Posts Tagged ‘Philip Larkin’

“He was so good at everything he did”: Robert Conquest and his poems of “elegant irreverence” in WSJ

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020
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A literary scholar – and a very good one.

Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poems is out at last, thanks to the assiduous efforts of his widow, the literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest. And also to Philip Hoy of Waywiser, who is my publisher as well. But thanks especially, in the last few days, to David Mason, who has written a review, “The Impervious Dream,” in the Wall Street Journal. We’ve written about Stanford’s Bob Conquest, who died in 2015 at 97, here and here and here. among other places. We’ve written about Liddie Conquest here and here and herePhil Hoy is here, and David Mason here and here and here.

An excerpt from the review:

He was so good at everything he did—soldier, diplomat, historian and poet—that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he also left behind a few sonatas and paintings in oil. His histories of the Soviet Union’s failures and atrocities include The Great Terror (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), meticulously researched and humane investigations of a criminal state, surely among the major historical achievements of the 20th century. His television documentary series, Red Empire (1990), distills this work and makes grimly compelling viewing.

But Conquest first came to readers’ attention as a poet of sophistication and grace, and as the editor of two New Lines anthologies (1956 and 1963) that introduced a group of English poets known as The Movement, among them Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn. Though his poetry was pushed aside by his work as a public intellectual, we now have the opportunity to see it whole for the varied, remarkable accomplishment it is, a poetry praising “the great impervious dream / On which the world’s foundations rest.”

Mason: a poet himself

In her editor’s note for this new “Collected Poems,” the poet’s widow, Elizabeth Conquest, gives us a glimpse of his character: “Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin of getting old, wrote: ‘Bob just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.’ And so he did, walking a mile at light infantry pace until his 89th year, dying at age 98 in the midst of editing his 34th book, while also writing a poem.” Readers tempted to dismiss Conquest as a dinosaur for his lyric formality, his Old World erudition and his occasionally patronizing love of women would be too hasty. This is a civil voice, a man who in his poem “Galatea” praises both “passion and reserve.” An early poem about the Velázquez painting known as “The Rokeby Venus” begins, “Life pours out images, the accidental / At once deleted when the purging mind / Detects their resonance as inessential: / Yet these may leave some fruitful trace behind.” Conquest positioned himself between the life lived and its ideal expression, yet never lost the realism that chastened ornament.

I am particularly moved by Conquest’s poems about World War II. Another early work, “For the Death of a Poet,” echoes elders such as Eliot and Auden, while touching a nerve of its own: “But how shall I answer? I am like you, / I have only a voice and the universal zeals / And severities continue to state loudly / That all is well. / Even the landscape has no help to offer./A man dies and the river flows softly on. / There is no sign of recognition from the calm/And marvellous sky.”

Read the whole thing here (warning: paywall).

Remembering Clive James: “Dying turned out to be just what he needed.”

Monday, December 2nd, 2019
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Bryan Appleyard has written a vibrant retrospective in The Times of London with the title (don’t blame him for it; he didn’t write it): “From Plato to Playboy,  Clive James could juggle the lot.” 

The article on the death of the celebrated literary critic and author, published today, begins:

In 2010, already knowing that he had emphysema, Clive James was admitted to hospital with kidney failure. There he was also diagnosed with terminal leukaemia. But somehow he just kept going. Until now. Since that day nine years ago, there have been four books of essays and, just published, a collection of his writing on Philip Larkin. There have also been several books of poems and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“I feared the world of men.”

Approaching death, the nuisance of incapacity and constant medical care drove Clive to ever greater heights of creativity.

In fact, before 2010 he had been in decline. Dying turned out to be just what he needed.

“I was getting tired of life,” he told me in a 2012 interview. “I’ve lived long enough. I’ve done what I can. I had suicidal thoughts when I was young. I fancied myself as a melancholic; quite a lot of people do — it’s a fashionable thing. Anyway, all these ideas were coming to me when I was going to sleep, ideas of self-destruction. They all promptly vanished the moment I was under real threat. There was a sudden urge to live. I wanted to do more, to write more.”

What happened next? Lots. “He went on to do, well, everything: novels, satirical poetic epics, essays, anything that came his way or into his head. Whatever it was, it had to be out there, protecting him from the abyss. It would be wrong to think this was simply existential dread, the fear of personal extinction — we all have that, and Clive had more than most in his final nine years. His own analysis suggests the heart of the matter was the death of his father in 1945, when Clive was six.

“We are all lucky to have got here.”

“His father had survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and was on his way home when his plane crashed, killing him. Clive was with his mother when she got the telegram. He wrote: ‘I understood what it did to her in one second. I understood everything. I knew she had spent all that time waiting and she could not bear it. When she collapsed I saw suffering she could not bear and it marked my life, no question. I had a feeling of helplessness. I was man of the house . . . I couldn’t help her, and I had been helpless ever since. I sometimes thought . . . that everything I had ever written, built or achieved had been in order to offset that corrosive guilt, and that I loved the world of women because I feared the world of men.'”

He concludes: 

It is a sadness that I cannot claim Clive was a friend. We met, we talked, we said nice things about each other, but we were not friends. …

Friend or not, I owe him. He extended the playground in which I play. And what a death he died! He showed us all how to do that. He attained serenity amid the frenzy of his late work, and he lived and worked with that supreme insight of the poet Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

“By complaining at all,” he once told me, “I am complaining too much. We are all lucky to
have got here.” And in one of his final poems he wrote: “Life cries for joy though it must end in tears.”

Read the whole thing here. Online comment from around the net: “An intellect lightly worn. Rest in pages, Clive.”

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.

***

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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