Review by Karen Langley, 6 February 2020
My love of the poetry of Philip Larkin is no secret; I’ve written about him numerous times on my blog, and most recently about my encounter with his last collection of poetry, High Windows. Larkin is a poet I first discovered at Grammar School and his verse obviously had a profound effect on me as I’ve returned to his work over and over again throughout the years. Clive James is also an author I first read a long time ago; back in the 1980s, in fact, when he was a regular television face and his memoirs began to appear. As I’ve mentioned before, however, I only recently came to realise quite what an erudite man he was, and his latest collections of poetry and essays have been a bittersweet joy to read. So when I became aware that a book had been issued containing all of his writings on Larkin (a man he knew and admired), it was basically essential that I should read it as soon as possible; and so Somewhere Becoming Rain, which turns out to be James’ last published book, was the first book I read in 2020.
The title is drawn from “The Whitsun Weddings”, one of of Larkin’s most brilliant verses, and it’s a motif which obviously resonated with James as it recurs throughout his writings on the poet. The book collects together a wide variety of material, ranging from reviews in the 1970s through poems (in particular, one written about learning of Larkin’s death), letters from the poet to James, coverage of a play performance of Larkin’s life, ending with a piece from 2018 on the poet’s letters and a final coda with a moving memory of an encounter between the two men. It’s a wonderful and stimulating mix of material and absolutely compelling; not only for a Larkin-lover like me, I think, but for anyone who appreciates good writing.
Larkin has never liked the idea of an artist Developing. Nor has he himself done so. But he has managed to go on clarifying what he was sent to say. The total impression of High Windows is of despair made beautiful. Real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. The book is the peer of the previous two mature collections, and if they did not exist would be just as astonishing. (1974)
As I read these pieces, gathered from all sorts of scattered places and publications, I found myself wishing I’d had access to them before now. The range, as I’ve said, is broad and each piece brings great understanding to Larkin’s work. James always responds to the problematic elements in the poet’s life in a measured way, giving context and constantly reminding you how the poetry is what is important.
Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It’s enough. (1974)
And one of the fascinating elements of reading a collection which ranges over such a long period is watching James’ responses reflecting the changing perceptions of Larkin in the world at large. The latter’s public image has been through many changes over the decades, with the publication of biographies and collections of letters exposing his private life in a way he would never have been happy about. Reading James’ take on this clarified for me how impossible it is to really know anyone from a biography, or only certain elements of their life; frankly, even completely knowing the other humans we spend our lives with closely is very difficult. To judge and condemn Larkin’s behaviour so unilaterally seems wrong. All of James’ pieces build up to create an insightful picture of Larkin the poet and Larkin the man; he was a complex human being, like so many artists are.
Reading Somewhere… was not only a joy because of the light it shed on Larkin; it was also wonderful to spend time with the mind and writing of Clive James. He was such a witty and intelligent commentator, and I had to laugh out loud in places. Even his asides can be hilarious; for example, when discussing the behaviour of the audience at a one-man presentation of Larkin’s life by the marvellous actor Tom Courtenay, he comments:
Except for one member of the audience who had attended the event in order to die of diphtheria , there was scarcely a cough all evening. (2005)
Larkin is often regarded as a lugubrious and downbeat poet – of the void, as James says – and yet he’s somehow uplifting and dryly witty. In a letter to James from 1982 he comments that someone once said, “Age is an increasing punishment for a crime we have not committed”, and much of his best work deals with our ageing and mortality. However, as James pointed out in 1973, “Good poetry transforms and enhances life whatever it says. That is one of the reasons why we find it so special.” I couldn’t agree more and Larkin certainly enhances my psyche whenever I read him. One particularly lovely element of the book was James relating his meetings with Larkin and reproducing some letters; this humanised the poet very much, and it’s obvious that James thought very highly of Larkin as a person.
I can’t praise this book highly enough, really, and as I said I wish I’d had access to the pieces collected here before. Certainly, his review of the Collected Works volume of Larkin’s poetry was particularly helpful in crystallising my feelings about the book. I’ve had it for decades but have had doubts about the fact that the poems are presented in chronological order, and never felt entirely comfortable with that. James’ review makes it very clear how consciously Larkin placed his poems in relation to each other in his published collections, and that of course is lost in the collected volume. Reading High Windows as published recently was a powerful experience and although it’s nice to have everything Larkin ever wrote, I think I will pick up his other collections too and read them as he wanted them to be read. That somehow seems very important to me now.
Reading Somewhere Becoming Rain was everything I wanted it to be, and more; my first book of the year is certainly going to be a candidate for my end of year best of! It also helped me come to a decision about my Larkin books. If you have a look at the image above I shared some years ago of my Larkins, you’ll see a certain biography at the bottom. I picked it up in a charity shop but have never actually read it because of its reputation, and for how it presents and interprets Larkin. James’ deals with this head-on and analyses its faults better than I ever can; and this clarified my mind wonderfully. So this is now my pile of Larkins, with no Motion biography – I don’t need to read it and it’s now in the donate box.
More individual Larkin books will be added to the pile as I continue to enjoy and be moved by his work. Somewhere Becoming Rain started off my reading year wonderfully; it’s an erudite, funny, profound and wonderful read; and if nothing else, the book has made me connect more deeply with Larkin’s verse and revere him even more as poet. In the end, that’s all that matters.
Karen blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings where this review first appeared.
Clive James, Somewhere Becoming Rain (Picador, 2019) ISBN 978-1529028829, hardback, 160 pp..
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