Required Writing by Philip Larkin
(Faber and Faber, 1983, 315 pages)
This is a collection of occasional writings and interviews from the English poet Philip Larkin. It consists of autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, essays on poetry, professional addresses, and more. Much of Larkin’s poetry has a gloomy and resigned quality to it, and these brief essays and interviews, while eloquent and often very funny, have a similar glum practicality to them. As the name of the collection indicates, most were written to fulfill certain professional requirements or requests. Larkin was a writer who wrote poems for the love of language, form, and feeling, but never felt pressure to churn out literary products for the sake of being considered prodigious.
Larkin continually denigrates the idea of talking too much about poetry or coming up with theories about poetry. In his famous Paris Review interview, he claims that explaining how you write poetry is “like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife” (71). And yet, he goes on to make insightful comments about the nature of poetry: “The poet is really engaged in recreating the familiar, he’s not committed to introducing the unfamiliar.” Larkin’s attitude toward poetry is devoid of pretension. He explains in “The Pleasure Principle,” that the poet must continually keep in mind that poetry should be written for the pleasure of the reader, not for the self-aggrandizement of the academic/poet. This sort of attitude is what has made Larkin’s poetry so popular, and it is nice to read commentary on poetry that is so frank and accessible.
Each of these essays are enjoyable in their own way, but it is in the reviews of jazz albums that Larkin seems to enjoy himself the most. Larkin was passionate about jazz, and these reviews are written without any sense of “requirement” about them. I particularly loved Larkin’s reflections on finding time to write even while pursuing an entirely different career (he was a university librarian). It is interesting to see how his “day job” not only informed his poetry (he wrote some wonderful poems about work), but also how his practical orientation toward work also carried over into his attitudes about poetry. These essays are very fun, and the Paris Review interview in particular may be the best literary interview you will ever read – both because of its insight and its humor.