Wednesday 19 March 2008

The words on the page

Archive Hour: The Larkin Tapes, BBC Radio 4, 1 March 2008

Philip Larkin rarely gave readings of his poems. Asked why in an interview with the Paris Review [PDF], he explained that to hear a poem as opposed to reading it on the page means that, for better or worse, the speaker will interpose their personality between poem and audience, obscuring, maligning and interfering with the poem itself.

But for contributors to The Larkin Tapes, Larkin’s reticence was the scar of a terrible childhood stammer. That his voice has not been lost to posterity, then, is due to the work of a tremendous speech therapist and the persistent coaxing of friends who herded him to recording suites. He didn’t have the best experiences: an early attempt at making a tape had been marred by what he thought was the sound of toilet flushing upstairs. Thankfully, one of his friends was John Weeks, a BBC sound engineer based in Humberside. It was to Weeks’ garage that Larkin descended when, in the late 1970s, an American company enlisted him for a series of recordings of poets reading their own work. Over three sessions, they recorded Larkin reading 26 of his favourite poems - ‘the best of the best’. The project fell through and the tapes were never released, instead lying forgotten in a dank, junk filled room.

Found in 2006, they had survived the two decades of their hibernation more or less unscathed. This is unlike Larkin himself, of course, whose reputation took an almighty battering following the posthumous publication of his selected letters, followed by his biography. Writing recently in the Guardian, Andrew Motion, author of his biography, bemoaned that a decade on the furore over the revelations of Larkin’s misogyny, racism and sideline as author of schoolgirl tit-lit, still abounds. It has diminished only to the extent that while many still vilify him, the calls for his books to be banned have abated. Paul Farley, poet and presenter of this documentary, expressed the wish that the discovery of these tapes will once again bring attention back from Larkin the man to Larkin the poet - from the writings he had wished burned on his death to the writings he chose to publish.

That said, The Larkin Tapes was as much about the man as the poems. Even without any mention of Trouble at Willow Gables, and despite the warm reminiscences of what good, fun company he could be, this was, as is to be imagined, an unhappy affair. The overarching themes were of envy and insecurity and loneliness, disappointment and self-pity, of which his description of his childhood speech as gasping and jerking in the ‘strangled high pitched whine of a seaside marionette’ stands as a particularly nasty example. ‘The first half of my life’, he said, ‘was ruined by the fact I could not speak; the second was ruined by the fact I could not hear’. With age came hearing aids that whined with feedback, weight gain on his already gangling frame, baldness, short-sightedness and all the while a voice likened by one critic to ‘a clinically depressed “I Speak Your Weight” machine’. To deal with one of these things is one thing, to deal with them all another.

Contributors agreed these afflictions had a verifiable effect. Motion thought they taught him to keep himself to himself. Jean Hartley, friend and publisher, described him as feeling insecure about nearly everything. To compound it all, James Booth, a Professor of English at Hull University, articulated his belief that Larkin knew had it not been for the stammer and what came with it he would have been a natural performer. He recounts a photograph of Ted Hughes visiting Hull to give a lecture in the early 1980s. While he holds forth to all the girls in the audience, each hanging on his every word, at his side sits a silent sphinx-like Larkin, his own performances consigned to the behind-closed-doors of friends’ homes and recording booths.

Whether his personal misery is enough to mitigate the judgement of his detractors is somewhat beside the point. As Clive James has written, though Larkin had no control over where the misery came from, he at least had some control over where it went. This programme debuted about a dozen of the twenty six poems included on the tapes, including work from The North Ship, his first book, of which no recording was thought to exist. As one contributor testified, the set list was in general made up of the softer, more romantic, life affirming end of the Larkin spectrum. An inordinate number of people know Larkin only as the poet who wrote that your mum and dad fuck you up. Likewise, probably an equal number know him only as the poet who said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Though recordings of Larkin’s readings are already available, hopefully these new recordings and the publicity surrounding them will not only bring the glare of audiences back to the poems, but widen that glare to encompass those less anthologised, yet nevertheless memorable, works.

As for the recordings themselves? Well, poems like ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album‘, ‘Coming’ and ‘Mr Bleaney’ are so good that they could be squawked by a seaside marionette and come out unscathed. But to hear Larkin reading them is something out of the ordinary. One critic derisively labelled his voice as colourless as tap water, which Farley rightly thought was in fact a term of approbation. So clearly in his intonation, tone, pitch and pace did he capture the written words that his delivery resonates through each rereading and after. When the odd line pops into the head during the course of the day, chances are it is now couched in his voice. This is no bad thing. The reason for this harmony is in part obvious - he wrote the stuff. But it is more than that. As Andrew Motion described it, he reads as he wrote: in a plain speaking voice nevertheless capable of such extraordinary mystery.

Farley concluded by saying the tapes showed that Larkin wanted his voice heard, and widely too. Thankfully, he’s not the only one. Though listening to the recordings will never replace reading the words on the page, the vague announcement that Faber & Faber ‘hope’ to release these forgotten tapes ‘soon’ is still tantalising. In the meantime, hopefully Larkin’s poems will now be subject to recital by a raft of fresh voices, each obscuring or maligning the poets intentions less than if they had not had the benefit of hearing this speaker speak these particular words in his particular plain, yet mysterious voice.

The Larkin Tapes was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1 March 2008. Several recordings of Philip Larkin reading his poems are available at the and on


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