When, 50 years ago, the Department of the Environment commissioned a poem from Philip Larkin, he produced, as a reader recently pointed out to the Guardian, Going, Going, about felled trees, bleak high-rises, spreading shopping centres and parking lots. It is about the erosion, too, of his previous trust that “earth will always respond / However we mess it about”. If he had lived until this year, when he would have turned 100, he would, one suspects, have been disappointed but not at all surprised that we are still chucking filth in the sea. The poem ends the way many Larkin poems do, with a deceptively conversational profundity: “Most things are never meant.” Which doesn’t change the damage done.
Despite a difficult period in the 1990s – after publication of Andrew Motion’s biography and an edition of his letters that revealed his racism and misogyny, not to mention infidelity, porn use and general puerility – Larkin has never gone away, and the poetry is why. Even the most unpoetic recognise the demotic bluntness of “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Or, “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” In recent weeks Keir Starmer in parliament and thousands on Twitter have quoted his lines on Elizabeth II, written for her silver jubilee in 1977: “In times when nothing stood / but worsened, or grew strange, / there was one constant good: / she did not change.”
But more often, and importantly, his power arises from the clarity with which his poetry speaks to human constants – what Larkin described, in a very early poem, as “eternal requirings”. Born in the year that James Joyce’s Ulysses, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were published, he came to be preoccupied with a rather different kind of modernity: suburban, often bureaucratic, unshowy, consumerist; a nostalgic Englishness that is beady-eyed about its own nostalgia. Taking often unpromising premises (train platforms, rented rooms, ambulances) he found words for inchoate feelings that, once used, seemed inevitable and right: what churches can still do, for instance, in a secular age (“A serious house on serious earth it is…”); the bathetic tension, over and over again, between hope and reality; the pain of promise changed or unfulfilled – no one who has read Afternoons, about young parents pushing children on swings, will forget how it ends: “Their beauty has thickened. / Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.”
Famously death-obsessed (“The sure extinction that we travel to”), he was arguably better, as one critic said recently, at sadness, disappointment, a facing up to difficulty as an unavoidable part of the human condition, rather than, as is so often assumed these days, as medicable pathology. He could do a kind of quotidian transcendence, too – the “sun-comprehending glass” in the poem High Windows, for example, or the quiet end of To the Sea; or, most effectively, both at once. “The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said”, he wrote in a 1967 poem that – in its refusal of cliche, understanding of cycle and embrace of paradox – can also be read as a fair demonstration of how any poem that is going to last should work: “Their greenness is a kind of grief. / … / Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”