“Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets!”; Reflections on Philip Larkin: Personality, Poetry, Prose at the Hull History Centre, 13-14 June 2019

In 1982, Philip Larkin wrote that Hull is “as good a place to write as any” (A Rumoured City 9). On the basis of this rave review, as well as that fact that it was the city in which the poet lived and worked for the final thirty years of his life, Hull was chosen as the setting for the conference ‘Philip Larkin: Personality, Poetry, Prose,’ which was held on Thursday 13th and Friday 14th June 2019. We were extremely grateful to the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the conference under WRoCAH’s Student Led Forums scheme. The conference had been a long time in the making: extremely early in our doctoral studies, myself and Rebecca Devine, a PhD candidate based at the University of Hull, noted the lack of dedicated outlets for Larkin researchers to disseminate and discuss their findings: indeed, ours was to be the first Philip Larkin conference in twelve years. This seemed a shame, given the number of single-author conferences focussing on his contemporaries, and despite Larkin’s assertion in Paris Review, referenced in the title of this essay, that “one doesn’t study poets!” (‘Interview’ 67). The previous lack of events certainly does not reflect a lack of research being conducted in the field, nor the enthusiasm of Larkin researchers and fans.

After securing the support and expertise of Dr James Underwood, Senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, as our academic sponsor, and the talents of Felicity Powell and Wei Zhou, PhD candidates at the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds respectively, the show was well and truly on the road. We were particularly lucky to secure the use of Hull History Centre for the conference. The History Centre is home to the University of Hull’s extensive Philip Larkin archive, so it was a natural home for the conference: delegates who opted to spend a little more time in the city would be able to make use of the archive for their own research, and we had the advice of the University’s knowledgeable archivist, Simon Wilson, close at hand, too.

In putting the programme together, we were particularly interested in engaging the public as well as academics, especially as the conference was being held in Hull, where Larkin is a major part of literary and cultural heritage. We decided on a mix between scholarly and more creative panels, with several Larkin-based activities in the programme, too. We also made sure to market the conference in the local press, on events websites and social media networks, as well displaying posters and flyers in each of our university English departments, in Hull’s libraries and tourist information centres, in the Hull History Centre, and in an exhibition about Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes at the University of Huddersfield. The Philip Larkin Society journal, About Larkin, kindly allowed us to include our flyers within their journal and gave us a shout out at their Annual General Meeting, too. We were pleased, therefore, that our ultimate delegate numbers were fairly evenly split between academics and members of the public, people from Hull, and others from much further afield.

As we had the luxury of spreading the conference over two days at the History Centre, we were able to sidestep two of our least favourite things about conferences: parallel panels and early morning starts! Avoiding parallel panels was very important to us: it was brilliant that all speakers had a well-sized audience of delegates to engage with their research, and that all delegates could experience the conference in its entirety! We were also very keen that the conference supported small local businesses: thus, to make sure that our delegates were properly fed and watered, and that quality was maintained irrespective of dietary requirements, we worked closely with the award-winning Hull Pie Bakery on the flavours of the conference. In the poem ‘Dockery and Son,’ Larkin’s narrator travels through Sheffield and takes note of the “awful pies” he found there (Complete Poems 66). Through their delicious offerings, the Hull Pie Bakery proved to the delegates that northern pies are not all cut of the same pastry, so to speak. The wine for the reception was sourced from a local business too, whilst the conference dinner was held at the Barrow Boys, a new restaurant and bar set beside Hull’s beautiful marina; this also allowed us to show another part of the beautiful, historic city to all the delegates who were visiting from outside the city walls!

As the sun rose in Hull on the first day of the conference, it was clear that, despite our best-laid plans for lovely al fresco lunches and outdoor activities, the weather had other ideas. Weather – and the number of pairs of shoes I got through, after having no choice but to park in a four-inch-deep puddle – aside though, the first day went entirely to plan. After welcoming the delegates, we proceeded to the first of our three programme strands, with the panel ‘Interpreting Larkin.’ This panel – chaired by myself – was, as the name suggests, made up of three different ways in which the poet (his life and his work) are currently being interpreted by scholars and creatives alike. The first of these papers, by Rebecca Devine, explored possible interpretations of Larkin’s correspondence with children – particularly his own niece and the children of his friends – and, in turn, the different light that these shed on his character. University of Hull undergraduate student George Dixon followed, with his dissertation research, which analysed interpretations of place and nationhood in Larkin’s work, particularly through the ways in which these can be linked to Brexit. In the third talk of the session, Wes Finch of The Mechanicals Band performed three songs from his band’s collection inspired by Larkin’s poems, and discussed ‘The Righteous Jazz,’ the full-length music and theatre piece that the band are currently working on. This was a particularly pleasing panel to chair, due to the cutting-edge nature of its content: Rebecca’s paper challenged some of the more tired interpretations of the poet’s character, whilst George responded to Larkin within today’s political contexts; it was brilliant, too, to get an insight into the research and development work Wes’s creative responses to Larkin.

Thursday afternoon brought the second of the three thematic strands: ‘Influences.’ Chaired by James Underwood, this panel was concerned with the influence of people and places. Philip Pullen opened the discussion here, presenting a selection of archived material – including some that is as yet unpublished – within his research into some of the places that the poet visited with his family on childhood holidays, alongside their influence on his writing even as an adult. Alison Mace followed, with her close readings and discussion of the influence of a mutual acquaintance, Miriam Plaut, on Larkin, and the likeness between Plaut and the character of Katharine Lind in Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter. Closing the panel was Sam Perry, lecturer at the University of Hull, with his exploration of the various influences of the Surrealist movement on Larkin’s correspondence and poetry. His original interpretations suggested the influence of surrealist art and literature as a particularly illuminating way of reading the poet’s early work in particular.

We were extremely pleased to be able to welcome Professor James Booth to our conference, to deliver the keynote paper on Thursday afternoon. As one of the central authorities on Larkin’s life and work, it was very interesting to hear Booth – author of Philip Larkin: Writer, Philip Larkin: The Poet’s Plight and Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, and editor of Trouble at Willow Gables and Philip Larkin: Letters Home – reflect on his new interpretations of Larkin’s texts. His keynote paper, entitled ‘The Girlhood of Philip Larkin,’ discussed the various influences of some of the lesser-discussed women in the poet’s life, including his sister Kitty, his friend Diana Gollancz, and his ex-fiancée Ruth Bowman, both on his writing and the more feminine aspects of his personality. This character exploration was juxtaposed with examples of the poet’s behaviour in correspondence with male friends Kingsley Amis and Bruce Montgomery, to emphasise certain aspects of the poet’s recognised multi-faceted persona. Booth’s paper – which featured analysis of poems alongside archival material, including letters and photographs, and the schoolgirl stories that Larkin wrote under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman – was warmly received by the delegates, whose questions contributed to a particularly fruitful discussion.

After Booth’s keynote, delegates were invited to help themselves to a glass of wine before regrouping for our evening poetry reading. We were really excited that the highly acclaimed Hull poet Vicky Foster had accepted our invitation to speak at the conference: it was amazing to hear Foster’s moving poetry and funny observations read within the city in which she was born and raised, and how the place and its association with Larkin influenced her own poetry career. Foster treated our delegates to poems from her debut collection Changing Tides as well as excerpts from the newly published text Bathwater, which comprises the script of her BBC one-woman show. We were especially pleased when she signed our books after the reading, too!

Friday quickly dawned with no upturn in the weather – indeed, the day treated us to some impressively monsoon-like episodes – but this was not reflected in the enthusiasm of the delegates who returned eager for another day of Larkin-related research and reflections. After the resounding successes of the first day, we felt very relaxed about the coming day’s proceedings: alas, we were not allowed to become complacent, as the second day was laced with some of the most bizarre technological conundrums, from the main computer’s operating system inexplicably regressing to one that resembled Windows 98, to a wired keyboard dramatically perishing with no warning or provocation, and the speakers suddenly refusing to emit any sound just as we were poised to watch a delegate’s paper via video link. In September 2018 a rather peculiar article was published by Andrew Motion, describing how he had communicated with Larkin’s ghost through the high-frequency radio of the deceased poet’s former hearing aid specialist. Of course, Motion recalls in this tale how spirit-Larkin gave his biography the ultimate seal of approval, deeming it “very satisfactory.” In the nine months since the article’s publication, Motion’s tale has become the stuff of legend; as a result, of course, the poet’s disembodied spirit and his aversion to studying poets was quickly and humorously blamed for our day of technological woes.

The show must go on, of course, and the first panel of the day, chaired by Rebecca Devine, was to conclude the ‘Influences’ strand, this time with a literary focus. This began with the research of James Underwood, whose paper entered into an interesting dialogue with Booth’s keynote of the previous afternoon, by identifying Brunette Coleman – Larkin’s pseudonym during his early writing career – as an important influence in his early poetry; indeed, Coleman was evidenced as a more central influence on the poet’s work than the frequently-cited Thomas Hardy. Here, Underwood raised Coleman as a far more significant and focal aspect of Larkin’s writing than has been previously acknowledged. My paper followed, with a literary-linguistic analysis of the subtle yet significant role of birds in Larkin’s poetry, both as wide-ranging symbol and as a point of narrative perspective. This was a new and somewhat radical approach to the interpretation of Larkin’s poetry, with results that go some way to explaining a particularly contentious ambiguity in the poem ‘Here.’ In the final paper of the session, the University of Leicester’s Nick Everett provided a detailed intertextual exploration of several of Larkin’s poems. Widening the discussion of Larkin’s literary influences quite considerably, Everett argued the presence and purpose of a wide range of writing that may have fed into the poet’s own work, from religious texts to the works of modernist poets.

The final strand of the conference themes concerned the way in which Larkin’s reputation and associated heritage is, and should be, managed. This is a particularly pressing concern for Larkin scholars and enthusiasts as a result of Hull’s time as UK City of Culture 2017, and the fact that the next city to hold the title is Coventry, the city in which Larkin was born and raised. The first talk in the afternoon’s programme was delivered by Don Lee, an expert in ‘literary safaris,’ who has delivered Larkin-themed walks in towns and cities throughout England. Lee discussed his experiences in leading these walks, as well as their importance within literary heritage, as well as tips and practicalities for anyone who might like to deliver their own cultural walks in the future. The second speaker within this cluster was Helen Cooper, librarian and archivist at King Henry VIII School in Coventry. Cooper was one of the first thirty girls to attend the school, which Larkin had also attended in his youth. Cooper’s talk discussed the Larkin archives that the school holds, as well as the events that she is planning for Coventry UK City of Culture 2021; Cooper concluded with an invitation to delegates to engage with the Larkin activities that she is programming at the school.

Due to a cheeky intervention by the phantom-writer that unfortunately silenced the digital inclusion of Dámaso López Garcia from Universidad Complutense Madrid, our programme was cut short on the second day. Instead, Garcia’s paper ‘Refiguring Philip Larkin’s Poetry’ – which discussed the ways in which the poet’s works can be re-examined, retrospective to the damaging effects of the publication of the early biography and collection of the poet’s correspondences – was handily delivered to the delegates via email, to enjoy at their own convenience and through their own speakers! To conclude the session, Simon Wilson displayed a selection of fascinating items from the extensive Larkin archives, with the opportunity for delegates to inspect them up-close. This valuable experience allowed a real connection with the more everyday aspects of the poet’s life, as well as underlining the importance of the University archives to the city’s heritage and the work of the Larkin scholar.

This connection to the poet was reinforced by the final activity in our programme, which delegates were invited to attend on the Friday afternoon. It was important to us to end on a high note: thus, we could not let them leave Hull without seeing some of Larkin’s haunts within the city, making the most of the expertise of Don Lee. By some miracle, given the torrential rain that had almost drowned out the post-lunch panel (or perhaps it was the poet-spirit’s apology for his technological tomfoolery!) the clouds cleared and the sun beamed down just as the Larkin-themed walk prepared to leave the History Centre. On their hour-long exploration of the city, Lee and his tour group took in some of the most prominent sites and sights of Larkin’s city, a place that was (and still is!) “as good a place to write in as any.”

Contrary to Larkin’s assertions then, people absolutely do study poems, and his own are certainly no exception to this! We were particularly satisfied to note the ongoing passion and interest in Larkin – both amongst researchers and more general poetry and literature fans – in the city of Hull and far beyond: a testament, perhaps, to the continuing relevance of his work within today’s society. After two days of dynamic conversation and debate about Philip Larkin’s personality, poetry and prose, we deemed the conference to have been, on the whole, a great success. This was clearly reflected in the feedback we received from the delegates:

 

“Thank you and your colleagues for a splendid and wonderful conference. We both enjoyed the papers a lot. Organisation superb, food marvellously good!”

“Thank you for such an illuminating, comprehensive and well organised conference. The subjects covered were eclectic and all offered interesting takes on topics as likely to be of value to ‘Larkin professionals’ (so to speak) as to relative newcomers. I learnt a great deal and was equally inspired to pursue further research. In short – a rave review!”

“Thank you for such an illuminating, comprehensive and well organised conference. Particular thanks are therefore due to the organisers: they conducted everything with commendable efficiency and friendliness”; “what set this conference apart from other Larkin events I’ve attended (including my own) is that several of the papers tacked the technical aspects of Larkin’s poetry, rather than simply focusing on the man and his life. I am coming more and more to the view that Larkin’s life has had every last drop squeezed out of it as the subject matter of conferences, whereas his poetry merits ongoing analysis. I learnt a huge amount from the academic speakers and your communications were excellent.”

“Thank you all for organizing a most excellent and insightful conference. It was a genuine delight for me to attend. It was most pleasing and encouraging to see so many young academics interested and passionate about the life and work of Philip Larkin.”

 

The organisers were also congratulated on the conference’s success by the Philip Larkin Society. Given this warm reception, we are working with the Philip Larkin Society on speculative plans for a Larkin conference to recur on a three-yearly basis: if all goes to plan, the next event will occur in 2022, which will coincide nicely with the celebrations to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth. We hope to see you in three years’ time!

 

Works Cited

Larkin, Philip. The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett. Faber and Faber, 2014.

Larkin, Philip. “Foreword.” A Rumoured City: New Poets from Hull. Ed. Douglas Dunn. Bloodaxe Books, 1982. 9.

Larkin, Philip. “An Interview with Paris Review.” Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982.

Motion, Andrew. “Friendly shade: Andrew Motion wonders whether Philip Larkin had an unexpected afterlife.” The Times Literary Supplement, 5 September 2018. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/friendly-shade-larkin-afterlife/?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1536228063/. Accessed 19 August 2019.