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June 2006

Nomination: Posterity [17 June 1968. From High Windows]

There are so many of Philip Larkin’s poems I could select as my poem of the month, but one I must mention is ‘Posterity’. Several people who knew Larkin speak of his sense of humour amid the Stygian gloom that others have wrapped around him. I recall reading the poem in my early twenties after High Windows came out in 1974.

I was at university and recognized the sort of academic that the poem ostensibly satirized because I had worked in what was then the British Museum Library Reading Room, which has since become the British Library in Euston Road. I remembered the overenthusiastic and desperately ambitious type very well. I recalled one specimen giving me chapter and verse on his chosen subject’s upbringing thereby ‘proving’ his thesis about the man and his work.

It was only much later on the publication of Motion’s biography, when I learned that Larkin had expressed some sympathy with Balokowsky, that I was pretty sure this was Larkin being playful like Malcolm Bradbury’s excuses for his History Man Howard Kirk.

But now I am older and have read more poetry criticism, I realize that there is so much more to this poem than a reflection of ‘Anglo-American Attitudes’. But I still think it is funny and would recommend it to anyone thinking of reading Larkin for the first time.

And as the American novelist Saul Bellow admitted in an interview with a British journalist he was “one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys” and didn’t feel the need to explain the quotation. Presumably, because he must have thought that any literate person would know the poem by heart. And I agree with him. Larkin has become a gold standard for modern poetry and his influence is so central that any poet writing in the early part of the 21st century must feel his influence as much as any poet writing in the early part of the 20th century must have considered the ‘anxiety of influence’ of Hardy and you can’t really better that.

Joseph Bailey

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