Mohd. Perwez & S. M. Rizwan Ahmad
Philip Larkin: A Great Post-Modernist Poet
The term 'Post-Modernism' was very much in use in the late 1960s. The originators of the post-modern argument were French intellectuals like Jean Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Post-modernism is at times an adaptation of features tried out within modernism and at other times showing practices which had in their turn become conventional.
Though there are a number of Post-modernist poets like Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, John Holloway, and John Wain. Philip Larkin (1922-85) has emerged as one of the most eminent poets among them. Dana Gioia's discerning review in the Washington Post1 acknowledged Larkin as one of the century's indisputably great poets, whose writings withstood comparison with those of Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, and W. H. Auden. In fact, Philip Larkin is one of Britain's pre-eminent Twentieth Century poets. His posthumous Collected Poems sold over 35000 hardback copies in a single year, an unheard of achievement for poetry in this telemedia age. Larkin's reputation rests on five anthologies: The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), Whitsun Weddings (1964), High Windows (1974), and Aubade (1980).
The importance of these anthologies lay in the fact that between them they amounted to a manifesto for Postmodernist Poetry and Larkin's work was seen as central to this poetic tendency. Basically, the post modernist poets formed their ideas in reaction to previous movements in British poetry. Where T. S. Eliot and the modernists of the 1920s had preached the value of difficulty and had opened themselves to new influences from the past tradition in English literature and from European and American writing, the postmodernist poets stood for simplicity and even colloquialism of expression and adopted firmly British values and forms, where W. H. Auden and the political poets of the 1930s exalted the social role of the poet and the necessity of political change, the post-modernist poetry firmly divorced from political programmes. Where Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalyptics of the 1940s spoke of the intensity of their emotions and the consequent dislocation of ordinary syntax, the post-modernists prided themselves in keeping the emotions under firm control and tended to regard poetry as one part of everyday communication of one person to the other.
For the Post-modernist poets, including Philip Larkin, the identity of the poet is stripped off its glamour and the poet becomes an ordinary man talking about things in a language - though versified - sounds quite prosaic. As a human being the poet is in no way special, nor is there any reason to glorify his self. These poets present series of disillusionment that they underwent which led them to negative feelings. This is Philip Larkin's attitude in poem after poem. Even childhood, which is traditionally depicted as an ideal, golden period, is portrayed as dull and uninteresting. The account he gives of his childhood in his poem, 'I Remember, I Remember,' stands out for its anaemia. Childhood is remembered as one bleak period when nothing, just nothing, seems to have happened:
'You look as if you wished the place in Hell'
My friend said, 'judging from your face! Oh well,
I suppose its not the place's fault', I said
'Nothing like something, happens anywhere'.
In the poem, 'Church Going', Larkin shows that an everyday concern of the common man is religion. The opening lines of the poem are important for what they mean:
Once I am sure there's nothing going on,
I step inside.
The poet probably would not have entered if some religious activity had been going on inside. He enters the sacred building just like a casual visitor devoid of any religious conviction. The dilemma of the twentieth century man, as Larkin sees it, is what to believe in if not religion.
Whereas 'Church Going,' is concerned with rituals conducted in church-rituals accompanying birth, death and marriage - the theme of 'The Whitsun Weddings' is specifically the marriage ritual and the importance it has in human life. It describes Larkin journeying from Hull to London and slowly realizing that his train is filling with newly married couples who are just embarking on their honeymoons. Besides the main theme of the poem, it is clearly evident that the poet is an avowed lover of natural beauty too.
At the start of the journey, before the weddings catch his attention, he looks out of the window at a landscape which is being spoilt by a creeping shabbiness of modern Britain:
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floating of industrial froth
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
Until the next town, new and non-descript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
Donald Davie discusses 'The Whitsun Weddings' in his book, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry2, where he argues that Larkin is only able to sympathize with the after train passengers by virtue of the fact that he represses his aesthetic responses to the natural world and the way it is being ruined as well as his historical awareness, that the British landscape was once more beautiful than it is now.
As far as the poet's view of marriage is concerned, it is apparently a cynical one. The participants of the ritual are comic figures, beginning with the brides, the "grinning and pomaded girls" and the equally ludicrous older generation. However, the main thrust of the poem is not on the absurdity of the entire situation. The concluding note is what matters the most to Larkin that one particular day an assorted number of different characters involved in different situations come together briefly sharing a few moments of their lives together they may never meet again and even on that particular day, they may not have met but for the "frail / travelling coincidence." It is this strangeness of everyday life that Larkin muses on.
Of all the Post-modernist poets, Larkin has shown the greatest concern for spiritual values. The loss of innocence, almost Edenic in character, so poignantly regretted by Larkin has implicit religious concern. In 'The Building,' 'Faith Healing,' 'Water,' 'Next Please,' 'Aubade' and naturally 'Church Going,' he has explored a different dimension of religious convictions.
The theory that the main spring of Larkin's poetry is its complexity of attitudes explains to so small a part of his creative genius to serve more than a starting point in analyzing the originality of his contribution to poetry. There is, no doubt, complexity of attitudes at the heart of Larkin's verse. Unlike any other important modern British poet, Larkin has constructed no system into which his poems can fit in the proper sense of the term. His is an individual achievement and a memorable one.
1Dana Gioia, "The Still Sad Music of Philip Laarkin,' Washington Post Book Word, 15 Aug. 1993, pp. 1 & 9.
2Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (Routledge & Kegal Paul, 1973).