instantly unforgettable


How good/great/important/major is Philip Larkin? Instinctively and not illogically we do bow, in these matters, to the verdict of Judge Time. Larkin died 25 years ago, and his reputation (after the wild fluctuation in the mid-1990s, to which we will return) looks increasingly secure. And we also feel, do we not, that originality is at least a symptom of creative worth. Larkin certainly felt so. In a letter of 1974 he quotes a remark by Clive James – “originality is not an ingredient of poetry, it is poetry” – and adds, “I’ve been feeling that for years.” Larkin’s originality is palpable. Many poets make us smile; how many poets make us laugh – or, in that curious phrase, “laugh out loud” (as if there’s any other way of doing it)? Who else uses an essentially conversational idiom to achieve such a variety of emotional effects? Who else takes us, and takes us so often, from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom? And let it be emphasised that Larkin is never “depressing”. Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown. I said earlier that Larkin is easily memorised. Like originality, memorability is of course impossible to quantify. Yet in Larkin these two traits combine with a force that I have not seen duplicated elsewhere. His greatest stanzas, for all their unexpectedness, make you feel that a part of your mind was already prepared to receive them – was anxiously awaiting them. They seem ineluctable, or predestined. Larkin, often, is more than memorable. He is instantly unforgettable.

more from Martin Amis at the FT here.