Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems Edited by Archie Burnett

Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems
Edited by Archie Burnett
Copyright 2012 by The Estate of Philip Larkin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardbound, 729 pages,  $40.00
ISBN 978-0-374-12696-4

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

You get a book of collected poems and think you have everything by that poet. But the new Philip Larkin, The Complete Poems edited by Archie Burnett is the penultimate book that every Larkin fan (and even those not totally familiar with his poetry) will want to have in his or her library. In fact, Burnett points out in his introduction the failures of previous editions of Larkin’s poetry. 

One thing about the British and certain academicians is their ability to dredge up every bit of minutiae on a given subject. And this is what makes Burnett’s Larkin collection complete.  Burnett has seemingly plumbed everything and anything extant on Larkin and crammed it into this volume.

Purists believe that publishing material an author chose not to publish is overstepping because he [Larkin] either had some reason not to publish them or felt they were not of sufficient merit to see in print. Yet, by choosing to do so Burnett has revealed a Larkin who is complete, that is to say, we gather new insights into a poet who ranks among England’s favorites both in his lifetime and after.

Burnett, however, does not stop merely with poems, he adds 339 pages of text notes that
trace nearly every source Larkin can be shown to have drawn on, and even, according to
a publicity piece, may have half-consciously drawn on.

Just published, this book is worth every cent, and includes poems from The North Ship, The Less Deceive, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows. Also included are other poems published in Larkin’s lifetime and poems not published in his lifetime as well as undated or approximately dated poems.  These are followed by commentary on the poems and appendices which include Larkin’s early collections of his poems, dates of compositions and finally an index of titles and first lines.

Burnett is co-director of the Editorial Institute and professor of English at Boston University.  And this marvelous undertaking will be hard for anyone to improve on and lovers of poetry owe him a grand thank you for this work.

Why is Larkin loved? He had an ability to put class in its place and academicians in theirs, witness the following:

Epigram on an Academic Marriage

You see that man? He has a month-old wife
He married from emotional cupidity,
Hoping she’d ‘put him into touch with Life’—
Now finds all she’s in touch with is stupidity.

Or this view of age:

Long Sight in Age

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the lost shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft ties of grass
Wincing away, the gold
Wind-ridden vanes – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old

These are but two short poems in a book full of magnificent poetry, a number of them quite longer. And as you read them remember that he never married and was quite anti-social, according to some sources I have read.  Yet Larkin’s ability to touch cords is what will make you love this book as much as I do.  Very Highly Recommended.


Zvi A. Sesling
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010) and Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 20110)
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 7

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