By Tomas Unger
The Importance of Elsewhere:
Philip Larkin’s Photographs
by Richard Bradford.
Frances Lincoln, 2015, $26.60 cloth.
At least twice in his life—once in a passing remark and once in a perfect line—Philip Larkin, who played at being merely dour, used the word lovely. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that photography (almost his second art, as this selection of Larkin’s prodigious output reveals) is a close presence in each case. The poet, on a trip to the country, turns positively exclamatory on seeing, of all things, some cows. “How lovely they are!” he writes in a letter, not having to explain, really, not explaining away. He takes several snaps in close-up. The loveliness on offer at the close of “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” is of another order: “It holds you like a heaven, and you lie / Unvariably lovely there, / Smaller and clearer as the years go by.”
It can be striking to return to Larkin’s unobtrusively assured statements on the nature of poetry—in interviews or occasional essays—and find that they envision the poem as being very much like the photographic image in its essential function: preservation. Larkin had this to say in an early interview with the Telegraph:
Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt or perceived. I feel it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation, since one’s deepest impulse in writing (or, I must admit, painting or composing) is to my mind not “I must tell everybody about that” (i.e. responsibility to other people) but “I must stop that from being forgotten if I can” (i.e. responsibility towards subject).
Elsewhere he commented, “I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience).”