hard at work editing final chapters of Two Muses — his memoirs — and also writing a poem. At the same time, with the aim of publishing a final collection of his verse, he’d been going through his earlier collections correcting misprints, and in some cases making minor alterations. After his death, as his literary executor I was tasked with sorting through his papers (a vast undertaking with an inventory running more than 120 pages); editing a comprehensive volume of Bob’s poetry; pulling together the last chapters of his memoirs from the bits he’d written (but not put in final order); and editing a selection of his letters. ”

Bob took his light verse seriously, though some lament that his reputation for light verse tended to push aside his “serious” work:

“[Critic Clive James] himself has often expressed regret that there were not more of the ‘fastidiously chiselled poems which proved his point that cool reason was not necessarily lyricism’s enemy’. I share that view, but remember the opening remarks of Bob’s 1997 address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when he said that of all the various awards for histories and serious verse he’d received over the years, he was ‘particularly touched and delighted to receive the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse — which honours those who are often thought of as skirmishers and sharpshooters rather than solid citizens of the world of arts and letters’.”

Read the whole article here.

Martin Amis: “I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book.”

Monday, June 25th, 2018
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A talker (Photo courtesy Knopf)

My goodness. Does this man ever have a bad interview? Like him or hate him, agree with him or not, Martin Amis is always fascinating, incisive, opinionated, controversial. The current Q&A at The Los Angeles Review of Books is proof.

“Despite the variety of subjects, the guiding theme of most of these pieces is the impact of time on talent and the rarity of a long, multichaptered literary career,” said interviewer Scott Timberg.

The Book Haven was greedy and wanted to quote everything, but we calmed down and settled for two excerpts. The first discusses poet Philip Larkin‘s appeal for novelists. A timely topic, because Stanford’s Another Look book club recently featured Larkin’s little-known novel, A Girl in Winter:

Timberg: You have a great line on Larkin in one of your essays, where you say he’s not exactly a poet’s poet — he’s too widely embraced for that — but a novelist’s poet. Tell me what you mean by that.

Martin Amis: Well, it was suggested to me by the poet-novelist Nick Laird. We were talking about Zadie [Smith, Laird’s wife] loving Larkin, and Nick said, “All novelists love Larkin.” That resonated for me, and when I came to write that piece I saw just how true it was — that he belongs with the novelists rather than the other poets. “A poet’s poet” is usually very much in danger of being precious, or exquisitely technical. Larkin is technically amazing, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s his character observation and phrase-making that put him in the camp of the novelists, I think.

A grasp of ordinary people

There’s something oddly visual about Larkin too, for someone who squinted his life away through thick glasses. I feel like I can see those poems, the curtains parting and the little village and the ships on the dock.

Yes — and very thickly peopled. He has a grasp of ordinary character — which is very hard to get. The strangeness of ordinary people.

That may be why people who don’t read a lot of poetry respond to Larkin, if they read him at all. It’s like Auden. You might not understand everything in those guys’ work, but you get something out of it if you try.

Yes — though Auden is a lot more difficult. And a greater poet, I think, in the end. But — yes — Larkin doesn’t need much interpretation from critics in the way other poets do.

The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

He reads “The Greats.”

But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.

It’s amazing how much poetry dropped out of the literary conversation in the States over the last few decades. It’s not gone entirely, but it doesn’t show up very much. I find British and Irish people, especially those born in the 1940s and ’50s, much more engaged with verse. It’s really changed over time.

It really has, and also the huge figures are no longer there, in poetry. Lowell, Seamus Heaney was one of the last. And I’m convinced, for that reason, that we live in the age of acceleration. Novels have evolved to deal with that, as the novel is able to do — just by moving a bit faster. Not being so speculative, digressive, intellectual. But poetry moves at its own pace, I think — and you can’t speed that up.

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Your book is about the effect of time on talent — you take the long view on Nabokov and others. Each career is different, but did you perceive any patterns in the way these things go? Bellow, Nabokov, Roth — they all had robust careers. But we could contrast those with shorter or less successful ones — Joseph Heller, maybe, or Alex Chilton. Musicians, artists, writers who seemed exciting at first, but didn’t really keep up.

Indefatigable Nabokov

You get a sense reading a novel sometimes that this novelist has a big tank. A huge reserve. And some people don’t — and they exhaust it quite quickly. You can watch that process in any artist, I think. They arrive fresh, and then they use up, sometimes, their originality, and then are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank.

But you do go from saying hi, when you arrive on the scene, to saying bye, making your exit. Medical science has given us the spectacle of the doddering novelist. As I say in the first of the Nabokov essays, all of the great novelists are dead by the time they reach my age [68]. It’s a completely new phenomenon, and it’s a dubious blessing. Novelists probably do go on longer than they ought to, now.

Philip Roth has done the dignified thing, just quit. I know others who’ve done that. It seems to me that rather than gouging out another not-very-original book, you should just step aside.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but sometimes it’s harder. If we were reading, back in the 1960s, Goodbye, Columbus alongside Catch-22, would we have been able to tell which of the careers would last six decades and which would peak right out of the gate?

Catch-22? Embarrassing.

It’s hard to predict. But again, you do get an idea of the size of the reserves. Writers who start late sometimes go on longer, because the tank stays full longer.

My father and I used to disagree about Catch-22. He thought it was crap. He used to say of me that I was a leaf in the wind of trend and fashion.

Every father says that about his son!

I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book. See how it does a couple of generations on.

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.

Read the whole thing here

Did the earth shake? Another Look totally rocked Philip Larkin’s 1947 novel, “A Girl in Winter.”

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
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Liddie Conquest discusses Philip Larkin with Robert Harrison. (All photos by David Schwartz)

Monday, April 30, marked a notable event in the literary world: perhaps the first-ever discussion of poet Philip Larkin‘s 1947 novel, A Girl in Winter at a top-ranking university. If the event does have a precedent, it’s unlikely to have matched the high-caliber expertise assembled at the Bechtel Conference Center that night. Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions, and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford.

Literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, universally known as “Liddie,” completed the trio of panelists. She knew Philip Larkin personally—he was a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest—and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Robert Harrison introduces the book.

Some said it was our best event ever – one compared it to a delightful dance for three, to a “delicious effect.” Another said simply that they wished we had four events a year, rather than three.

Robert’s introduction of Larkin’s forgotten early novel riffed on the opening lines of the overlooked classic, originally titled The Kingdom of Winter: “There had been no more snow during the night, but because the frost continued so that the drifts lay where they had fallen, people told each other that there was more to come. And when it grew lighter, it seemed that they were right, for there was no sun, only one vast shell of cloud over the fields and woods…”

The little-known novel takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from Europe named Katherine Lind tries to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls a memorable summer with the Fennel family in England before the war, and a near-romance with the son Robin.

The book was the second in a trilogy, and the third was never completed. Larkin turned to poetry instead. Was the early, forgotten book a masterpiece? Toby’s conclusion at the end of the evening was decisive and emphatic. Yes, he said.

The sparks were lively and the balance of personalities was effective and harmonious. Toby’s background as a soldier was helpful in explaining Robin’s emotional state at the end of the book, and he also shared some chilling details of the destruction of Larkin’s hometown, Coventry. Liddie reflected on Larkin’s life and poetry – and she also shared a passage he wrote in a 1977 letter to her husband. The three discussed in detail the signficance of the noisy tick-tock of Katherine’s watch. But I won’t spoil it for you by quoting the end of the book, only part of the penultimate paragraph instead:

“There was the snow, and her watch ticking. So many snowflakes, so many seconds. As time passed they seemed to mingle in their minds, heaping up into a vast shape that might be a burial mound, or the cliff of an iceberg whose summit is out of sight. Into its shadow dreams crowded, full of conceptions and stirrings of cold, as if icefloes were moving down a lightless channel of water…”

From Robert’s opening remarks, to the lively and insightful audience questions and responses – it was a remarkable and memorable evening. David Schwartz outdid himself capturing the evening in photos. Did our panelists have fun? See the photos from the panel below. Or listen to the podcast below, and make your own judgment.

TONIGHT: Philip Larkin’s early novel “A Girl in Winter” at Stanford!

Sunday, April 29th, 2018
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Portrait of the poet as a young man… Philip Larkin

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Robert Harrison

Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets, but few know of his early forays into fiction. All that changes tonight, Monday, April 30, when Another Look considers Larkin’s little-known 1947 novel that takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from the Continent attempts to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls an idyllic summer with an English family before the war. Please join us! The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats.

 

Tobias Wolff

When, where, who …

The Larkin event will take place at the Bechtel Conference Center at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30. Panelists will include Another Look Director Robert Harrison, who will will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor and author also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author Tobias Wolffthe founding director of Another Look, and literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. “Liddie” Conquest knew Philip Larkin—a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest and has written about Larkin’s poetry.

Liddie Conquest

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Elizabeth Conquest in the Wall Street Journal

As we wrote in the Book Haven last week, “Liddie” Conquest was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. The article is available to subscribers here. The article is excerpted on The Book Haven here
 
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Directions
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The Bechtel Conference Center hosts all of Another Look’s events – a map is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.
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In keeping with the Another Look mandate, this book has been pretty much forgotten in 20th century literary history. Help us jump-start a public conversation of this overlooked work. 
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“Notoriously tricky territory”: Elizabeth Conquest on the literary legacy of Robert Conquest, a long marriage, and lots of letters

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018
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A marriage that was a “long conversation” … and plenty of papers, too. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about historian and poet Robert Conquest before – most notably for the Times Literary Supplement here, but also here and here and here, among other places. About his widow Elizabeth Conquest – a.k.a. “Liddie” Conquest – we’ve said comparatively little. That’s about to change. She will be one of the panelists at the Another Look book club on Monday, April 30, discussing Philip Larkin‘s early novel A Girl in WinterBut you might also turn to the pages of the Tunku Varadarajan‘s article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, titled:  “The widow of historian and poet Robert Conquest talks about his legacy – which includes three books still forthcoming”.

Liddie Conquest in London.

Robert Conquest was the first historian to chronicle Stalin’s murderous havoc. His book “The Great Terror,” published in 1968, was among the 20th century’s most influential works of investigative history. Yet Conquest was also a seriously accomplished poet and a prolific letter-writer. His correspondence includes letters to Amis and Larkin (880 pages to the latter alone), as well as to the novelist Anthony Powell and poets including D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Vernon Scannell, Wendy Cope and others …

Banker boxes full of papers cover practically every flat surface in the Conquest household. Sideboards, tables, floors and shelves—all heave with typed and scribbled sheaves. Not only is Mrs. Conquest readying “The Great Terror” for its 50th anniversary edition this fall, she’s editing his complete poems—more than 400, some never published—for publication next spring. She’s also editing his memoirs—he died with one chapter unwritten—as well as a fat volume of his correspondence.

“There are thousands of pages of letters that he wrote,” Mrs. Conquest says. “Bob warmed up before a day’s work by writing letters. He would sit at his typewriter and he’d fire off.” Toward the end of his life, he would dictate email messages to Mrs. Conquest, who sent them from their shared account. “He was never really fond of trying to figure out the computer.”

The lot of a literary widow, Mrs. Conquest says, “is not a happy one, for she must master the management of her husband’s literary estate.” But she doesn’t sound grumpy when explaining that she has a veto over the use of his writings, including the power to say yea or nay to any requests to reprint them. This is all “notoriously tricky territory,” Mrs. Conquest concedes, and such widows have “long been caricatured in writerly circles as pantomime villains”—the younger wife who “single-mindedly devotes her remaining decades after her celebrated husband’s death to championing his artistic legacy and slaying those who dare to question it.”

One of the many comments the combox: “Mrs. Conquest seems to be an absolutely wonderful woman.” We couldn’t agree more. Read the whole thing here.

More papers: Conquest at work. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Biographer Andrew Motion remembers Larkin: “he was 53 coming on 153…and he looked like God.”

Monday, June 13th, 2016
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Love at first sight. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Sir Andrew Motion, former British poet laureate, read Philip Larkin‘s poetry in school and “immediately fell in love with him” – fell in love with him, despite obvious differences in their poetry and outlook. Eventually, Motion became an executor following Larkin’s death in 1985, and then his biographer. His 1993 Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life won the Whitbread Prize for Biography.

The youthful enthusiasm that became a sort of vocation left him feeling “fascinated, privileged, lucky.” Motion, currently teaching at Johns Hopkins University, told the story to an audience at the West Chester Poetry Conference last week. One of the conference founders, California poet laureate Dana Gioia, was interlocutor for the discussion.

That early affinity was part of the reason why Motion accepted an appointment at the University of Hull in 1976, when he was only 24 – Larkin was the university librarian at Hull. But proximity didn’t guarantee access. “Bad luck,” a colleague told him, explaining that Larkin hated everyone at the university, especially those who teach English.  “You’ll never meet him,” he was warned.

The colleague was wrong. The encounter finally happened at the university pub. “There he was,” Motion recalled. “He looked very much like I was expecting – and not as I expected. Taller, bulkier, looming, funeral-suited.” Larkin was fatherly, downright biblical – “he was 53 coming on 153.”

“He was ten years younger than I am now, and he looked like God.”

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Gioia (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

The god-like Larkin took a huge swig of beer and it went down the wrong way.  Motion began thumping him on the back. “That was an icebreaker,” he recalled. Here was another: when Motion mentioned that his father was a brewer, “Philip’s face absolutely lit up.”

While Larkin was seen as austere and forbidding, when he was among friends, “he was the most charming man, deeply funny.”

Motion was later asked to be one of Larkin’s literary executors. “I said I would do it but please would he not die,” he said. Motion also warned Larkin to discard anything he didn’t want preserved – “he was to understand I would not throw anything away.” Motion was as good as his word: he saved many of Larkin’s papers from imminent destruction after his death. (But not before his diaries were shredded, page by page.)

Motion was perfectly positioned, after the nine-year friendship, to become Larkin’s biographer. “When Philip died, his Number One girlfriend” – presumably Monica Jones – “was sitting in a chair, smoking herself to death, sozzled, with unkempt hair, and dropping ashes on the floor.” She picked up Larkin’s address book and threw it at him. “Everyone you need to talk to is there,” she said.

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Reading his poetry (Photo: Anna Yin)

“He lived a very very discreet life,” said Motion. “He had lived his life in extraordinarily discrete compartments. We all do that to some extent.” All biography is a kind of invasion of the subject, however, and Motion had pangs of guilt.

“I had series of very peculiar dreams during period of writing about Larkin.” In one, Motion was speaking in an auditorium – and Larkin was sitting in the audience. Motion was remorseful in the dream, thinking, “Oh shit. I’d say none of this when he was still alive.” It was the guilt working through itself, he said.

Finally, Larkin appeared to him in a dream, with a collar made of hay. Motion interpreted that  “as a vision of him saying, ‘It’s okay.’”

larkinbookWhen Motion was named poet laureate, following the death of his predecessor, Ted Hughes, he redefined the role from a lifetime position to ten-year term. He said this allowed consideration of younger people for the office, and brought more vigor to the role.

His signal achievement was the creation of the Poetry Archive, a web-based library of English language poets reading their own work. It currently includes 400 recorded voices, and attracts 300,000 visitors a month. “I’m very proud, very pleased about the archive. It’s done a lot of good in the world,” he said.

It also refutes an argument that “come round like a sock in the washing machine” – that is, the claim that people don’t read poetry anymore. “We should probably cheer up,” he said. “More people listening to poetry than ever before, via things like archive.”

Postscript on 6/15: You may have observed that the earlier headline said “looked like a god.” I received this note from Gerry Cambridge (who took some of the photos above): “Cynthia great to meet you at West Chester. A wee observation: Andrew Motion actually said ‘… and looked like God’, not ‘…a god’. Which I think is funnier, if more risqué in some quarters.”

Philip Larkin on WWI: “Never such innocence again.”

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014
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Larkin at Oxford in 1943, before “the failures and remorse of age.”

W.H. Auden‘s “September 1, 1939” was a World War II poem, without a single gun in it, and then had a powerful revival on 9/11. The New York Times recounted its newfound fame:

”Auden’s words are everywhere,” wrote the author of a ”Letter From New York” in The Times Literary Supplement of London. At least a half-dozen major newspapers reprinted ”September 1, 1939” in its entirety. It was read on National Public Radio. It was introduced into hundreds of chat rooms on the Internet. In the Chicago area, the Great Books Foundation and The Chicago Tribune sponsored discussions of it. Students at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, produced a special issue of their school newspaper (which The New York Times distributed to its readers in the metropolitan area) prominently featuring one of the poem’s most familiar lines, ”We must love one another or die.”

Surely, however, it shared the somber honors with Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared on the back cover of the New Yorker after 9/11.

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Praising the mutilated world…

Could the poem for World War I be Philip Larkin‘s MCMXIV? It’s getting a lot of play this month, during the centenary of the beginning of the Great War.  The poem was first published in 1964, fifty years after the events it describes, in the collection Whitsun Weddings. 

A few words from critics about Larkin that I found along the way: Andrew Sullivan feels that Larkin “has spoken to the English in a language they can readily understand of the profound self-doubt that this century has given them.” X.J. Kennedy wrote that Larkin’s oeuvre is  “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” J. D. McClatchy said that Larkin wrote “in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.”

XCMXIV is only one remarkable sentence long  (mind the punctuation), and describes the enlistment of naïve young men at the war’s outset. Read it, and hear it, in the video below.