April 4, 2012

When it comes to “complete” collections, when does more add up to less?


The issue of manipulating the unpublished work of dead writers has reared its head again — MobyLives last week noted the addition of scenes in the paperback release of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous (i.e., unfinished) novel The Pale King that hadn’t been in the hardcover release. One Moby commentator called it a “shameless and greedy” move on the part of the publisher, Little, Brown, to simply sell more books.

Critic Morten Høi Jensen proposes a different reason for some similarly questionable, incomplete and fragmentary material included in a new volume of Philip Larkin’s poetry from FSG. In a commentary at Idiom.com, Jensen says that The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett, includes hundreds of …

… uncollected, unfinished or (too often) unreadable poems, painstakingly extracted from letters and desk drawers and, presumably, the backs of grocery lists and lottery tickets. The editorial protocol of the book must have been something like: if Larkin wrote it, and if it vaguely resembled verse, it’s a poem. How else could you possibly explain the inclusion of:

Get Kingsley Amis to sleep with your wife,
You’ll find it will give you a bunk up in life.


High o’er the fence leaps Soldier Jim,
Housman the bugger chasing him.

One is tempted to reach for words like crime or injustice, but at the end of the day it just seems like lazy criticism.

But Jensen doesn’t accuse the “lazy” Burnett of being greedy, exactly. He says, “The problem lies in Burnett’s motivation for this volume, which appears to have been born amid the whirr and clang of academic machinery.”

“An accurate text is, and always must be, the chief justification,” Burnett writes, before lobbing a handful of verbal grenades at A.T. Tolley‘s Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005) which, we are told, “contains 72 errors of wording, 47 of punctuation, 8 of letter-case, 5 of word-division, 4 of font and 3 of format.” Even [Anthony] Thwaite‘s Collected Poems does not emerge unscathed from Burnett’s introduction: its “record of sources” was often “unhelpfully rudimentary.”

Right. We’re obviously much obliged to Professor Burnett for bringing these mistakes and inconsistencies to light. We’re grateful that he has produced a text purged of inaccuracy and error. But it begs the question: how accurate is factual accuracy? What is its relation to the larger project of representing the poet accurately? Clive James once wrote that Larkin’s work “made a point of declining in advance all offers of academic assistance,” that his poetry “was, and always will remain, too self-explanatory to require much commentary.” The Complete Poems takes the opposite view. Here, Larkin is eagerly footnoted, indexed and appendiced; thirty pages of introduction, notes to the introduction, and notes on abbreviations, precede the actual poems. More than three hundred pages of exhaustive commentary documenting the formation of the poems succeed the poems. Then there are twelve pages on “Larkin’s Early Collections of His Poems,” followed by a redundant “Dates of Composition” — before the “Index of Titles and First Lines,” like the end credits of a very long and boring movie. The four collections of poetry Larkin published in his lifetime take up 97 pages. The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin clocks in at 729.

That last sentence makes Jensen’s point most succinctly. And that’s an awfully big poetry book for this culture. As publishers — and even as publishers who like Larkin — we’re impressed by that level of commitment from one of the Big Six publishers. They just don’t do that sort of thing anymore. So why did they this time? It may indeed be that the only place FSG has a chance of making back its investment on this one is in academic sales.

In any event, in a wonderful turn, Jensen’s essay offers up a splendid appreciation of Larkin’s work by deftly contrasting the poet’s strengths against Burnett’s glut of distracting or misdirecting information.

It’s inspiring enough to almost make the reader forget the question he raises: Is an academic motivation of the kind Jensen accuses Burnett of having any different from that of the “greedy” publishers of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous work? Or is this more evidence of the appropriateness of such posthumous publication?

What do you think?



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.