Philip Larkin and Literary Americans
Philip Larkin and Literary Americans
In 1956 John Shakespeare of the Times Educational Supplement wrote the first feature-length article on Philip Larkin to appear in the British national press,1 comprising a character sketch of the poet printed alongside a photographic portrait and a short poem called ‘At First’ (later renamed ‘First Sight’ and published in The Whitsun Weddings in 1964).2 I say Shakespeare wrote it, but his name was not attached to the piece and nor, in fact, was most of the content of the final article drafted by the journalist himself. The previous year George Hartley’s The Marvell Press had published The Less Deceived, since recognised as Larkin’s first ‘mature’ collection of poetry, and the poet’s literary stock had started to skyrocket. Aware that Shakespeare’s article might prove an important point of reference for anyone interested in him, Larkin was keen to make sure that it said what he wanted it to say about his manner and attitudes. Several sections were redrafted wholesale by the poet, who wanted it to include, among other things, a description of himself as ‘a mild xenophobe’ who ‘never goes abroad if he can help it’. No such comments appeared in Shakespeare’s original.3
Throughout his adult life Larkin had what can reasonably be described as an irrational, deep-set fear of foreign places. Andrew Motion, in his biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, documents Larkin’s dread at having to visit Germany to collect the Shakespeare Prize.4 It was holidays in Germany as a child of the ’thirties that had, according to the poet, ‘sowed the seed of my hatred of abroad’,5 a seed that germinated abundantly in Larkin’s adulthood. Whether this ‘hatred of abroad’ was more accurately a hatred of going abroad, or near scatter-gun xenophobia, is a matter of debate; certainly, however, one country received the brunt of Larkin’s opprobrium: the United States of America.
Larkin never visited America, and never wanted to. In 1963 he wrote to the author Barbara Pym that Kingsley Amis’s novel One Fat Englishman ‘takes its place among all the other books that don’t make me want to visit America’.6 His distaste is comically vague, and pretends to be nothing else: ‘I dread America’, he had told the poet John Wain four years earlier, ‘for unknown germs, Puerto Rican stabbings, etc’ (Letters, 303), and in 1943, as the Second World War raged, he concluded a letter to Kingsley Amis as follows:
- I should like to concur briefly with you about the Americans. I had a strong attack of anti-transatlanticism after reading a copy of ‘Look’ or ‘Life’ or ‘Cock’ or something: it was written in an incredibly irritating way.... Fuck America. God fuck America. (Letters, 67)
Larkin had just turned twenty-one when he wrote this, and his comments can be pigeonholed as youthful xenophobic prattle, as unreasoned and pointless as they are passionate. But it is notable that America, particularly literary, scholarly America, never fell from the radar screen.
American academics receive the most scorn of all, and are the butt of numerous jokes. In one letter to his friend Robert Conquest, written in 1959, Larkin states that ‘boredom hangs around like a crappy friend, or a literary American one’s forced to be nice to’ (Letters, 306). In 1959 Conquest took up one of his several academic appointments in the USA, and in the first paragraph of his first letter to Conquest after this move Larkin wrote: ‘I am really tempted to go and see if, for me, US wd be full of fishy winds, trolley buses, girls like plethoric sausages, etc’ (Letters, 307). He could not have been all that tempted, because he never got any closer than this to turning the opportunity to go to America into a visit. But from the safe distance of his flat in Pearson Park, Hull, he was enthusiastic about fostering a somewhat less glamorous stereotype of that country and its citizens, with half-comic notions of relentless Conservativism and worthless academic sinecures at its core. He goes on in his letter to offer Conquest some ‘advice’, sinking into characteristic parody, along those very lines:
- Yes, you’ll have to brush up your W.S. Graham and Laurie Lee & David Gascoyne & Anne Ridler & Kathleen Raine & Terence Tiller if you’re going to lecture on mod: po: at the Buffalo University TeeTotal Organisation’s Christian Knowledge Society. What? Oh by gorra you’re for it, boy. ‘Wud you mind giving us your opinion of the relative indebtedness to William Blake and, say, Hölderlin, of Mr Michael Hamburger, Professor Conquest?’ (Letters, 307)
Then, in 1977, when Conquest was a newly-appointed Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University, where Donald Davie was Palmer Professor in Humanities, Larkin blessed his friend’s recent appointment with a ‘song’ and asked him to pass it on to Davie with his ‘regards’. It ended with the following lines:
- California, you’re my perk,
Help me to indulge my quirk,
Otherwise I’ll have to work –
California, here I come! (Letters, 561)
America, it seems, is where England’s literary intellectuals go to join literary Americans in debates about academic insignificances, and to shirk the responsibilities of ‘genuine’ employment. Larkin insinuates that whilst he might occasionally have had to be nice to these people, he was not going to seek them out under any circumstances.
One literary American Larkin was ‘forced to be nice to’ was the critic Janice Rossen, whom he met in later life: ‘he paid tribute to my nationality by relating a story about crime in New York City’.7 At least she managed to find him. In an interview from about the same time Larkin paints a striking cartoon image of irritating American poetasters and literary critics who are particularly keen to ‘get at’ him in some professional-academic capacity, but generally too stupid to manage it:
- I love all the Americans getting on to the train at King’s Cross and thinking they’re going to come and bother me, and then looking at the connections and deciding they’ll go to Newcastle and bother Basil Bunting instead.8
It is hard to believe this ever happened, of course. But Larkin was not one to refuse an opportunity to stick a knife into his American cousins.
American universities, quite singularly, are seen as hotbeds of the worst kinds of academic jackals and charlatans. In an interview with the American journal Paris Review he commented: ‘I remember saying once, I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife’.9 Only in that country, it is implied, could this sort of intellectual whoring take place. What is more, literary critics – especially American ones – are guilty of chronically misunderstanding poets and their craft. Larkin presumably had T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’10 in mind when he said:
- This American idea – it is American, isn’t it? started with Pound and Eliot? – that somehow every new poem has to be the sum of all old poems, like the latest Ford, well, it’s the sort of idea lecturers get, if you’ll excuse my saying so. Makes sense and so on: only it’s not how poetry works.11
By the same token, if an American critic is seen to misunderstand him, Larkin is keen to stress their nationality. Discussing ‘Church Going’ with Ian Hamilton, for instance, Larkin said: ‘I was a bit irritated by an American who insisted to me it was a religious poem. It isn’t religious at all.’12 Moreover, America can be a drain on a poet’s creativity: in a contemporaneous review of W.H. Auden’s Homage to Clio, published in 1960, Larkin considers Auden’s move to the USA in 1939 as a watershed in his poetic development. A distinction is made between ‘a tremendously exciting English social poet full of energetic unliterary knock-about and unique lucidity of phrase, and … an engaging, bookish, American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving’ (Required Writing, 123). It would be wrong to dispute that Auden’s poetry changed after 1939, but the reasons behind this change are duly complex: simply drawing the distinction between an ‘English social poet’ and a mere ‘American talent’ is an oversimplification, tinged with anti-Americanism and anti-American-intellectualism.
It is hardly a shock, then, that when Americans are alluded to in Larkin’s work it tends to be with scorn or distaste. How could the Academic philistine in ‘Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses’ (CP 134) not have given his recycled lecture to an American audience (at ‘Berkeley’)? And how could the evangelical healer of women in ‘Faith Healing’ (CP 126), ‘Within whose warm spring rain of loving care / Each dwells some twenty seconds’, have anything other than a ‘deep American voice’? (Admittedly, this is sociological accuracy: such faith-healers were American – to have written ‘Geordie voice’ would simply have been wrong; though in noting that such people were American Larkin is clearly trying to tell his reader something about that country.) But nowhere is anti-American opprobrium heaped so plentifully than upon the subject of ‘Posterity’ (CP 170), one ‘Jake Balokowsky’:
- Jake Balokowsky, my biographer,
Has this page microfilmed. Sitting inside
His air-conditioned cell at Kennedy ...
Larkin told his American interviewer at The Paris Review that ‘poets write for people with the same background and experiences as themselves’ (Required Writing, 69). To such a reader the joke in the surname would be obvious, and its humour is compounded by the fact that ‘bollocks’ is a distinctly British profanity: Balokowsky would probably not know or consider why his name might be so immediately funny to a Briton, and this sets the trend for his behaviour and the reader’s presumed reaction to it throughout the ensuing poem. But it is possible that Larkin was also inspired in his choice of name by that of the famous Polish-English mathematician Jacob Bronowsky, once a lecturer at Hull University and an extremely prominent figure on British television in the 1960s: next to Bronowsky, as academics go, Balokowsky is a comically weak American counterpart.
The poem ‘overhears’ Balokowsky in his ‘air-conditioned cell’ at ‘Kennedy’. This could be a reference to the tiny John F. Kennedy University of Pleasant Hill, California, founded in 1964; though the name is evidently chosen for its pervasiveness, even by 1968 when the poem was written, in the naming of new American institutions, a fact that makes it easy for an Englishman to cock a cheap snook. From his pseudo-ivory tower he discusses his academic ‘tenure’ in clinical terms, and his current charge: writing the poet’s biography. As Steve Clark notes, the poem’s Israeli and Jewish references have ‘an unpleasant tinge, but first and foremost Jake Balokowsky is American’,13 and the poem’s Americanisms and American spellings come thick and fast. In eighteen lines we learn that Jake is ‘In jeans and sneakers’, had ‘wanted to teach school in Tel Aviv’, pronounces ‘research’ as a trochee (‘He shrugs. “It’s stinking dead, the research line”’), hopes to ‘get a couple of semesters leave // To work on Protest Theater’, uses ‘the Coke dispenser’, has read ‘That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych’, and, naturally, makes ugly use of ‘natural’ as an adverb: ‘his charge is ‘One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys’. Six years after the poem was written Larkin wrote to his publisher at Faber, Charles Monteith, that ‘the American slang [is] not quite right’ (Motion, 378), and certainly he lays it on extremely thick. We are supposed, with the poet, to cringe and snarl with disgust as we hear Balokowsky prattle on in uncouth American English, and watch him ‘make the money sign’ and wallow in the accoutrements of American consumerism. He is a youthfully zealous lounging embodiment of Larkin’s ‘song’ to Robert Conquest, which was to be written nine years later. One of Larkin’s workbooks reveals that a draft of the poem went even further in its parody, including the cringeworthy faux-Americanism ‘What’s he like? / Strictly from Squareville, dad’.14 But too much is too much, and the final version of poem is sufficiently glutted to make its point about Balokowsky: he is the academic equivalent of a moron, and his nationality does not help. As Larkin once said in relation to his right-wing political views: ‘All very unfair, no doubt’ (Required Writing, 52).
Of course, there is a vicious joy in all of this, as rudimentary and banal as it is scathing. As much as he is mocked for his words, Jake is ridiculed simply for being an American. Perhaps a sensitive reader can only overcome their dismay at the bitter prejudice underscoring ‘Posterity’ by understanding the somewhat irrational fear of cultural annihilation that lies at its heart. This is much more powerful than a strong version of the expected reaction from a self-confessed ‘mild xenophobe’. Regarding Larkin’s brand of fervent anti-Americanism, Steve Clark has observed:
- Larkin’s anger, bitterness and protest can be read as a form of resistance to an increasingly dominant American culture. His work may be seen not merely as a lament for the demise of the British Empire, but also as a stubborn refusal of its transatlantic successor, most explicitly personified in Jake Balokowsky. (Clark, 179)
This is a point worth considering: his position is that of a defender of English culture and values against the encroachments of the new empire. The poet – the ‘My’ of the poem – is, after all, English, but he has an American biographer; we can have no doubt that this American will fall short of his charge by writing pseudo-academic gibberish before he moves on to other more desired things, such as ‘Protest Theater’. Part of Larkin’s point about Americans in this poem is that they (embodied by Jake) cannot grasp how one can be a ‘natural fouled-up guy’, with no specific reason such as drugs or ‘something happening’: there has to be some sort of nameable cause, whereas for Larkin it is a natural part of the human condition to become ‘fouled-up’ by life. Unable to see this, Balokowsky is hardly likely to write an insightful biography. The American academy has turned an artist into a subject that facilitates the career advancement of someone manifestly ill-equipped for the job, and in doing so has reduced that artist to a paving slab. Resigned to his fate at the hands of a new barbarism, Larkin’s speaker lampoons it with vitriolic wit, and in the process provides a very acute and biting analysis of certain tendencies in academic life.
Extract from an early draft of ‘Posterity’ © 2009 The Estate of Philip Larkin. I am very grateful to The Society of Authors, on behalf of The Estate, for permission to use this material.
Clark, Steve. ‘“The lost displays”: Larkin and Empire’. New Larkins for Old: Critical Essays, ed. James Booth. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000.
Eliot, T. S. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1960):47-59.
Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber, 1988.
Larkin, Philip. Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Reviews. London: Faber, 2001.
Larkin, Philip. Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955 – 1982. London: Faber, 1983.
Larkin, Philip. Selected Letters of Philip Larkin: 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber, 1992.
Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. London: Faber, 1993.
Shakespeare, John. ‘“A few suggestions”: How the little-known Philip Larkin gave me his first interview – and then took back his words to rewrite them’. The Times Literary Supplement. 3 April 2009: 12-14.
Shakespeare, John. ‘Philip Larkin’. The Times Educational Supplement. 13 July 1956: 933.
3 The full details of Larkin’s influence on this article can be found in John Shakespeare, ‘“A few suggestions”: How the little-known Philip Larkin gave me his first interview – and then took back his words to rewrite them’, The Times Literary Supplement (3 April 2009), 12-14.