The British poet Philip Larkin died on December 2, 1985. To mark the 25th anniversary of his death, the city of Hul, U.K., is holding a 25-week festival called Larkin 25. Besides lectures by Larkin biographer Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwait, who edited the poet’s letters, the festival will include an exhibition of the poet’s belongings and the unveiling in December of a statue at the train station that was the starting point for the journey described in The Whitsun Weddings.
In a long article in the Guardian, Rachel Cooke suggests that the festival might serve as a good opportunity to reassess Larkin’s reputation, which has been sullied in the past by accusations that the poet was a racist and, in the words of Lisa Jardine, “an easy misogynist.” Cooke writes:
Beyond noting that his private utterances were in marked contrast to his public behaviour, which was ever polite, Larkin’s racism is uncomfortable and indefensible, even when you put it in the context of his times. The charges of misogyny, though, are about to start looking a whole lot more flimsy. In the autumn, Faber will publish Larkin’s correspondence to Monica Jones, a selection of the surviving 7,500 pages of letters and cards he wrote to her between 1946, when they first met, and 1985, the year of his death. (Monica lived in Leicester, where she taught English at the university; she only began sharing Larkin’s home shortly before he died.) These letters, discovered after her death, are highly personal and, being so great in number, they chronicle Larkin’s feelings more intimately than anything we have read before. Like the Selected Letters, they catch his wit, and his abiding sadness. But they also reveal Larkin’s deep love and admiration for a woman who was clever, eccentric, loud, unusual, flamboyant, opinionated, and strong. In my experience, misogynists tend not to go a bundle for women with minds of their own.
Larkin’s poetry, too, has fallen out of favour in some circles, but Cooke quotes Blake Morrison, who knew Larkin, as saying, “No, you think, as late-20th-century poets go, he is one of the best. And then you think, no, fuck it, as 20th-century poets go, he is one of the best ¦ and that keeps on expanding all the time. He is a great poet.”
As for the Hull festival, it runs from June to December 2010. Among its more outlandish features are an army of fibreglass toads (a reference to Larkin’s “Toads” and “Toads, Revisited”) and a children’s event called Super Specs, during which children are invited to make their own “Larkin-inspired glasses with glitz and glam.” This Quillblogger is almost giddy at the possibility that one precocious tyke might emblazon a pair of Super Specs with what is arguably Larkin’s most famous line of verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”