In the book’s introduction by Amir Taheri, Philip Larkin is called a poet of chamber music. Taheri points out that Assultani and Larkin share a malaise about belonging. Larkin stayed put, Assulanti emigrated to England from Iraq. They come at belonging from different perspectives. Larkin seemingly belonged, but his resolute outsiderdom, his commitment to a not-so-cosmopolitan place, raised for him the specter of unbelonging, just as Assultani’s foreignness, in English eyes, cast him in a comparable light.
Larkin began writing as an empire poured back in on the English, wave after wave of immigrants arriving, challenging what it means to be English. The easy, the facile answer is that it’s one thing to be English, another to be British, and while the newcomers might become British they could not become English—but the English have never really known who they are, and the implosion of the empire on the British meant revisiting the definition of being English. Larkin’s struggles with this predicament would get him in trouble, but not enough trouble to cloud his excellence as a poet.
It could not have been easy for the English to assimilate immigrants who elsewhere on the planet had been assimilating in varying degrees. They often arrived with English accents. They wanted the best England had to offer, but many of them harbored resentments about colonialism and racism. Would the English allow them to blend into this new environment where the British homeland was changing because of the imperialist predilections of their forebears? The English must have felt somewhat like John Clare witnessing the greed of industrialists tearing up and polluting the countryside. And the newcomers came smack-dab up against to a society unwilling to trade its homogeneity, such as it was, for—what? That was the question. Both groups were asking it, and Larkin was unwilling to walk on by.
Larkin was also struggling with an England ovewhelmed by American consumerism. If the British empire had been distinguished by its sangfroid and administrative competence, the American empire, the successor empire that some Britons, like the Howe brothers, had sadly foreseen during the Amrican Revolution, was distinguished by its rapine commodification of everything under the sun. In many ways Americanism was easier to define than being English, wretched excess being its hallmark.
Assultanti’s spare dissertation—that is its origin—received lavish inattention for several possible reasons, none of them just or reasonable. How dare an Iraqi emigrant presume to explain a famous British poet to the British? That surely was one response. The thin book’s obscure publisher in Leeds must have given the British literary establishment another reason to cold-shoulder the work. Publishers capable of fielding a measurable promotion budget buy attention from the press with advertising. Understandably, the press in its fake claim to impartiality doesn’t like to admit that.
But a larger, more cogent reason for the work’s neglect may lie in its theme. Albert Camus, for all his recognition at the time, raised the subject of belonging and unbelonging—and paid a heavy price: ostracism from the intelligentsia who had once embraced him. He had concluded that all institutions, all clubs, churches and memberships parse us into insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who don’t, and by so doing he earned himself a place among the outsiders. Of a sudden it was remembered that Camus’s mother was a mute cleaning woman of Spanish origins living in colonial Algeria, and his father was an Alsatian. In other words, it was remembered that this Francophone genius, this Resistance hero was not quite as French as any number of intellectuals and writers who distinguished themslves during the war by finding the enemy less odious as the Nazis proved to be.
Assultani has discomfited a literary establishment accustomed to vetting its membership secretly, and it has been all too easy to ignore what is in fact a remarkable and noteworthy meditation on Larkin and his place.
Assultani is a poet, a journalist and the editor of the London-based literary review, Asharq al Awsat. He has translated such Anglophone poets as Toni Morrison and R.F. Thomas into Arabic. In short, his literary credentials are impressive, and he has touched a hot button, not by accident, but with deft consideration because it speaks to his own sensibility and that of many immigrants.
It’s rare that a poet is as closely read as Assultani has read Larkin, recalling Helen Vendler’s intense study of a prized few, admitting them to a coveted adytum. For example, he finds in Larkin’s plain language an intellectuality rivaling that of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His study of Larkin and Larkin’s sense of place also recalls Harold Bloom’s definitive reconsideration of the poet Hart Crane. A snobbish academic consensus had been formed about Crane’s inaccessibility and opacity. The academy was abetted in this feckless endeavor by the usual (and usually pretentious) cries of editors for more accessible poetry, by which they mean poetry that makes fewer demands on their already overtaxed intellects.
The insider is commonly thought to have the inside track, to have access to pre-emptive information, to have connections. But having connections is not the same as making them, and the outsider in stoic surveillance is unburdened by the luggage of insiderdom, unpoisoned by the inevitable gamesmanship of insiderdom. Larkin, ensconced in the University of Hull’s library, where he wanted to be, did not see his country and its astounding influence in the world the way it was seen in London or Oxford or Cambridge. Hull is a provincial city; it doesn’t have the hubris of those other venues, but it knows itself, as Larkin knew it and knew himself.
The trick is not to yearn for what’s in the candy shop, not to press one’s nose against the unforgiving glass. That takes fortitude. That explains the grandeur of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, for example. Larkin, like the emperor, is not one of the children pressing his nose against the cold glass; he is standing back, observing the entire tragedy.
Larkin is an outsider while being quintessentially English, and he seems to have understood from an early age that the cost of being an insider is a kind of tunnel vision, a loss of the fierce innocence required to see things as an alien might see them. He seems to have understood that having the insider skids greased comes with shooting too fast past the truths one ought to have seen, having no time to inquire after the sidelong glance. The enduring controversy about Larkin’s expressed racist sentiments is part of the larger discussion about the nature of Englishness and Larkin’s place in that discussion.
If his poetry can be seen as chamber music it must also be seen as the poetry of close observation of the ordinary, an observation that Larkin seems to have found life-sustaining. And that is why Assultani focuses so carefully on Larkin’s microscope, the poem. In the ordinary he finds the transcendant, and his ordinary language aligns him with the modernists.
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
When Assultani quotes these lines from Larkin’s poem, “High Windows,” we see that his readings of Larkin’s poems are so meticulous, so attentive to their structure, that it may be that the neglect of his little book owes in no small part to its challenge of certain assumptions about Larkin that have become settled canon. Where does this outsider get off raising dust and calling an English poet an outsider? the literati might ask.
In “High Windows,” Assultani says, Larkin ”expresses his thoughts about society, and individuality, about the dominant culture of consumerism, selfhood and otherness.” So here we see a poet accused of racism addressing otherness, which is the pith of racism, and we also see a poet-critic, Assultani, probing this tension to see what light it may shed. In this role, Assultani is not unlike a forensic scientist spraying his Luminol into seemingly harmless places to see what stains appear.
Calling a man an outsider who turned down the poet laureateship upon John Betjeman’s death poses a formidable difficulty, but Larkin’s rejection of that high honor lies at the heart of Assultani’s idea. Descriptions of Larkin, who died in 1985, as dour, somber and pessimistic have never quite explained his instinctive avoidance of the spotlight. He was a man who had come to an understanding of his own sensibility, his own gift, and he didn’t know which dislocation, which new development, might be the keystone that removal or tinkering might bring down.
Although nowhere near as restrained and terse as A. Alvarez, Larkin shared with him a profound misgiving about too much of anything, because too much might just shut down or diminish his wellsprings.
—Djelloul Marbrook Copyright © 2016