James Booth’s new biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. Bloomsbury Press, 544 pages.
During his lifetime, the poet Philip Larkin tried to manage his affairs, both personal and literary, mostly by saying no. A bachelor librarian who died at 63, Larkin deliberately cultivated an existence with minimal obligations—no wife, no kids, no property, not even a pet. “My life,” he remarked, “is as simple as I can make it.” Notably parsimonious, he rode a bike until he turned 41 and reluctantly bought his first car. (“Oh, dear,” he wrote his long-suffering girlfriend Monica Jones. “Isn’t it alluntypical?”) He would never have owned a house had he not been evicted from a “temporary” new-faculty flat in which he had squatted for 18 years. The move proved so unsettling that he stopped writing.
Larkin’s literary career was equally narrow and controlled. In his prime he published an average of only four poems a year. Later he defended his creative collapse: “Silence is preferable to publishing rubbish and far better for one’s reputation.” He never gave readings or lectures. (He had an embarrassing stammer.) He avoided London literary life. His secretary kept a file of “Refusal Letters,” composed in differing levels of politeness, ready for every possible request—autographs, advice, interviews, biographical information. When the influential South Bank Show paid him to film a television documentary, he refused to appear on camera. The director had to shoot over the poet’s shoulder. Larkin even declined the Poet Laureateship. “I dream of becoming laureate,” he remarked, “and wake up screaming.”