Poetry and All That Jazz
"Few things have given me more pleasure in life than jazz. I don't claim to be original in this"
Three years before he died, Philip Larkin collected his interviews, book reviews, jazz reviews & miscellaneous writing into a collection called Required Writing. My parents gave it to my grandad for Christmas. When he (my grandad) died, I got most of his books, and I was quite happy with this acknowledged link - that we, unlike the rest of the family, liked proper writing, not Mary Wesley or gardening books or Terry Pratchett (mother, father, sister respectively). He gave me my first, Whitsun Weddings along with a book of poetry by Craig Raine that I've never struggled through (sample stanza: "And here are the dead/raising a napkin reaching/for salt or a little more/non-vintage chablis"). He said if I were to have one I had to have the other, like chocolate mousse and brussel sprouts. I read Required Writing last month over several 15 minute train rides to and from work, smug and snobbish amongst the Harry Potters and Evening Standards. From Larkin's first essay in 1955 to the last in 1982, he's banging on about the same things:- 1) All modernism is rubbish and 2) Poetry should affect the reader's emotions and not be 'difficult'. That and not wanting to get married seems to be the ideas that he clung to in times of difficulty, alcoholism or bad parties.
Like Orwell, Larkin has a way of instantaneous iconoclasty and this comes across more strongly in the jazz pieces:-
"Thelonius Monk seemed a not very successful comic, as his funny hats proclaimed"
Apart from his misunderstanding of Plath, his musings on poetry and prose are more positive. But I prefer the jazz sections; because he was writing them in the 70s, he had to keep - not apologising - but justifying his love of it, rather like I have to here. Since the anti-rock backlash of the mid-nineties, when it became ironic and then cool to like easy listening, it has become acceptable to listen to a bit of Ella or Frank now and again. Part of this, I suspect, was 20-somethings rebelling against their parents' Beatles albums, just as they in their turn had rebelled against the camp Americana of Doris Day etc. But sit down with Lester Young or Duke Ellington for half an hour and people start giving you a cheezy look and saying 'nice', or talking about men with beards in smoky basements. The peculiar, if not dated, thing about the Larkin book is that he hates what people see as ''good" jazz, be-bop, vocal (when the vocalist is more than just another instrument, i.e. Sarah Vaughn as compared to the understatement of Billie Holiday), improv, Charlie Parker. These are nowadays the kind of things that people are more likely to listen to, rather than abstract and free-form jazz or the fusion that came after.
Larkin is a trad jazzer, he loves the ragtimes and the four-piece New Orleans negro (sic) bands. [He, unfortunately, seems to think that once Blacks were no longer slaves then the music went downhill]. I think in the end, this has less to do with types of jazz, and more to do with age. Born in 1922, he regrets immensely not having been able to see Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton etc. I am astonished that he could've gone to see Ella Fitgerald sing live, but would have hated it. We all want two generations back.
There is a similar generation gap in the poetry reviews. He, as stated, hated poetry that was "deliberately difficult", that makes the reader obliged to read vast acres of classical literature before being able to understand the references (indeed an English Lecturer at University advised that if we were to grasp TS Elliott, we would have had to read The Tempest, Homer and the Bible - which was not a popular suggestion). But the references he makes in his reviews - suddenly slipping in a French word here or a German phrase there, despite his avowed hatred of 'foreign' ("Lonely in Ireland/since it was not home") and writings on topics as varied as why English libraries should be buying manuscripts from still-living writers or Thomas Hardy's second wife or what AE Housman had in his library at home - are not practising what he preached. What one has to understand of course, is that when Larkin was in his Whitsun prime, literature was still something enjoyed outside of Universities and Hampstead reading clubs. Esoteric essays were something to be enjoyed. People would read John Betjeman or even John Dunne for fun. You turned to Camus for enlightenment, not your holistic therapist.
Ironic too how he hated the 'subsidisation' and study of poetry, yet worked in a University Library, which tends to encourage these things. But this contradictory nature is also the essence of Larkin's poetry. Poems such as Toads, Self's the Man and Vers de Societé take an idea - hating work, the selfishness of not having had a family or not wanting to go to a social gathering - and invert it, so at the end of the poem, he's grateful not to be unemployed or have children or just to be to invited out. This dichotomy of feeling is at the heart of Larkin's work. He writes nasty lines such as "The women I clubbed with sex/ I broke them up like meringues" on one hand and complains about "the Misogynists Calendar" of "Les Jeunes Filles" by Henri de Montherlant on the other. He claims "Books are a load of crap" whilst making a reputation writing and reviewing them and talks somewhat patronisingly of "ancient negros" and then composes the beautiful jazz poem For Sidney Bechet which swings as much as the tune which is its subject: "On me your voice falls as they say love should/Like an enormous yes"
Philip Larkin was our Ginsberg and we never even noticed.
© Rachel Stevenson 2002