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This review is from: Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-82 (Paperback)
Philip Larkin was one of the best Poet Laureates we never had. Not becoming Poet Laureate was his own choice; the post was offered but he declined. It is also Larkin's own doing that he has a reputation, not justified, as something of a `miserable old git'. Yes, he was a private man; a man of sensitivities that as one of his generation and professional status he thought best concealed; and when those sensitivities burst out through his poems, conferring celebrity status, he raised a number of defensive barriers, one of which was the pretence of a thoroughly dull personal and interior life.
In truth there was a wealth of friendships, correspondences and shared holidays, as well as a very full involvement in his work as a university librarian and in the librarians' professional association. He also sustained a deep interest in his own writing, and that of a wide range of classic and other writers of poetry and prose. This volume attests to that, provides us with much information about his early years (albeit with the complete omission of any possible titillation), and reveals a number of surprising enthusiasms.
Because the writing collected in the book was produced in response to requests for introductions to books by himself and others, book reviews, newspaper columns and the like, he called it Required Writing. That is misleading. As he makes clear, he was never a professional writer; he did not have to seek outlets for his writing, study markets, or try to interest editors in pieces that he thought he could produce if encouraged by a commission. Thus the door was opened to a freshness not always found in the press cuttings of well-known authors, and those surprising enthusiasms - for instance the early James Bond books, the work of crime writer Gladys Mitchell, the obscure Julian Hall, and poets such as Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman and Sylvia Plath. At least, he seems to have liked some of Plath's poems; his judicious assessment of her large output is so very fair it is hard to be certain.
Balance is a strong feature throughout the book. He admires Edward Thomas for his poetry, but notes that even Thomas's devoted widow conceded he was close to impossible as a person. Yes, the early Bond books were good, but Fleming could not sustain the quality beyond the first seven, and the films and film-derived book clones became ridiculous (even by the time of Larkin's 1981 piece). Interestingly, when Larkin loses his balance it is with reference to music. His appreciation of the types of jazz available on record in his own late teenage years is essentially uncritical, leading him to unjustified deprecation of the blues, rhythm and blues and - perhaps the most jarring note in the whole book - Mick Jagger.
But you can take what you want and leave the rest, and if you have an interest in Larkin, poetry, good writing in general, or Marvell, Tennyson, William Barnes, Hardy, the First World War poets, Houseman, W H Auden, Stevie Smith and others in particular, you will take much more than you leave. It's only a pity the book isn't indexed; there is much here well worth a quick reference at a later date.