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'Jill' began life as a cross between a girls' school novel pastiche and mild pornography called 'Trouble at Willow Gables', an origin that manifests itself throughout the finished work, bubbling salaciously beneath the surface of John Kemp's escapist scribblings. John, of course, is a typically Larkin-esque protagonist - socially awkward, an outsider, and, like his creator, constantly struggling with the remains of a stammer. The portrait is, as only Larkin could draw it, at once affectionately tongue-in-cheek and unremittingly brutal (John's intrusion on the tea-party early on is to die for). What may alarm Larkin's readers (having recovered from the shock delivered by the life and letters) is the deep-rooted distrust of the imaginative faculties emerging in 'Jill'.
We watch with horror as John begins to invent a younger sister for himself with a paranoia approaching downright madness. His creation is born from malice and a sense of exclusion, exacerbated by humiliation upon humiliation heaped upon his shoulders and, having its inception in unhealthy emotion, his fantasy sends him spiralling deeper into a delusion culminating in his drunken violation of the girl on to whom he has transferred his invented sibling.
'Jill' is a novel of both tremendous wit and cruelty. The Larkin of the poems is clearly visible here, brooding on deception and deprivation, gently self-deprecating. 'Jill' is an essential read for admirers of Larkin, providing an important insight into his life and thought, as well as a glimpse of an angry, ambitious young man before the weariness set in.
Larkin wrote this book in his early twenties, when the war was still very much in progress, and its outcome uncertain. That is only one of the reason I'd recommend it over the many romanticized WW II stories written afterwards, especially in the last decade, when revisionist history takes over, and we sketch characters of the forties as if they had the insights of the nineties.
Here you get the real thing. The war is a presence in the gritty little details of life -- the privations, the routine of putting up the blackout in defense of bombing raids. Towards the end of the book, the hero returns to his northern town to find it devastated.
I found Jill, and Larkin's second and final novel, A Girl in Winter, also set during war-time, bracing, even comforting reading during the first months of the current war. We see that, despite being shadowed by larger events, the inner workings of personality -- love, identity, pride -- carry on, in spite of all.
I wish Larkin had written more novels, or more novelists could write like him.
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His poetry may however not be to everyone's taste: there is no place for lace and flowers in Larkin. His work is more often than not dark and reflects the feelings of a man who probably felt everything was wasting away about him: not only his own life, but the world as a whole. Through his poems we discover a man who seems to have skipped childhood and adolescence and who finds himself at fifty having had life pass him by. Larkin's poetry expresses his sourness, his fears, his repressed anger, his spite, his general disgust with society and the modern world. And it does this in the most expressive of ways, never shying away from the words that seem necessary, however crude they might be. There is much beauty in his despair.
If you are sensitive to poetry, then you cannot avoid reading Larkin. Be warned however that you should not read Larkin to brighten up your life: the "happy poems" are few and far between. But read him nonetheless and decide afterwards whether his work is to your liking. He may just hit the spot on one of those lonely evenings when you feel yourself that everything just isn't as it should be. And after that, you will never be able to separate yourself from a copy of Philip Larkin's Collected Poems...
Yes, Larkin does embody the somewhat grumpy spirit of post-war Britain, but like all good poetry they are about the something that seems to be missing in our lives. There are some feelings no writer has ever put more precisely. Formally rather conservative (rhyme, no daring metaphors), the vocabulary is utterly down to earth. "Talking in bed should be easiest," Larkin begins, only to find out that with the lengthening of the silence "It becomes stil more difficult to find / Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind."
The feelings expressed may not always be nice, nor is this much of a self-help book, so it is utterly opposed to the spirit of our times, but this "old-type natural fouled up-guy" will make you love poetry if you are not yet sure about whether your do ("to prove our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.") Get this European poet looking at himself as if he were a complete stranger as a contrast to you confessional poets!
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Anthologies, having limited space, make a choice between representing the best writers at length, or representing a larger number of writers more briefly. Larkin chooses the latter: the book includes 584 poems by about 200 poets, which this means that many poets (outside the "greats" -- Hardy, Yeats and Eliot -- who are all fully represented) are represented by as little as two poems.
But this approach has virtues. Larkin includes poems by many poets who aren't considered "major writers"; and who, while often well-known in their lives, are not likely to be known to readers now. This is interesting, of course, as it reminds a reader that poets are not only influenced by the best writers, but also by the second best. There is also, perhaps, an attempt here to sketch a certain tradition of English twentieth century writing: one that, although it includes Eliot and Basil Bunting, is in the main, colloquial, unheroic and keen to document domestic events and emotions in poetry that is, if not strictly formal, at least nodding at formal arrangement.
Lovers of Larkin, or of the sort of poetry outlined above, may well find themselves overjoyed by this anthology. Readers whose tastes are for the outlandish, excessive and outragous may be impatient. Personally I think that poetry is at its healthiest when these two groups are not entirely separated: when they both can agree on certain writers to admire; and when both of them at least are aware of and respect the other's tastes.
Perhaps people who find themselves entirely in accord with this anthology should also look at Rosenthal's 'Poetry in English' -- a dull name but a fantastic anthology -- for an alternative view of Twentieth Century poetry. (And perhaps, for fuller coverage of the post-1960s poets, Lucie-Smith's 'British Poetry Since 1945'; and for a look at where this alternative English tradition can lead to, Crozier and Longville's 'A Various Art' or Sinclair's 'Conductors of Chaos'.) And for the opposite group: this anthology, with the reminder that Pound, the key figure in the Modernist movement, thought very highly of the key poetic figure in Larkin's English tradition, Thomas Hardy.
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This book gathers together Larkin's miscellanies. It consists of two interviews with Larkin, his introductions to his novels and books of poetry, talks about poetry, reviews of poetry anthologies, biographies and novels plus some material about jazz that is also included in his book "All What Jazz." Most of the writing is about literature and music with the exception of a review of a book on the language of children.
The poets discussed are almost all British poets of the late-19th and 20th century such as A.E. Housman, Stevie Smith, Wilfred Owen, John Betjeman, Thomas Hardy and W.H. Auden (the last two being Larkin's favorites). Throughout these writings, Larkin is seen fighting a battle against modernism. For him, the arts in the 20th century went astray with "(Ezra) Pound, Picasso and (Charlie) Parker." He prefers poems that "use language in the way we all use it" and music that is "an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones." This is a reasonable asethetic principle but he restates enough times in the book to become a little repetitious.
There is still enough good stuff to make the book worthwhile. There's some funny patches such as Larkin's description of the "fleshy, inarticulate" and aging jazz fans "whose first coronary is coming like Christmas." As a critic and a writer, Larkin is all for providing pleasure, instead of material for earnest study. Many readers will be refreshed by this approach to literature.
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The other reviews posted for this book on Amazon are wrong to imply that Larkin's tastes were timid or stuffy. In fact his heros were Henry Allen, Pee-Wee Russell, Bessie Smith, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Jabbo Smith, Jack Teagarden and so on. These are among greatest musicians and innovators of jazz.
Yes, Larkin thought Charlie Parker was overrated; he couldn't stand Coltrane; he thought Miles Davis was a bore. But don't be afraid to read why he thought so and you may learn something about your own heros.
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