Larkin About: on inspiration

There’s a wonderful documentary from BBC Monitor in 1964, in which the poet Philip Larkin is interviewed by John Betjeman, and they are discussing the nature of poetic inspiration.

Larkin himself states, ”One doesn’t really choose the poetry that one writes.”” He reflects on some of his earlier poems, which he finds it uncomfortable to re-visit (calling it ”tripe”), and says that part of the reason he no longer likes it is because “”it seemed so unreal, and without any possible references to my own life as I was living it.””

Philip LarkinBoth these ideas are crucial, I think, to understanding part of the nature of artistic inspiration:  there is often little choice in the nature of the poem or music the artist is complled to write, and their experience is key. The composer Jonathan Harvey also picks up on this in his Music and Inspiration, where he writes that “only forms of experience that have a particular resonance for [the artist] will contribute to the artistic process” (1990:40).

In other words, artistic inspiration is linked to, or perhaps grounded in, personal experience, and the artist is at the mercy of being inspired, without necessarily having full control over the birth of suitable ideas.  My own experience of the process of writing, either music or poetry, bears this out: inspiration comes directly from moments of experience, a phrase suddenly overheard suggesting a complete poem, or reading a poem suggesting a musical response to it. It’s almost akin to archeology: I’m not writing the work, simply unearthing what is already present.

The writer Elizabeth Bowen puts it brilliantly: ‘the poet, and in his wake the short story writer, is using his own, unique, suceptibility to experience: in a sense, the suceptibility is the experience”” (cited in Philip Larkin 1922-1985: a tribute, ed. Hartley, Marvell Press, 1988: 272). To this, I would add little other than “”and the composer.””

The documentary is also wonderful for the chance to hear Larkin himself reading ‘Toad Revisited’ in his dolorous tones. And as a meditation on poetic inspiration, it’s invaluable.

Author: Daniel Harding

Head of Music Performance, University of Kent: pianist, accompanist and conductor: jazz enthusiast.

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