A scholar who has published previously about Philip Larkin (1922-1985) returns with a full-meal biography glowing with admiration.
Booth (Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight, 2005), who was for nearly two decades one of Larkin’s colleagues at the University of Hull, does not find a lot to dislike in this lushly detailed life. Where others have found fault, the author often begs to differ. In Larkin’s letters, for example, are occasional terms and phrases that many readers find racially offensive. Booth characterizes them as “performative riffs,” examples of Larkin’s linguistic posturing. After a defensive introduction (Larkin was neither a racist nor a misogynist), Booth proceeds in chronological fashion. We learn about Larkin’s parents (his mother lived until 1977), his lifelong passion for classic jazz (and, later, his unhappiness with John Coltrane and other more modern performers), his schooling and his off-and-on friendship with Kingsley Amis. Both were hopeful novelists, but when Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954) appeared and soared, Larkin, who had published a couple of novels in the mid-1940s, turned exclusively to poetry. Larkin became a librarian and held various positions throughout his life, jobs that enabled him to have time for his poetry, and his verse soon became both popular and honored. Booth spends many pages discussing individual poems, as well as the drafts Larkin recorded in his many workbooks. Most of these analyses are accessible, though we occasionally read something precious: “The hissing monosyllable ‘this’ with its high short vowel seems arrogant.” Booth also charts the poet’s intimate relationships with various women (Larkin sometimes maintained as many as three simultaneously). We read, too, about his jealous disdain for Ted Hughes (he preferred Sylvia Plath’s poetry), as well as his physical decline (including deafness) preceding the arrival of the cancer that killed him.
Definitive in its scope and detail but somewhat too hagiographic.