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Philip Larkin on Modernism

As I was reading Daniel McCarthy’s post on modernism and conservatism, I found myself thinking about Philip Larkin — a sad case, a bad man, but also an immensely gifted poet who thought it necessary to step back from the technical adventures of modernism, including even modernism in jazz. Jyst as he loved traditional verse forms he loved traditional jazz, and grieved at the ascension of bebop. In the introduction to a collection of his writings on jazz he wrote,

This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by [Charlie] Parker, Pound, or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying or more outrageous: it has no lasting power. Hence the compulsion of every modernist to wade deeper and deeper into violence and obscenity.

That first sentence refers to Samuel Johnson’s famous statement that “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Also in this vein is a touching and also bitterly funny letter that Larkin wrote to his publishers, Faber & Faber, when they allowed the novels of Barbara Pym to go out of print:

I feel it is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days. This is the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today. Why should I have to choose between spy rubbish, science fiction rubbish, Negro-homosexual rubbish, or dope-take nervous-breakdown rubbish? I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.

Larkin didn’t convince Faber, but later Pym’s novels (within her lifetime, which is nice) underwent a renaissance that they much deserved.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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