You’ve probably never heard of the poet Philip Larkin. (Come to think of it, you probably don’t read poetry. Sad for you. Or am I underestimating you?)
Oh, you may have once read his poem “This Be the Verse,” with its plainspoken first line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Trust me, though, when I tell you its a small work compared to what he was capable of creating. You may have even read a few snippets of his poetry here on my blog, but I defy you to recall them without clicking or scrolling to remind yourself.
In any event, the odds are simply infinitesimal that you have ever listened to Larkinland—a reference so obscure I cannot find a link for it. Larkinland was a program aired by BBC radio some time during the 1980s, I believe: four actors doing dramatic readings of Larkin’s eminently dramatic poetry. In the poet’s own words, it’s a “staggering” quadraphonic experience.
The only way to have that experience now, as far as I know, is to reach into the antique mahogany cabinet in my basement, remove the Larkinland cassette I keep there, and play it on my tape deck. (I’d kill you before I let you take it home.) I’m not ashamed to admit that I still own a tape deck, nor to admit that the only reason I own it is to be able to listen to my Larkinland cassette once or twice a year, nor even to admit that I live in fear, each time I play the thing, of the slim magnetized strip drying out or snapping, leaving me desperate to find a way to recover the sound. I would pay good money to have the cassette transferred to some digital format, to ensure against its disappearance forever—and if I did have it digitized, I’d copy it a few hundred times just to make triply sure it survives.
What compels me about his work is the way his honest voice—eminently accessible—speaks the things we’ve all felt, but not felt were important enough to be elevated into stanzas: a trip to the beach, visiting an old church, taking a train ride, punching a time clock, going to the hospital, getting old. His work is genuine and unflinching and passionate and far, far more complex than it seems on the surface. He also happens to rhyme, most of the time, and with such great dexterity as to shame the current batch of imitators who call themselves poets. (Do you people not even read The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics any more? Buy one and learn it.) I like rhyme. I consider this a very pleasing thing.
I have always harbored a desire to write a biographical play about the man. As a political conservative who loved jazz, always kept two mistresses so that he could play one against the other, and never left his job as a university librarian, even after achieving the highest poetic fame in the U.K., Larkin would make a quite compelling character: a way to humanize a segment of the population that rarely gets fair treatment on stage in the sometimes blindingly-liberal theater. (I’m about as progressive as it gets, so I’m admonishing myself in saying that.) His life would speak to our work-a-day world, I believe, and—in its endless small sadnesses, from loneliness to ill health to bureaucracy—perhaps even help us mourn what we lose by living in it.
The only thing that has kept me from writing the thing, in fact, is the fear that I wouldn’t be able to climb whatever legal mountains would need to be climbed in order to incorporate his work into whatever I wrote… because a play about Larkin without many, many lines of his verse would be woefully incomplete. Perhaps one day I’ll figure out how to get whatever permissions I need… or perhaps a kind soul will get them for me.
In the meantime, I shall go on living in Larkinland, once or twice a year, for the foreseeable future. If you’d like to join me there some time, just let me know. I’ll have you over.