Knives out

What do Philip Larkin, Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan have in common? They all claimed that Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard was their favorite poem.

This much Larkin himself learned in 1985, from an anthology called My Favorite Poem, edited by Mary Wilson. The poet, the former Labor prime minister and the former Labor prime minister’s Conservative successor had contributed to Wilson’s anthology – although only Larkin could claim a further distinction relating to it. “Why aren’t I Prime Minister?”, he asked his future biographer Andrew Motion. “Yours truly is the only one proposing & proposed.”

Larkin may not be around to propose a favorite poem, but it is possible to imagine a high-ranking politician or two proposing a poem of his for the modern equivalent of such an anthology—especially since the hoo-hah over Larkin’s removal from the poetry anthology of one of the country’s main GCSE exam boards.

Reports were widespread last month of how the board in question, OCR, was committing “cultural vandalism”, in the words of the then education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, by ditching “An Arundel Tomb”, alongside several other cherished zingers of the poetic canon by Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins, in favor of what The Times was pleased to call “poets from more diverse backgrounds”. The board might reasonably point out that it is retaining poems by Blake, Keats and Sylvia Plath, among others, in its anthology; and that it has a duty to refresh its offerings from time to time. But the wrongs and rights of the situation are immaterial. In political terms, Larkin is simply all the more readily available now to be championed by anyone in the crowd of craps he so disdained, for the scoring of an easy political point. And if not “An Arundel Tomb” itself, surely a politician or two could drop a hint about their long-standing admiration for a poem such as “Money” (“I listen to money singing”)?

We can only hope that the more responsible sort of political journalist has spent the past week trying to get the legion of Tory candidates for the job of prime minister, with Mr Zahawi among them, to name their favorite Larkin poems (or just any poem, really). We, in turn, have been pursuing our own very responsible line of enquiry, and wondering which out of the legion Larkin would have decided as his preferred prime minister.

The answer would perhaps depend on how seriously you take Larkin’s various remarks about “rampaging hordes of blacks” who “steal anything they can lay their hands on”, or about the “bloody Paki next door” (“Kick ’em out”). Such aperçus have been known to put people off a poet as well as, unfortunately, his poetry. To certain would-be leaders of the modern Tory party, they could pass for manifesto pledges.

To return from such mysteries to answer only our initial question: we reckon that Larkin would have voted for whichever could have most closely approximated his beloved Mrs Thatcher, in policy as in demeanour.

That’s “la divine” Thatcher – yes, we write with a copy of Larkin’s Selected Letters to hand – whose plans to “slim the universities” Larkin admired so much. “None is to be closed (shame!) but… some people will get the DCM (Don’t Come Monday).” “What a blade of steel!” he gushed after meeting her at a dinner in 1982. “Watching her was like watching a top-class tennis player; no ‘uh-huh, well, what do other people think about that’, just bang back over the net.” Nor was the infatuation dimmed when Larkin declined the laureateship a couple of years later. If anything, he besottedly prophesied, it was the country (“too idle and selfish”) that would let down this “superb creature” – “I wish I liked the other members of her party ⅛ as much.”

Above all, there was the time when Thatcher paid Larkin a “great compliment” regarding what she described as his “wonderful poem about a girl”. Larkin wasn’t sure which wonderful poem the divine one was complimenting him on. ‘You know‘, she said. ‘Her mind was full of knives.’” The two gentle admirers of Gray’s Elegy could bond over this slightly misquoted line from “Deceptions” (“I thought if it weren’t spontaneous she’d have got it right”, Larkin reflected), although, as any woke exam board can tell you, the interpretation of poetry is a complex business. “I also thought that she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines” – that flash of steel once more – “not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads.”

Larkin was born a hundred years ago, on August 9, 1922; and the BBC is marking the occasion with a series of short programmes, Larkin Revisited, to be broadcast next month. “Larkin’s poems still divide opinion”, the press release opens. The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, will use his time on air to pick through ten of these “iconic” yet “agitational” poems to reflect on his own fascination with Larkin, as well as the “uglier attitudes of this complex and contradictory poet” .

A minor fictional centenary, meanwhile, has just passed. A hundred years ago, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination, the young Nick Carraway was knocking around Long Island and getting to know that cove Jay Gatsby. On one occasion, in Fitzgerald’s novel, Nick uses the “empty spaces of a timetable” to jot down the names of those who “accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him”. The timetable – “disintegrating at its folds” by the time Nick comes to tell his story – is “in effect July 5th, 1922”. It’s not exactly Bloomsday. But it does have us wondering if we should have been paying more attention to fictional anniversaries all along, in lieu of their less varied, “IRL” equivalents.

One of Larkin’s poetic masters, Thomas Hardy, is the subject of an exhibition in the West Country this summer, taking place across four museums. Hardy’s Wessex: The landscapes that inspired a writer, which runs until October 30, is said to be the largest exhibition yet about the author; It includes rarities and previously unseen oddities such as Hardy’s first landscape sketch (at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes), his dog-handle walking stick (at the Dorset Museum in Dorchester) and his first wife Emma’s notebook (at Poole Museum). “I was immediately arrested by his familiar appearance”, she wrote of their first encounter, “as if I had seen him in a dream.”

Pictured above is an item now on display at the Salisbury Museum: the kettle that belonged to Mary Hardy, the author’s paternal grandmother, who lived with the family at Bockhampton. Is Nadhim Zahawi au fait with Hardy’s poem “One We Knew”? Read it for yourself as your own kettle boils; imagine the tales the boy Hardy must have heard, in which the follies of the great undoubtedly figured:

She told of that far-back day when they learned astounded
Of the death of the King of France:
Of the Terror; and then Bonaparte’s unbounded
Ambition and arrogance.

The post Knives out appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment