The Reaches of Stringency: On Philip Larkin

51pPcE-4KtL._SL500_AA300_Michael Wood in The Nation:

Philip Larkin is known and admired for his “poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations”—these words are Donald Davie’s—but his best work is often both narrower and more troubling than these terms suggest, as it concerns something like the unpronounceable loss of what we were never going to have, or a complicated refusal of what was not quite on offer. The logic of the wonderful “Poetry of Departures,” for example, suggests that any tale of escape from drab reality will be both overblown and alluring, because “We all hate home/And having to be there.” So why not leave: because the tales are phony? They are, but that is not the real obstacle. No, the tales themselves help us to “stay/Sober and industrious”; more subtly, escape itself is all about home and what’s wrong with it, a reverse framing of what we can’t leave. There isn’t anywhere else. “But I’d go today,” the poem ends,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

“Reprehensibly perfect” is itself perfect, a miming of criticism that is also a form of self-congratulation. So too are those careful, mock-hesitant line breaks at “if” and “a life.” Behind the poem we intuit a Philip Larkin who has just these feelings, or at least wouldn’t disavow them, and another Larkin who is broaching them, performing them, fully aware of the poem’s crisscrossing insights and illusions, watching the man who is so anxious not to be fooled caught in the business of fooling himself.