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Ted Hughes vs Philip Larkin – whose team are you on?

19 October 2015

4:18 PM

19 October 2015

4:18 PM

Are you a Phillist or a Teddist? A Phillist is not a Philistine in a hurry, but one who warms to the sensibility of Philip Larkin. A Teddist prefers that of Ted Hughes. Recent BBC documentaries on each poet have clarified the choice. Whose vision of life is more convincing and compelling – the glum librarian or the dashing naturalist who made the ladies swoon (in and out of ovens)?

To define their difference it’s tempting to call Hughes a Romantic, and Larkin an anti-Romantic. But it doesn’t quite work. Hughes’s fascinated reverence for the natural world has some Romantic features, but his vision of nature’s brutality is hardly ‘Daffodils’. He also looked and behaved like a Romantic hero (Melvyn Bragg compared him to Heathcliff), but that’s not really the point. The word’s not much use – probably no major poet can be termed Romantic, after early Yeats. And in fact there’s arguably more Romanticism in Larkin. As A.N. Wilson said in his documentary on him, there were two sides to Larkin: the laddish cynical side, and the more feminine side, receptive to visionary impulses. It’s true: in fact a lot of his best poems are anguished meditations on whether he has a spiritual calling to be a great poet. (And note those dramatic moons in ‘Dockery and Son’, and ‘Sad Steps’.)

The term we need, I suggest, is primitivism. Hughes was a primitivist, Larkin an anti-primitivist. I don’t mean that Hughes idealised tribal culture and wanted to escape civilisation like Gauguin or D.H. Lawrence. I mean that he saw poetry in shamanic terms, as a form of ritual. A really good poem conjured something up, an emotion, a fear, a hope, and the best poetry was alert to deep chthonic forces – basic ‘earth’ forces that determine our lives. His own poetry sought to do so mainly through intense observation of nature that related it to the world of human ritual. Birthday Letters, his late poems about his life with Sylvia Plath, is littered with references to witchcraft, voodoo, charms, horoscopes. So are his earlier nature poems: the behaviour of some creature is often compared to some aspect of primitive religion.

Larkin would have smiled at the word ‘chthonic’ and asked for some gin in it. He was a debunker of all that sort of talk. Such scepticism defined his persona. For him, a really good poem cut through all rhetoric, all posturing, in order to describe an actual mundane emotion with memorable honesty and precision. The modern poet should reject the ‘myth kitty’ of tradition, and focus on what it’s like to be alive, in our actual world of embarrassment, failure, boredom, impending death. And instead of posing as a macho hero, the poet should humbly earn his living, behave decently to people, affirm normal bourgeois moral standards. He criticised the arts media for promoting trendy exotic writers and edgy protest-poets, and neglecting those who admit what life’s actually like.

Larkin saw Hughes’s poetry as trivial, overrated (he preferred Plath’s). And he saw him as a poseur, whose primal tough-guy act was calculated to wow the ladies. He was a version of the ‘shit in the shuttered chateau’ – the successful writer who pens a few lines in the morning, then relaxes with ‘bathing, booze and birds’. In 1975 Hughes came to Hull to give a reading. ‘I was in the chair,’ Larkin told a friend, ‘providing a sophisticated, insincere, effete, and gold-watch-chained alternative to his primitive forthright virile leather-jacketed persona.’ Of course he was a bit jealous of Hughes’s sex-appeal, but he wasn’t really threatened by him as a rival. For he was confident that true poetry rejected all forms of posturing and swagger, and that Hughes was ultimately a bit of a show-off. His dramatic, tragic personal life struck Larkin as a sort of public relations stunt, a way to fascinate celebrity-hungry students in his work. In a funny letter to Kingsley Amis he briefly jokily wondered if he was going mad. ‘That would be a splendid table to turn on Ted.’

My preference? I’m not a big fan of Larkin’s glumness, but it’s accompanied by a psychological depth, and a masterful use of irony, that makes Hughes look pretty limited. The ironist gets my vote.

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