Americans dread poetry, especially poetry they're told is good, but here's Philip Larkin's "Collected Poems" on the Washington bestseller list, and his American publisher ordering a second printing. Why? It makes more sense in Britain, where even before cancer killed him in 1985, at the age of 63, Larkin could be described with sticky adjectives like "best-loved." The book has sold 45,000 copies there. Here, few people have heard of him, and the literary establishment in America has ignored him the way he ignored them. This was to be expected. He posed no threat as culture hero, critic or professor, so no one had to read him, poets being writers that you have to read rather than want to read, usually. One difference between modern poets and old ones is that the modern ones learned it doesn't take hundreds of years to become honored but dreaded, unread but feted. You can do it in your own lifetime, with public readings, government grants, television and creative writing courses. Larkin did not. In fact, if it weren't for his poetry ("We love Larkin, and that is it, simply," writes Derek Walcott in the New York Review of Books), he wouldn't seem like a poet at all. He had no mental illness, suicide attempts, bedfuls of college girls (or boys), or dust jacket photos with turtleneck sweater, dog, Greek fisherman's cap or beard. He did not have to be forgiven for drunkenness, antisemitism, sponging off friends or reading aloud to the accompaniment of second-rate symphony orchestras at summer festivals. Although he made recordings, he refused public readings: "I don't want to go around pretending to be me," he said once. He was a bald, stammering, hard-of-hearing, right-wing bachelor with ugly eyeglasses. He looked like the man down the street with tropical fish and a way of yelling at your children. He wrote two novels ("Jill" and "A Girl in Winter") and then became the librarian of the University of Hull -- an out-of-the-way seaport on the English Channel. He was said to be a very good librarian. He stayed in Hull. "I hate being abroad," he said. He was no recluse, with all the glamour attendant on J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, but people don't tend to sit around telling Philip Larkin stories the way they tell Dylan Thomas stories, either. They quote him a lot, though. The first Larkin I ran into, more than 20 years ago, came from a friend who'd lived in England. He quoted a poem Larkin addressed to a girl who'd been raped: "All the unhurried day/ Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives." This is the poem that ends with the rapist described as bursting into "fulfillment's desolate attic," a phrase that shows every sign of making it into Bartlett's Quotations one of these days. The other lines my friend recited are already in Bartlett's, the description of death coming after us in the form of a ship, in "Next, Please": Only one ship is seeking us, a black- Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back A huge and birdless silence. In her wake No waters breed or break. And, while we're at it, let's quote the first verse of the much-quoted "Annus Mirabilis," which is in the Larkin mode that is not so much vulgar as clearsighted: Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (Which was rather late for me) -- Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles' first LP. He led no campaigns to free imprisoned Bulgarian novelists. He left no spoor of proto-fascist Anglican royalist footnotes, like T.S. Eliot. He lacked the coyness of James Merrill writing poetry with a Ouija board. He didn't steal shirts, like Dylan Thomas. There was no martyrdom to the Philistines, but then again, he wrote none of the sort of poetry you could retype in ordinary prose and never know the difference. He had no farm to pine for during adjunct professorships of creative writing in the city. He never taught creative writing at all. He told the Paris Review: "I remember saying once, I can't understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: It's like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife. Whoever I was talking to said, 'They'd do that, too, if their agents could fix it.' " He also feared that a poet as university teacher "will begin to assume unconsciously that the more a poem can be analyzed -- and therefore the more it needs to be analyzed -- the better poem it is, and he may in consequence, again unconsciously, start to write the kind of poem that is earning him a living." There's very little to analyze in Larkin's poetry. He was a conservative, but unlike Eliot or Pound, he did not brood on the decline of civilization or salt his poems with wistfully obscure references. He did not generate a private vocabulary with mystical hooey, in the manner of Yeats. He wrote in rhyme and meter, usually, but he was also a modernist with his constant brooding on the meaninglessness of death and the threat of oblivion -- not nuclear, cultural or racial oblivion: oblivion oblivion. "Most things may never happen: this one will," he wrote in "Aubade," one of the 80-some poems that were unavailable or unseen before "Collected Poems" came out. Life, he said, was a collection of days. "Where can we live but days?" he asks, and invokes death for the answer. Ah, solving that question Brings the priest and the doctor In their long coats Running over the fields. Here Larkin's flair for the morbid and the picturesque may strike some readers as sentimentally bleak, like the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. In any case, it was a chance he was willing to take, in search of "a single emotional spearpoint, a concentrated effect that is achieved by leaving out everything but the emotion itself." Lots of poets write about emotions, of course. What sets Larkin apart is that he didn't write about how he felt, he wrote because he felt, and about what made him feel that way: death, a country fair, the decline of England, marriage, wind in grass, the life of a lighthouse keeper and so on. He believed in poetry that was his alone, but he did not chronicle his struggles with the universe, in the romantic tradition. Talking about himself, Robert Lowell once said that people were tired of his turmoil. Larkin offered no turmoil, though he joked that "deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." He was no romantic. He looked for no Eden to return to, and saw no inherent virtue, poetic or otherwise, in childhood. "Children are very horrible, aren't they?" he said to an interviewer. "Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes." Larkin is a poet of the ordinary and the everyday: "fast-shadowed wheat fields," a sheep standing in snow, "her fleeces wetly caked," or children with their "shallow violent eyes" or the statement, in "Dockery and Son," that Life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not we use it, it goes, And leaves what something hidden from us chose, And age, and then the only end of age. And of course, there are the moments of beauty, as in "Coming": On longer evenings, Light, chill and yellow, Bathes the serene Foreheads of houses. A thrush sings, Laurel-surrounded In the deep bare garden, Its fresh-peeled voice Astonishing the brickwork. It will be spring soon, It will be spring soon -- And I, whose childhood Is a forgotten boredom, Feel like a child Who comes on a scene Of adult reconciling, And can understand nothing But the unusual laughter, And starts to be happy. Beauty, crankiness, simplicity, privacy, ordinariness: In spite or just possibly because of these, Larkin's book is on the bestseller list.