Philip Larkin (1922-1985) is a poet whose very name conjures up a specific persona: the gloomy, death-obsessed and darkly humorous observer of human foibles and failings. The truth, both about the man and his work, is more complex, but the existence of the popular image points to Larkin's broader cultural influence, beyond the world of poetry. His personal reputation has sometimes suffered, particularly following the publication of his letters which revealed veins of right-wing opinion, but he remains much loved for his "piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent" (as defined by Jean Hartley of the Marvell Press). Born in Coventry, Larkin was the son of a Nazi-sympathising father who worked as the City Treasurer, and a mother to whom he felt a strong, though sometimes claustrophobic attachment. The "forgotten boredom" of his childhood was followed by a much more colourful period at Oxford University where he formed several important friendships with, amongst others, Kingsley Amis. Larkin's first job after University, running a local library in Shropshire, became his wage-earning career for the rest of his life, taking him to university libraries in Leicester, Belfast and finally Hull, where he stayed for thirty years. This lack of professional eventfulness was matched, at least on the surface, by his private life: despite several long-standing relationships with women, Larkin never married. Initially Larkin concentrated on writing fiction, producing two novels in the 1940s. His first poetry collection, The North Ship (1945) was heavily influenced by Yeats and did not yet present the voice for which he later became famous. The mature Philip Larkin style - that of the detached, sometimes lugubrious, sometimes tender observer of "ordinary people doing ordinary things" (Jean Hartley) - first appears in his second collection, The Less Deceived, published ten years later. The virtues of this poetic persona, its plainness and scepticism, came to be associated with The Movement, the post-war generation of poets brought together in the New Lines anthology of 1956. Two more collections followed at similarly lengthy intervals: The Whitsun Weddings (1965), considered by many to be his finest achievement, and High Windows (1974). In his final decade, Larkin's poetic inspiration largely failed, and he produced only a handful of poems before his death from cancer in 1985. This loss of inspiration was one of the reasons he turned down the post of Poet Laureate, offered to him the year before his death, though the fact he was first choice for it underlines the high regard in which he was held, despite his slight output.
Larkin was a fine reader of his work and the Archive is delighted to be able to present for the first time extracts from a newly-discovered recording dating from the early 1980s. It was made by John Weeks, the sound archivist at Hull University, and so a colleague of Larkin's. Despite the relaxed circumstances in which the sessions were recorded (on a series of Sunday afternoons following a leisurely lunch) the sound quality is excellent. Significant too is the extent of the recording: in choosing to read just shy of thirty poems, Larkin seems to be offering an overview of his career, as if aware he was nearing its end. The tapes were discovered in a garage by Mr Weeks' son and a commercial release will be forthcoming from Faber & Faber in January 2009. In the meantime, Archive listeners can enjoy a preview of Larkin's expert delivery of three of his most famous poems: 'Mr Bleaney', 'The Whitsun Weddings' and 'The Trees'. Larkin's voice on the page - full of hesitations and qualifications which give the impression of a mind caught in the act of thinking - is particularly suited to reading aloud. Larkin once said of his poems that he wanted to give readers the impression of "a chap chatting to chaps" and certainly his understated delivery does the colloquial aspect of his poetry justice. But this tone is balanced in these poems by a hard-won lyricism, transcendence even, especially in the final stanza of 'The Whitsun Weddings' which shifts the language of the poem from realist description into heightened metaphor with the beautiful image of gathering emotional momentum as an arrow shower "somewhere becoming rain". It is such sudden openings, coupled with the subtle music of his highly-structured but flexible verse forms, that lifts Larkin's poetry beyond the misanthropy of which he sometimes stands accused.
The Poetry Archive is very grateful to Mr Weeks for allowing us to make use of this valuable recording.