Biography And Literary Worth
March 19, 2004 9:54 PM   Subscribe

Philip Larkin: Great Poet, Shame About The Man? When is an excess of biography, i.e. high-minded, clumsily-disguised gossip, an impediment to literary appreciation? Nowadays, it seems always. [More inside.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (26 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Writers' lives and idiosyncrasies are pettily examined and scrutinized (anachronically!) for contemporary correctness before their actual work is even glanced at. Why should writers be nice, acceptable, tolerant people, kind to animals and little flowers?

Philip Larkin's poems are magnificent. Vers de Societe, accents on the ees, is one of the funniest and most enduring poems of the 20th Century.

Writing is writing - why should we care what the writer was like "as a person"? Is Shakespeare's work any worse because we know not a fig about his life? Better, I'd say.

[Please excuse the blatant editorializing! First link via Arts and Letters Daily.]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:55 PM on March 19, 2004

I love Philip Larkin's poetry, and this was a terrific piece. That said, there are a few good reasons to care about what a writer is or was like as a person, without letting that detract from enjoyment or respect of the writer's work. First of all, it's just interesting. Characterizing it as "high-minded gossip" may be technically correct, but then anything that has to do with human lives could be described that way, including the entire field of history. Also, writers are seen as role models. Their lives are often held up as positive examples. It's arguable that many of the Beat poets would not be nearly as influential were it not for a fixation on their personal exploits. But it seems like only negative attention to a writer's life is considered tawdry gossip.
posted by transona5 at 10:42 PM on March 19, 2004

I've always been interested in authors that have lived controversial lives, maybe served jail time, makes them interesting. I can think of a lot of writers that have done worse than Larkin (Anne Perry and William S. Burroughs have killed people). I'm also surprised the article mentions Ted Hughes without listing the darker aspects of his life like the Plath suicide which some blame him for.
posted by bobo123 at 11:47 PM on March 19, 2004

Good, honest points, transona5 and bobo123: thanks for bringing me down to earth. I too am partial to accounts of writers' lives - I hope I didn't sound too haughty. Perhaps the two interests go together, in some perverted human way.

Nevertheless, I'd just like to link (for those who may have read the article and been put off) to what I consider to be (one of) the greatest 20th Century poems ever written. It was written by Larkin, after years of silence, and published in a matter-of-a-fact fashion in the TLS. As far as I know, it was the last thing he wrote. It's so moving (and saddening) I'd warn anyone who isn't feeling 100% up to scratch to avoid it. It's name is Aubade, which, in case someone doesn't know, means "dawn chorus" or just "dawn" in French.

posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:06 AM on March 20, 2004

Someone would eventually post this poem, so it might as well be me:

"This Be The Verse"

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn,
By fools, in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were sorry stern,
And half at one anothers' throats.

Man hands on misery to man,
It broadens like a coastal shelf.
So get out as quickly as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
posted by josephtate at 1:18 AM on March 20, 2004

It broadens like a coastal shelf.

Poetry indeed.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:42 AM on March 20, 2004

Eliot and the Jews, Pound and Mussolini, Hamsun & Celine and Nazism, Anne Sexton a terrible mother/wife, Bukowski barfed on my shoes once, Socrates a child molester (OK he didn't actually write anything but you get the drift), Homer was a terrible tennis player, Ingmar Bergman never hugged his daughter, Freud and all that coke, Dylan the rudest man alive, Marx banged the help, blah blah blah

and it is only by understanding the poet that we can make sense of the unlovelier aspects of the man.

and that's, in a nutshell, the whole difference between a critic and a reader.
posted by matteo at 4:58 AM on March 20, 2004

Agree with Miguel--read the work, forget the worker. One might as well feel one can't properly appreciate Notre Dame de Paris without knowing the life stories of the stonecarvers and glass workers.

One point particularly relevant to literary work is that, having learned biographical details about the writer, one finds them highly unwelcome intruders as one reads the work itself. When reading...

what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

...the last thing I want to be reminded of is Eliot's dreary psychosexual neuroses, to which I have unavoidably seen references in reviews and so forth but which I have, so far successfully, avoided learning about in detail. Therefore, no Eliot biographies for me.
posted by jfuller at 7:16 AM on March 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

> Bukowski barfed on my shoes once,

If you can document this and saved the shoes, eBay awaits.
posted by jfuller at 7:29 AM on March 20, 2004

Well, Larkin is not one of my favorite poets (although "This Be the Verse" is one of my favorite poems), and I thought the article was a pseudo-eloquent piece of rationalization. I find this sort of thing repellent beyond words:
...the poet's 'immoral' behaviour, which has prompted extensive criticism in recent years, was part of the same impulse towards subversion which guided Larkin's greatest works... Miller insists: "Once and for all, get it into your head that you cannot be a complete writer without being a complete cad."... "Caddishness" was, for Larkin, an affair not of license but restraint; it meant not giving away any of his freedom and independence to another person, especially a woman.
It's one thing to say that writers have often been shits and probably will continue to be, and that there may be some inherent connection between being a writer and being a shit; it's quite another to try to minimize the shittiness by calling it manly "caddishness" (hey, he was mainly nasty to women, and they defend him anyway, so who cares!). The only honest thing to do is look the nastiness in the eye and call it by its proper name, then forget it and read the work for its own sake. I long ago came to terms with the fact that Ezra Pound, one of my favorite poets, was in many ways a shit; I have no idea how much of his shittiness was in some way "necessary," and it seems a fruitless subject to ponder. The poetry's great, the man wasn't.

And god damn it, josephtate, if you're going to quote one of the great poems of the 20th century, get it right—it's only twelve lines! Here's a corrected version:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don't have any kids yourself.

Coastal shelves don't "broaden," they deepen. What is "sorry stern" supposed to mean? And the addition of "so" to the penultimate line completely destroys the rhythm. Bah!
posted by languagehat at 8:59 AM on March 20, 2004

Thanks, languagehat. That was bothering me too.
posted by piskycritter at 9:20 AM on March 20, 2004

I wrote to [Eliot], asking him about the obsessive hostility betrayed in [his anti-Semitic poetry]. I was expecting, I think, a recantation, an apology at least, since at the moment at which I opened our correspondence the full horror of the Holocaust had been revealed. He began in his response by trying -- rather unconvincingly, it seemed to me -- to assure me that he was, of course, opposed to the Nazis' "Final Solution," that, indeed, he considered anti-Semitism a "heresy"; but he then went on to write, in a cliché almost as offensive as spelling the name of my people without a capital letter, that some of his best friends were Jews. And he concluded by unctuously expressing the hope that I was a faithful attendant of a synagogue in Missoula, Montana, which is to say, not, at least, "free-thinking." (Julius 205; bracketed words Julius's)
TS Eliot Says "Jew"

The poetry of prejudice

Julius is similarly successful in explicating the figure of "Rachel née Rabinovitch" in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," and the lines "The rats are underneath the piles./ the jew is underneath the lot" from "Burbank." Again he demonstrates that anti-Semitism "is a way of imagining Jews, a pernicious, elaborate fiction, and not just a series of theorems about the Jewish people" (p. 97). (These rats, so traditional in the iconography of anti-Semitism, reappear transfigured by resistance in Art Spiegelman's Maus.) Julius concludes that The Waste Land closes out the period of overt anti-Semitic poetry in Eliot's career, though the following chapters on Eliot's literary and cultural criticism amply (and easily) demonstrate that anti-Semitism remained fundamental to Eliot's intellectual world-view

Gregory Jay's review of "T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form". By Anthony Julius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 308. $49.95. in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology

The only honest thing to do is look the nastiness in the eye and call it by its proper name, then forget it and read the work for its own sake
and it seems a fruitless subject to ponder

*hugs languagehat*

It broadens like a coastal shelf.
Poetry indeed.

Coastal shelves don't "broaden," they deepen.

posted by matteo at 9:21 AM on March 20, 2004

sorry fixed link here:

TS Eliot says "Jew"

*shakes fist at Explorer -- no FireFox in a friend's machine*

posted by matteo at 9:24 AM on March 20, 2004

If you can document this and saved the shoes, eBay awaits.

Let me know if you also find this:
Larkin, he added, hated lawn mowing, a task for which he always wore his DH Lawrence T-shirt.

The whereabouts of that historic garment remain uncertain.
posted by piskycritter at 9:28 AM on March 20, 2004

I have a complete set of William S. Burroughs's works in the bank box, waiting for the next uptick in Burroughs stock.
posted by jfuller at 9:52 AM on March 20, 2004

Thank you, Miguel, for another excuse for me to link to my blog: The Sex Life of Schopenhauer.
posted by wendell at 10:01 AM on March 20, 2004

Worse, it is a metaphor. As a metaphor, it is unable to express modernism's catastrophic insight that the world is all metaphor. In its time, that insight gave us Finnegans Wake, and Saussure's linguistics, and the great palimpsest of The Waste Land. But it also gave us Ezra Pound's jaunty conclusion about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, "Certainly they are a forgery, and that is the one proof we have of their authenticity"... When Ferdinand de Saussure discovered that words have meaning only in relation to other words, he both opened a new linguistic territory and introduced it to the serpent...
Great essay—thanks for fixing the link!
*returns matteo's hug, in an awkward American way*
posted by languagehat at 10:09 AM on March 20, 2004

> modernism's catastrophic insight that the world is all metaphor.

...which in turn obscures the further, redeeming insight that (metabolizing Orwell's paradox) it's all metaphor, but some parts are more metaphorical than others. Or to co-opt Lawrence, the trick is not to mind that it's metaphor.
posted by jfuller at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2004

> modernism's catastrophic insight that the world is all metaphor.

Only when you try to talk about it.
posted by jfuller at 10:45 AM on March 20, 2004

This is oddly timely for me.

I was in a record store yesterday eyeing up a comp of Phil Spector soundalikes. I almost bought it, but I felt bad about buying a record that pays tribute to a guy who's probably a murderer. So I passed and bought a funk compilation instead. What's really strange is that i own a whole ton of Spector material already and probably wouldn't give it away at gunpoint. I rationalize this by telling myself that I didn't know he was a killer then, merely a nut.

The mind is a strange thing.
posted by jonmc at 11:19 AM on March 20, 2004

the trick is not to _mind_ that it's metaphor.

the metaphor as rhinoceros in the room.
posted by matteo at 12:11 PM on March 20, 2004

Thanks to languagehat for reposting the poem in its correct form. My memorization is not to be trusted. Shall I compel thee with a summer's day?
posted by josephtate at 1:04 AM on March 21, 2004

what one "sees" is a broad coastal shelf .

what one does not "see" is how this shelf is broadened by various sea/ocean forces.
posted by clavdivs at 10:31 AM on March 21, 2004

Very relevant for me. I run a site devoted to Roald Dahl, who nowadays is mostly famous for his children's books. The problem is, he really wasn't the kindly old grandfather type the publishers make him out to be. He was racist, he was anti-Semitic, he treated women like shit, lots of stuff. Which is okay, I'm a grown-up and I can separate my feelings for the guy from my response to his work. What kills me, though, is when I get e-mails from little kids saying: "We love Roald Dahl's stories but our teacher said he was anti-Semitic and we're Jewish and now we feel bad. Please say it isn't true!" What do you say to that? I also get messages from teachers that feel uncomfortable reading his works to their classes and asking how they can place them in context. It's hard. In the end I wrote up a lame (to my ears) justification to try to explain my position. Debates like this help a little.
posted by web-goddess at 4:24 PM on March 21, 2004 [1 favorite]

An excellent book that touches on the topic of the worth of art vs. the artist's actual life is A.S. Byatt's Possession. There, the literary critic and scholar who is interested in the famous poet's life makes a fetish of it to the point that he obscures the work itself, even where nothing in the famous poet's past merited eclipsing the work that way.

I think maybe the author's life matters more when the author proposes a way of looking at or living life, than one who proposes merely to entertain us. When someone like Ayn Rand says here lies the path to real happiness and then proceeds to live a somewhat unhappy life herself, the life directly calls the work into question. But it's not always impossible to separate the work from the life. People are complicated, and just because I might be morally corrupt when it comes to politics doesn't mean I can't write fascinating and valuable poetry about interpersonal relationships, for example.
posted by onlyconnect at 4:54 PM on March 21, 2004

When one reads (or watches or listens etc) to something that one enjoys there are two subconscious projections are made. One can be expressed: "I like this, therefore the person who made it must be like me, with similiar values and beliefs." This is obviously untrue, it becomes most painfully obvious in cases like this. The second projection (really, the second face of one coin) is; "I like this, therefore I must have the same values and beliefs as the person who made it."

This is also untrue. However, admiration is the seed of emulation. Growing up is about finding values to live by and and this will likely mean separating the wheat of someone else's virtues from the chaff of their flaws. This isn't always easy, in fact I'm actually grateful for cases like these for making it easy to discover and apply the basic principles needed for doing this. It's good practice.
posted by wobh at 8:16 AM on March 26, 2004

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