For over forty years, Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones, the woman who shared his life. As Anthony Thwaite, Larkin’s literary executor and friend, revealed in The Telegraph this weekend, letters and postcards the two exchanged have now been published for the first time.
Fantastic news for those who enjoyed Larkin’s Selected Letters published by Faber in 1993, and who read the replies to Larkin by his friend and fellow literary giant, Kingsley Amis when HarperCollins published a vast tome of Amis’ vibrant correspondence in 2001, The Letters of Kingsley Amis.
Notoriously reclusive, shunning travel and avoiding the limelight, not much of Larkin, other than the few slim volumes of poetry he published, reaches the public eye; at his request, Monica Jones destroyed Larkin’s journals when he died.
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.””
Both 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.
Published only after her death in 1886, Because I Could Not Stop for Death is a tiny masterpiece by the American poet Emily Dickinson. Its effect is completely disproportionate to the scale and manner of the poem itself, as is the concept with which an apparently disarming rhyming-scheme is dealing.
The poem plays with time, or the perception of it: the narrator is far too busy for her activities to be halted even by Death, although it appears Death stops to collect her.
Because I could not stop for Death,/ He kindly stopped for me;/ The carriage held but just ourselves/ And Immortality.
The second verse then settles and creates a sense of calm, as the narrator escapes from the hectic passage of everyday time :
We slowly drove, he knew no haste, / And I had put away / My labour, and my leisure too, / For his civility.
The next verse continues the idea of time slowing and stretching, as well as portraying different times of the day: the morning of school, the lazy haze of a field of wheat as the afternoon and the setting sun of the evening creating a warm, pastoral image
We passed the school where children played,/ Their lessons scarcely done;/ We passed the fields of gazing grain,/ We passed the setting sun.
The carriage stops beside her grave, which she calmly seems not to recognise:
We paused before a house that seemed/ A swelling of the ground;/ The roof was scarcely visible,/ The cornice but a mound.
But it’s the final verse that really takes your breath away. Time suddenly contracts: there’s almost a sense of pausing, of suddenly becoming still as the narrator realises that she is dead, and the journey in the carriage is without end.
Since then ’tis centuries; but each/ Feels shorter than the day / I first surmised the horses’ heads/ Were toward eternity.
The same sense of dawning realisation which is striking the narrator is also striking you as the reader. It really is like being dashed in the face by cold water. The first time I read the poem, I felt slapped in the face: the implications of that last verse absolutely brought me up short.
For me, this is akin to walking through a room and out onto a balcony: suddenly the view before you unfolds across a wider plane, and you realise the context in which you had been reading before is operating at a much larger scale than you could have previously imagined. As great poetry can, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Larkin’s musings on misery, the focus of the poem shifts in a flash from the specific to the universal in a way that pulls you up short and makes you reconsider.
(There’s a setting by composer John Adams of the poem, as part of his piece Harmonium, which you can preview on his MySpace page here: click to open in pop-out player).
Short, deft but astonishing: Dickinson’s poetic strengths in a nutshell.
Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click hereto view his Music Matters blog.