Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Quick Review

The Complete Poems of Philip LarkinThe Complete Poems of Philip Larkin by Philip Larkin

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ever looked forward to something, something familiar, something toothsome and juicy, a steak sandwich say, only to be disappointed when it's served?  Well, here's the problem: too much bun.  Larkin's a lean poet; there's not much of him, but as Spencer Tracy famously said of Hepburn in "Pat & Mike," what there is is  "cherce."  Not lean in his person certainly, where he ran to sedentary fat, or his politics and prejudices which, as it turned out, were unappetizing, but in his poems there is no one in the last century of a cleaner cut or more savoury pleasure.  I'll drop the awkward metaphor in a moment, but first back to the bun.

The idea of a "Complete Poems" was terribly exciting for me as a regular reader of Philip Larkin.  If ever there was a poet of whom I've wanted more, this would be the one.  I've treasured the Collected Poems for years.  Imagine my disappointment then when confronted by this... object.  Other than a truly paltry smattering of unpublished stuff, mostly variants, what we have here is the Collected Poems served up on roughly four hundred additional pages of bun: notes, notes, notes, mostly abbreviations and reference to the shoe-boxes from which the drafts were plucked, and what the wretched academic editor rather grandly labels, "Commentary."  Bun.

Witness this starchy morsel on "There is snow in the sky", pulled all but at random from the mass:

"7 - 8 Cf.  Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium, 10: 'A tattered coat upon a stick'.  8 Crossed bones (with a skull) constitute the emblem on the flag (the 'Jolly Roger') flown by a pirate ship." 

Choke that down and see if you're not the better for it.

Pages and pages and yet more pages of just such helpful, glutenous blandness.  (I know I promised to drop the metaphor some time back, but it seems I can't.)

 Worse yet, there's no useable table of contents listing titles in the front, just the original book titles. The Index of Titles and First Lines, on page 707 (!) is a painful experience in and of itself -- witness the 32 lines listed most unhelpfully for The North Ship. So even in simple matters of accessibility and ease, this is entirely inferior to the earlier book.

Enough.  While I understand the potential need of such an edition for scholars, publishing this thing with all the fanfare of a new, "Complete" and final edition to presumably replace the Collected Poems was, frankly, a dodge.  This is not new anything, but an adulteration.

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