London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The pre-eminent English poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) is not unknown in the Arab world. A few years ago Cairo’s Supreme Council of Culture published an anthology of Larkin’s poetry; this collection is translated and forwarded by poet and critic Dr. Mohammed Mustafa Badawi, professor at St. Antony’s College Oxford.
Several of Larkin’s poetry volumes have also been translated into Arabic by Adel Slama, Osama Farhat, and Maher Farid Shafik, among others. While Egyptian critic Dr. Nihad Saleha wrote an article entitled ‘Larkin: Poet of Western Sadness’ published in Al-Ahram on December 20, 1985.
Today, Iraqi poet and scholar Fadhil Assultani has devoted an entire book on Larkin entitled Philip Larkin An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude Sex and The Ordinary.
In the book’s foreword, Iranian writer and journalist Amir Taheri points to the commonalities between Larkin and Assultani, saying that both are “products of cultures in which poetry is still of great importance.”
“From the start I saw Larkin’s work as a poetical version of chamber music. He is the poet of small touches, fleeting moments and flashes of insight. For his part, Assultani, especially in his poems written in the past decade or so, has distanced himself from the epic ambitions of many Arab poets of his generation and moved closer to what Rene Char called ‘the small music of life,” Taheri said.
According to Taheri, Larkin distanced himself from “Auden’s hybrid leftism,” and “Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism.”
In his introduction Fadhil Assultani writes: “From the beginning, he [Larkin] held his own existentialist views on life, art, society, sex, solitude, self-hood and otherness, belonging, uncertainty, self-realization, anxiety, and undecidedness. Viewed from this perspective, we can’t find contradictions in his various stances, but, on the contrary, his work forms one protracted poem, on which he meditates on these big issues occupying humanity in the twentieth century. ”
In the first chapter of the book—’Transcending Solitude’—Assultani claims that Larkin used to say that D. H. Lawrence was important for him in the same way that Shakespeare was important to Keats, namely because the main message he sought to deliver is that everyone is alone.
Even his two novels—Jill and A Girl in Winter— are about alienated outsiders. Furthermore, Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney is about a penniless and homeless man with no family or identity whom Assultani deftly likens to the hero—or anti-hero—in T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, who says:
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
According to Assultani, Larkin reminds us of the French Novelist Henri Barbusse’s protagonist in Hell who spends his time watching the world through a hole in his room’s wall.
Assultani also draws an insightful comparison between Larkin’s characters and Ivan Turgenev’s nihilist protagonist ‘Bazarov’ in his Fathers and Sons.
In the second chapter ‘Transcending Sex,’ Assultani discusses Larkin’s High Windows. This five-stanza poem is one of Larkin’s most significant works, summarizing his view on love, sex, old age, solitude and deprivation.
To analyse the poem Assultani utilizes Immanuel Kant’s concept of “The Sublime.”
While in the third and last chapter of the book, ‘Transcending the Ordinary,’ Assultani critically evaluates Here and Absences which echo the works of the French Symbolist poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Stephane Mallarme, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Valery.
For Assultani, Larkin’s poetry makes use of the literary concept of ‘defamiliarization’ which is at odds with that of the New York school poets, such as Frank O’Hara.
The impression one gets after reading Assultani’s book is that Larkin and Ted Hughes are the greatest poets in post-war Britain.
Larkin was a member of The Movement, a literary school founded in the 1950s in Britain in response to the Romanticism and Surrealism echoed in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and others.
Larkin published seven collections of poetry: The North Ship (1945); XX Poems (1951); Poems (1954); The Less Deceived (1955); The Whitsun Weddings (1964); High Windows (1974); and Collected Poems (1988).
Assultani highlights the solitude of the modern man that characterizes most of Larkin’s poetry especially Talking in Bed in which he says:
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
Nevertheless, Assultani needs to reconsider some of his analysis. For example, on p. 52 he maintains that Larkin’s poetry is “no less ‘intellectual’ and sophisticated than that of Eliot or Pound.” In fact, even those who know little about these three poets can tell that Eliot and Pound are more sophisticated than Larkin.
What is more, the comparison Assultani draws between Larkin’s poetry and that of the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas appears unconvincing to me, particularly given that Thomas was devoutly religious while Larkin was secular.
Assultani writes: “Many of Larkin’s themes are analogous with those of Thomas than with any other British poet in the second half of the twentieth century…. Waiting, Absences, death, failure, suffering, echo and shadows are very common vocabularies in their poetic discourse.”
Nevertheless, Assultani’s book remains, as Taheri puts it, “a scholarly probe shedding new light on aspects of Larkin’s poetry beyond the pseudo-biographised stories to which he has been subjected for decades.”
Philip Larkin An Outsider Poet: Transcending Solitude Sex and The Ordinary by Fadhil Assultani is published by Mira Publishing House.