Saturday, 8 March 2008
Lost tapes and Larkin over the garden fence
I have written about Larkin before in the context of my daughter’s experiences of working in Booze Busters in Hull, serving lurching men with lurchers on ropes and Cuprinol Amazon women who know that a sun bed is for life and not just for Christmas. However I do not apologise for returning to Larkin as they have recently discovered old tapes made by Larkin reading a compilation of his poems before the days of podcasting, mp3players and listen again. The Radio 4 programme hosted by the poet Paul Farley was full of anecdotes not only about Larkin’s personality and approach to life but about the whole business of the poet’s voice, literally.
These tapes are the words of Larkin straight from the horse’s mouth. He took the time and effort to seek out someone local he trusted to record him for an American project which then folded and then he did absolutely nothing with them. He had a few years on the planet left to him after he made them but still he did nothing with them. Larkin was an intelligent man, I can’t believe he forgot they existed but he did not leave them with his personal effects, he did not give them to anybody for safe keeping, he did not lodge them with a solicitor or place them in a bank vault with strict instructions that they only be played after his death; nor did he leave orders for them to be burnt like his diaries.
Pure chance brought them to light, are we to believe that Larkin, who often had a strange sense of the ridiculous, intended the fates to play Russian roulette with these tapes; now they are discovered, now they aren’t? Did he just presume they would have been destroyed? A phone call to the local sound recordist whom he saw now and then, asking, what are you doing with those tapes I made now the Americans don’t want them, would have been quite easy? I don’t know the answer, no-one does, I have a sense that given they exist he would be quite pleased about a fuss being made about them. He may have well enjoyed the prospect of them being auctioned off on E bay, as the son of the sound recordist jokingly suggested soon after they were found. He would have found it easy to write a poem about that I’m sure.
Larkin notoriously hated reading in public and found the sound of his own voice difficult to bear. He had trained himself out of a stammer by teaching himself to ‘swallow’ words he found difficult to annunciate. All that swallowing of the sounds he couldn’t make stuck in his throat. It is ironic that he died of oesophageal cancer, the very mechanism that created his voice being the cause of his death.
Someone on the programme about the discovery of these tapes pointed out how important it was these days to event organisers that poets could read well. She said that often she was congratulated on her capacity to deliver a poem well rather than on the contents of the poems. It was ever thus, once the public became used to being delivered to. The radio and then the TV have ratcheted up what the public expects in terms of delivery for many years now. The means by which we hear a poem is as important as the poem itself in many cases. Larkin knew he could never compete with the dark brooding powerful delivery of a Ted Hughes or the light eccentric old ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ mannerisms of John Betjeman. He was wise enough to turn down being poet laureate probably knowing that the public face is as important as the private one. He probably didn’t even think his penchant for schoolgirl soft pornography mattered more than his ability to convey poetic charisma. The headline ‘Poet Laureate found with stash of schoolgirl magazines’ may have been composed with joy by The News of the World now but back then the headline ‘Poet Laureate walks into room and no one notices’ was something he feared more and was more embittered by.
It is a naïve reader that thinks that a person’s work and their life and personality can be totally divorced. I might find a poem by Adolf Hitler interesting to read as a piece of historical data but I know I would find it hard to read it as a poem on its own merits. Of course it is always easy to play the Adolf Hitler game, most writers and poets are far less palpable villains. They had ‘a complex personal life’ is the catch-all phrase for every racist, misogynist, two timing, emotionally controlling, selfish, passive-aggressive writer or poet that every put anything down on paper worthy of note.
Hearing someone read their own work adds not only a passing historic interest to a poem but also adds another presence in the room. When reading a poem there is the poem, the reader and the reader’s presumptions about or questions about the poet. When the poem is delivered by the poet personally those elements still exist but to them is added several other elements; in particular personal iconography of voice.
Mr Larkin sounds exactly like the man who lived next door to us when I was fourteen; he used to ask my dad over the garden fence about what height he was setting his blades at on the mower or if he thought it was too early to put the bedding plants out. He would often pop up over the back fence and ask me in his slow ponderous grey voice when I was going to stop growing, which was a question I never knew how to answer as it not only required foresight (not often found in teenagers) but also an ability to tease out whether he was trying to be pleasant, taking the piss (I was already exceptionally tall by thirteen) or simply socially challenged with teenage girls, in which case why bother to pop upover the garden fence at all?. I hear Larkin reading his poems and I try very very hard to listen to the poem and all I can hear is this old neighbour reading Larkin’s poems to me which then escalates into a bizarre and surreal experience. I have also discovered that Sylvia Plath is the voice of my first neighbour when I rented a flat in London and Seamus Heaney is a lovely man who ran a small hardware shop in Nottingham. Seeing the poet read helps break this habit of enforced association but given I never saw Larkin read, no-one much did, I am now stuck with the ghost of Mr H from next door reading Larkin’s poems to me over the garden fence. It doesn’t make them worse or better poems it just makes them what they are, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Mr Bleaney is still a good poem no matter who reads it, which may be the whole point of what makes a good poem. However I can concentrate more when I simply read the wonderful High Windows from Larkin’s last collection.
Ps In case anyone is counting I have been writing this blog for exactly a year now..how time flies when you are blogging about yourself !