May 27, 2015
The “unpublished” Larkin poem that wasn’t
by Zeljka Marosevic
Last week it was Shakespeare. This week it’s the turn of a more modern poet, Philip Larkin, to be the subject of a grand but ultimately false discovery.
On Monday, the TLS printed the poem ‘In and Out’ on its website. The paper claimed this was an ‘unpublished poem by Philip Larkin’ and published alongside it a 1,600 word essay by Tom Cook on the poem’s significance. But soon after the article appeared, a Facebook user Rhiannon Beeson, was quick to point out the mistake, writing:
In and Out isn’t a poem by Philip Larkin but by another Hull poet, Frank Redpath. The poem was included in the 1982 anthology A Rumoured City, to which Larkins contributed a foreword. The poem was then gathered up in Frank’s first book To The Village with an introduction to [sic] Douglas Dunn.
When the TLS investigated, they found this to be exactly right, and published a piece explaining the error.
Reading Cook’s accompanying essay now, the certainty with which it is written is almost comical:
Larkin clearly did not consider the poem worthy of publication; but nor did he destroy it entirely, and since Xerox was only widely available from 1959, he seems also to have wanted to preserve it some years after it was most probably written…The text, however, speaks unambiguously for itself…There are striking similarities to work before and after the probable period of its composition: it not only shows where Larkin had come from, but where he was going next.
These comments go right to the heart of the perils of literary criticism, in particular close reading. They show the assumptions made when a writer’s biography is known, and how willing academics and critics are to make neat work of biographical detail—the laboured point about the Xerox machine—as well as how forgiving critics can be when they think a canonical name is behind a piece of writing. In the above passage, the poem goes from being a minor work not ‘worthy of publication’ to a pivotal moment in the writer’s career, showing ‘where he was going next.’
The accident also points to another phenomenon: the desire for new work from old or deceased writers, and the lure of the long-lost discovery. We already have quite a bit of Larkin’s writing to be getting on with: four complete collections, two dodgy novels and plenty of correspondence. It’s definitely enough to trace a career and show us where Larkin ‘had come from’ and ‘where he was going’. But writing cannot escape the marketplace, which relies on constant production, and then the reproduction and reprinting to drive the whole thing forward.
New things, of course, are fun, too. Newly discovered works allow academics and critics to look anew at a writer, and judge whether the piece of work requires a rebalancing of reputation. Did we miss something? Is the writer who we thought they were? Or are they better or worse? And as readers we are greedy and intrusive, always wanting whatever the writer holds back: the bad poems, the drafts, the juvenilia.
This time, the poem wasn’t Larkin’s. But there will be other writers and other discovered works. Next time, dear critic, exercise caution and restraint.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.