Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Philip Larkin almost tried to sound unattractive and misanthropic. How'd he describe himself at Oxford? As a balding salmon. Ultra-conservative in politics and art, he praised Margaret Thatcher and mocked experimenters like Picasso. For Larkin (a college librarian), poetry was "an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are." He didn't read in public and eschewed any fanfare associated with what he scornfully called "being a poet." College pal Kingsley Amis once asked if he dreamed of being poet laureate of England, and Larkin quipped, "I dream about that sometimes -- and wake up screaming." He never wasted a reader's time but spitefully resented his own being wasted through inane social activity. He opens "Vers de Société" by satirizing an invitation:

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps

To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps

You'd care to join us? In a pig's arse, friend.

Day comes to an end.

The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.

And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I'm afraid --

The poem concludes with Larkin's trademark fear of death, which leads him to accept the invite he initially scorned:

Only the young can be alone freely.

The time is shorter now for company,

And sitting by a lamp more often brings

Not peace, but other things.

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