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Philip Larkin Literary Criticism
An examination of Philip Larkin's use of exaggeration.
When Philip Larkin wants a point of his poem to stand out, he says something the reader would not expect to hear. He uses this attention-grabbing word or phrase to draw the reader's attention to what he is trying to say in the poem. He also uses words and ideas that are not socially proper such as his references to sex and violence. Philip Larkin employs the technique of exaggeration in the poems "A Study of Reading Habits", "Money", "To Failure", and "The Old Fools".
Exaggeration is used for much of the poem in "A Study of Reading Habits". Philip Larkin begins the poem by saying that reading books have helped him with everything except school. He also gives an example of how books have helped him. He claims that because of books, he has extraordinary fighting powers. He claims he can "...deal out the old right hook To dirty dogs twice my size." Obviously books do not make anyone very good at fighting. He would better prepare for a fight by exercising than by "...getting (his) nose in a book..." Because reading is not a usual way to get ready for a fight, the reader can assume that he, in fact, has not fought with people twice his size. Instead, that was just something that he read and is exaggerating his abilities to match that. By over exaggerating his fighting abilities, Philip Larkin draws the reader's attention to the meaning that books give him.
Next, the speaker says that, "...Evil was just my lark...", meaning that he had become evil. He claims that he "...Had ripping times in the dark/The women I clubbed with sex! I broke them up like meringues", meaning he had sex with many women and treated them violently. The reader may very well believe this claim except for the fact that he did those acts of evil "Later, with inch-thick specs..." This statement is a connection to the first stanza when he said, "...It was worth ruining my eyes..." We can assume that he is talking about something he read in a book in this stanza as well. It does not seem typical of a bookworm to be evil and violent. In addition to the exaggeration of his behavior, the speaker talks about sex and violence. These topics are effective at capturing the attention of the reader because it is not usual, and almost socially unacceptable, to reference them in a poem.
In the final stanza, Philip Larkin says that the stories in books are too familiar to him, so he does not read much any more. The speaker leaves the reader by offering the reader some valuable advice: "Get stewed: Books are a load of crap." In order to get the reader to understand the way he feels about books, he tells them to get drunk because books are so bad that being drunk is preferable. Being drunk has a negative social connotation and does harm people. The speaker gives us the impression that reading is worse This exaggeration would receive a receive a negative reaction from many people, but it is more memorable for that reason. Those that had a negative reaction to his statement would not have remembered it as well if it were saying something socially acceptable like, 'books are good.'
Philip Larkin's work is widely discussed among literary critics. Being so wildly discussed, the topic of Philip Larkin's use of exaggeration has been brought up. Alan Browjohn believes "(Philip Larkin's) language is never flat..." (Browjohn 254). This idea goes along with the idea that Philip Larkin uses exaggeration to makes his poems stand out.
Browjohn also says that Philip Larkin "[reaches] across accepted literary boundries for a word that will precisely express what he intends" (Browjohn 254). This supports the idea that Philip Larkin will use socially unacceptable words and ideas to make his poems stand out. In order to get his ideas across and "express what he intends" in "A Study of Reading Habits", Philip Larkin makes references to getting drunk, sex, and violence. All of these ideas are not typically discussed in a socially proper environment.
The literary criticism of Katha Pollitt also ties back to "A Study of Reading Habits". Pollitt says, "This little drama of sexual shame and insomnia is one that Larkin would depict again and again, using many of the same materials" (Pollitt 1). Pollitt is saying that Philip Larkin uses these socially unacceptable ideas repeatedly throughout his works.
In "To Failure", Philip Larkin explains the true nature of failure using exaggeration. Philip Larkin's first exaggeration is in his description of the misconception of failure. He says that failure "...do(es) not come dramatically, with dragons/ That rear up with my life between their paws/ And dash me down beside the wagons./ The horses panicking... " Failure is not like a dragon that makes everything panic and kills you. To get this point across more clearly, the speaker goes into a violent description of what a dragon would do if he wanted to kill you. This the violence description of this description is exaggerated to make the reader pay attention to that statement. They then understand that failure is nothing like the noisy, violent dragons.
Philip Larkin exaggerates the clarity of contracts. He says that contracts "...Clearly set out to warn what can be lost, what out-of-pocket expenses must be borne." By that he means if failure was like a contract, if would tell you when it was, what is was going to do, and when it was going to do it. If contracts were that straight forward, we would not need lawyers to write and and a court system to interpret them. The point of this statement was not to convey the clarity of contracts, however. Instead, this exaggeration was done to make it clear to the reader that failure is not straight forward.
The speaker then says "...nor as a draughty ghost/ That's seen, some morning, running down a lawn." The existence of ghosts has long been debated and has not yet been confirmed. However, a ghost makes for a good, unexpected exaggeration. If one saw a ghost in one's front yard, he or she would be frightened or surprised. Either way, the ghost would immediately draw one's attention.
After that, the speaker says "It is these sunless afternoons, I fine/ Install you at my elbow like a bore. The chestnut trees cakes with silence. I'm aware the days pass quicker than before,/ Smell staler too." That means that the speaker realizes that his or her life has become meaning less. Then the speakers realizes that failure was with him or her the whole time when the speaker says, "...once they fall behind/ They look like ruin. You have been here some time." This is an exaggeration because of the speaker's obvious attention to the details in his or her life. If someone is able to detect such changes, such as the days passing more quickly, the days smelling staler, or the trees being caked with silence, then it would be expected that they would ask why. If they asked themselves why, they would come to the conclusion that they are a failure. Instead, many years pass and then he or she looks back at his or her life and realizes he was a failure. This is exaggeration because even though one may not notice failure immediately, like a dragon or a ghost, it would not take us the rest of our lives to realize we have something wrong.
Not all agree on how Philip Larkin uses exaggeration. Some even do not even think that Philip Larkin uses exaggeration. An article by Daniel Jones and John D. Jorgenson makes the case that Philip Larkin does not use exaggeration to attract the attention of his readers. Jones and Jorgenson state that, "Of these twenty three (works) are simply and self-effacing lynumbered, and of the remainder some have noncommittal titles such as "Dawn", "Winter" and "Night Music"-never a good tactic for leaving a clear impression on the reader's mind."(Jones 276). As Jones states, such simple titles are not effective at drawing in the reader. If it were Philip Larkin's style to grab the reader's attention, then he would not be using such dull titles.
However, the use dull titles can be part of the process of capturing the reader's attention. When Philip Larkin gives a poem the title of "To Failure", the reader develops a certain expectation of what the poem will be about. After forming this expectation, the reader starts to read and sees Philip Larkin writing about dragons and ghost. Philip Larkin then refutes the socially accepted view of failure, something obvious that explodes in your face, and replace it with a different idea, the idea that failure is subtle and slowly decays one's life.
The literary analysis of Alan Browjohn seems to support the idea of starting off bland then introducing exaggeration. Browjohn said, "His language is never flat, unless he intends it so for a particular reason, and his diction is never stereotyped" (Browjohn 254). Browjohn implies that Philip Larkin can use flat language "unless he intends so for a particular reason." In this case, the 'particular reason' is to work toward his main goal of capturing the reader attention. In contrasting attention-grabbing words and boring, undescriptive titles, Philip Larkin is able to more effectively grab the attention of the reader as opposed to making everything an exaggeration.
Another literary critic who did not believe Philip Larkin used exaggeration is T.J. Ross. Ross said, "The one distinguishing feature granted Larkin was his presumed depressing tone. Few reviewers failed to quote his most cited quip: "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth"" (Ross 1). Ross states that Philip Larkin uses deprivation, not exaggeration, as the basis for his poems. Ross even uses a Philip Larkin quote, ""Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." By quoting Philip Larkin himself, Ross makes a very strong argument. However, even though there are certainly examples of deprivation in "A Study of Reading Habits" and "To Failure", exaggeration is most certainly the more dominant of the two.
T.J. Ross also said, "In keeping with the emphasis on the ordinary and the intimate, the language of the poet exemplifies the Wordsworthian view of the poet's language as the language ordinarily spoken by one person to another." Ross refutes the idea that Philip Larkin uses exaggeration to shock the reader by saying that Philip Larkin uses the same language as the reader. If this were true, there would be no element of shock or surprise if Philip Larkin uses the words that the reader would say. There would also be no shock due to socially unacceptable words or phrases.
In "Money", Philip Larkin says that others claim that he does not use his money well. His money tells him that money is "...all you never had of goods and sex, You can still get them by writing a few cheques." There are two exaggerations in this statement. The first is his claim this his money is telling him that he is not using his money well. Money can not actually talk, but it catches the attention of the reader if he says his money is talking to him. The talking money probably refers to others scolding him about his misuse of money. Philip Larkin uses talking money to draw the reader's attention to the importance of money in society. Philip Larkin actually goes on the make that same point in other instances throughout the rest of the poem.
Philip Larkin uses the second stanza to exaggerate what others do with their money. He says that "By now they've a second house and car and wife...". A second house and car are luxuries that one does not need. The speak says that if one has money, one will spend it on unnecessary luxuries. The exaggeration of the luxuries implores the reader to ask: if money is only good for unnecessary items, then why is money necessary?
The speaker next explains that money is essentially worthless by saying "...the money you save Won't in the end buy you more than a shave." That is also an exaggeration. Money can certainly buy one more than just a shave. There is much to be bought with money, even the speaker just explain that people with money can buy houses and cars. In the end, however, those things are about as significant as a shave. After you die, a rich man has as much as a poor man, a soul.
Jones and Jorgenson also refute the idea that Philip Larkin uses exaggeration in his writing. "Much of Larkin's best poetry in his next two books caters for that 'hunger to be serious'" (Jones 279). The content of "Money" does not seem serious at all. The speaker has money talking to him. There are also exaggerations as to ideas of luxury and necessity.
Jones and Jorgenson also imply that Philip Larkin is gentle when they say, "Any harsher note of irony than the 'twenty seconds' and the 'warm spring rain'...would mar the quality of sympathy and tip the poem over into anger or cynicism" (Jones 281).
In "The Old Fools", Philip Larkin shows his point of view on the elderly. It is socially expected that one should treat his or her elders with respect. Philip Larkin takes a different stance. Philip Larkin gives many examples of how the elderly are past their prime. He exaggerates these examples by putting the elderly on the same level as babies. Philip Larkin exaggerates the diminished brain function of the elderly by asking the reader, "Do they somehow suppose It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, And you keep on pissing yourself, and you can't remember Who called this morning?" He also suggests that they are only able to live in the past by saying that they would change the way things are so they could be young again. Again he insults their intelligence by saying that they cant even tell the difference between now and then; that their memories are so bad that they think they were always old. Philip Larkin further exaggerates the decline of their minds by saying that they entertain themselves by watching light move. Philip Larkin uses all of these exaggerations to put old people on a different level than middle aged people.
In the final stanza starts by, again, commenting on the poor memory of the elderly. Philip Larkin relates poor memory to rooms growing further apart. He says this is due to "...the constant wear and tear of taken breath." This is not likely because when a person breathes, it does not negatively effect their mind. Unless Philip Larkin meant the 'wear and tear of breath' to symbolize the time that passes over one's life, he was trying to be Philistine and ignorant of the actual mental condition of the elderly.
"The Old Fools" expresses several complicated ideas such as death, dying, and life after death. However, Philip Larkin uses these complex themes to his advantage. Alan Browjohn says that "...in all the poems there is a lucidity of language which invites understanding even when the ideas are paradoxical or complex" (Browjohn 255). Even though Philip Larkin is expressing complex ideas, he is able to use them to draw the attention of his reader. Complex and paradoxical ideas are more likely to catch the attention of the reader rather that a dull, dim-witted concept. By expressing his ideas on these topics in a language that is easy to understand, Philip Larkin makes a definite and lasting impression on the reader.
The literary criticism of C.B. Cox may provide new insight on Philip Larkin's writing style. Philip Larkin may actually be doing more with his writing that trying to attract the attention of the reader through exaggeration and going against the social norm. Cox maintains that Philip Larkin, "...is trying to establish an anti-heroic mode as the only viable form of moral and social honesty left available in present-day conditions" (Cox). According to Cox, Philip Larkin is not only trying to capture the attention of his reader, but he always wants to redefine the anti-hero to be suitable for the present. This idea can be shown by looking at the speaker of several of Philip Larkin's poems. In "A Study of Reading Habits", the speaker is a bookworm who pretends that he is strong and has a lot of sex with women. In "To Failure", the speaker is looking back at a long line of failures. In "Money", the speaker is being scolded for not using his money well. In "The Old Fools", the speaker is cynical toward the elderly. Throughout all of these there is a common theme: the speaker is not in sync to the beliefs of society.
The speakers in "A Study of Reading Habits", "To Failure", "Money", and "The Old Fools" are not proper or sophisticated, so one may consider them Philistines. In this respect, Cox says that, "This bluff Philistinism is often taken as Larkin's own voice" (Cox). His point about the misconception of Larkin's actual voice aside, Cox supports the idea that Philip Larkin uses socially unacceptable concepts and words in his poems.
It is easier for people to accept things that are in black and white, however many things are actually a shade of gray. If the reader has a definition of the elderly possibly being intelligent, the message of the poem may be confused. By using exaggerations, Philip Larkin creates this 'black and white effect.' By using exaggeration, Philip Larkin can be sure that he will be remembered by many of his readers.
Jones, Daniel and John D. Jorgenson. Contemporary Authors. New York: Gale, 1978.
Browjohn, Alan. British Writers. New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1987
Cox, C.B. "PHILIP LARKIN, ANTI-HEROIC POET." Studies in Literary Imagination. Spring 1976.
Publication Date: 1976 gt;
Pollitt, Katha. "Philip Larkin." Grand Street. Vol. 9 Issue 3.
Ross, T.J. "On Philip Larkin." Literary Review. Fall 1993. lt; login.aspx?direct=true db;=lfh AN;=9408160619 site;=lrc-live