Essay: “Parody in Philip Larkin: A Trick Which Dispels Fear” by Charles Holdefer

“Books are a load of crap.”

This is the conclusion of Philip Larkin’s ‘A Study of Reading Habits’. In this poem, a disillusioned reader recounts how literature has let him down. Nowadays he prefers to get drunk. In three short stanzas, he describes a lifetime of searching and changing tastes and, in the process, deftly parodies various kinds of literature: action and adventure stories, pornography, and earnest realism. As Andrew Motion has observed, literature had offered a way “to fool the sexually insecure reader into thinking he was adventurous and successful […] Now, jaded by failure in the real world, he can see in books only the reflection of his own incompetence”(299). The joke, it seems, is on the hapless reader.

This interpretation is reasonable enough, as far as it goes, but I would like to argue that one should look further and see the parodies in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ as something more than an invitation to chuckle at the “insights” of a bluff vulgarian. Indeed, if one considers this poem in light of other Larkin poems that employ parody, such as ‘Poetry of Departures’ and ‘I Remember, I Remember’, the joke appears to be part of a more sober undertaking: a questioning of the fundamental role of literature. And when one considers a late poem like ‘Aubade’ (his last major published work, whose speaker seems cut off from the consolations of art), the situation becomes all the more stark. Larkin’s rueful clowning gives way to a tone that is simply stricken. A serious loss has occurred. Parody, from this perspective, is not an escapist diversion, a form of “lightweight literature.” On the contrary, it is a vital mode because it interrogates assumptions of literary value, while simultaneously confirming the attractiveness of what is being mocked. Larkin was keenly aware of this paradox, and subtle at exploiting it.

Parody frequently targets individual works or poets—classroom chestnuts like Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ and Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply’ have taught generations of young readers about parody and its purposes. Larkin’s method tends to be less direct. Before considering examples, though, I would like to make explicit some assumptions which accompany my readings, particularly in regard to parody and intertextuality.

Parody is a mode of literary allusion which goes further than intertexuality because it takes into account authorial intention. Robert Alter has explained this distinction as follows:

‘Intertextuality’ is a much more general concept, which occasionally may be warranted for that very reason, and the adjective ‘intertextual’ in certain contexts may be particularly useful. But this more abstract term finesses the crucial question of authorial intention: you can allude to a poem or a play but you can’t ‘intertextual’ it. Whereas allusion implies a writer’s active, purposeful use of antecedent texts, intertextuality is something that can be talked about when two or more texts are set side by side, and in recent critical practice such juxtaposition has often been the wilful or whimsical act of the critic, without regard to authorial intention (112).

Alter is speaking of many kinds of allusion here, not just parody, but the emphasis on authorial intention remains the same. Determining authorial intention, however, is a notoriously risky enterprise, prone to the same pitfalls, the “wilful or whimsical act of the critic,” that Alter disparages. It can lead to reductive readings of what the text is “about” and how it connects with the “real” world. Larkin’s work is no stranger to such debates, which at bottom are discussions not only about the work, but about how to read. For Tom Paulin, “Larkin’s snarl, his populism and his calculated philistinism all speak for Tebbit’s England” (175). For James Booth, such claims and the method behind them are fundamentally misplaced, because “beautiful, static, depersonalised lyrics are perversely returned to the parochial kinetics from which they have been so artfully disengaged—as though the critic’s duty were to uncover what Larkin’s poems would have been like had he not been a great poet” (196-97).

For my part, although I acknowledge that any description of authorial intention is always provisional and never more than informed speculation, I shall venture onto that territory, nonetheless, when reading parody. Since parody is writing about writing, a specifically literary “aboutness” of the text is made explicit. To recognize a text as parody is to concede, from the outset, a particular authorial intention. (What some might call “unconscious parody” is not really parody at all, but recognition that a work is derivative.) Parody is not necessarily the only intention or the most important facet of a poem, but when it exists, it stands as an open invitation for the reader to come over and have a look at how the author reads.

In Larkin’s case, he avoids specific dialogues with poems (à la Ralegh), in favor of a more general parody of literary sensibilities and manners of engaging the world. This approach is not surprising from a man who remarked, “Personally I am always sorry when poets desert their private agonies to rehash others’ literature,”(Further Requirements, 233). He handles his primary sources with tongs. Consider, for instance, the ersatz reminiscences of ‘I Remember, I Remember’:

Our garden, first:  where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by […]
that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest

These observations and others in the poem parody D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas (see Motion, 236) but there is no direct quotation or obvious textual reference, and certainly no explicit mention of either writer. Rather, there is a convincing “feel” here, a finely-tuned ear which focuses less on style than on tics of thought. It is a performance of another order than the poetic spoofs and tributes that find their way into anthologies; and its modes of allusion contrast considerably with the Modernist pyrotechnics of T.S. Eliot. The reader is invited to experience the connection otherwise. (One senses that for Larkin, there are few sins greater than name-dropping, which is true not only of his parodic poems but also of his entire corpus:  perhaps a reverse snobbery is at work.) Larkin’s less explicitly “literary” approach led critics to identify him with “The Movement”, and though this was always an oversimplification, it did try to address a signature difference. What emerges as most important, however, is a poet who is unapologetic and confident about the efficacy of his methods, particularly about the fact that he needn’t assert his seriousness so strenuously in order to accomplish something serious. Parody of his mentors is a natural vehicle to express this assurance.

What’s more, Thomas and Lawrence aren’t even the main targets of this poem. Larkin is writing more generally about how one reconstructs the past, and of the limits of nostalgia. ‘I Remember, I Remember’ extends the conversation beyond allusions to specific writers: it is a means to denaturalize habits of thinking. Although there is obviously no love lost between the poem’s speaker and Coventry (“where my childhood was unspent”), even this reference, in the end, is not decisive. Larkin’s assertive “Englishness” has been the object of much discussion but the factitiousness parodied here (which emerges as the poem’s main preoccupation) could have taken place in Hong Kong or Omaha. The concluding lines emphasize that “‘it’s not the place’s fault […] // Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’”

Just as ‘I Remember, I Remember’ parodies received ways of talking about the past, ‘Poetry of Departures’ addresses clichés of yearning and fantasies about the future. Again, the allusions are not to specific writers but to more general modes of speaking about desire—literally speaking, in many instances, since italicized lines like “He chucked up everything / And just cleared off ” or “Take that you bastard” are obviously oral and underline how deeply certain fundamental narratives have burrowed into everyday conversation. Other lines, though, are more self-consciously “writerly”:

But I’d go today,
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial […]

But in either case, whether oral or writerly, what is striking is the speaker’s ambivalence about what he parodies. For instance, after referring to tales of dramatic departures as “fifth-hand” and setting up an expectation that he is going to mock those who approve of such exploits, he admits, in the second stanza, his own hunger for the same clichés, even while recognizing their connection to his own complacency. Although they are “artificial” and untenable for this speaker, who sternly judges them as “reprehensibl[e]”, they are also, in their manner, “perfect”.  He cannot reject them completely because they answer to desires that he remains unable to address by other means. In ‘I Remember, I Remember’, the ambivalence was more restrained (the “nothing” which concludes the poem implicitly softens the parodies in earlier stanzas); in ‘Poetry of Departures’, the tension is explicit. The speaker longs for what he mocks.

A similar ambivalence is at work in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, and this is why the poem transcends mere jokiness. Here, an impersonal title instantly creates a distance between the implied author and the speaker, and makes broader claims. It announces, in effect, that the poem is not saying “This is how I read and feel” but rather “This is how people read and feel.” Almost 20 years after he first published the poem, Larkin believed that its assumptions had been confirmed:

I was wondering whether in the new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations I was going to be lumbered with ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ […] If someone asked me what lines I am known for it would be the one about mum and dad or ‘Books are a load of crap’—sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo, as Dr Johnson said. (Required Writing, 48).

Despite this supposed appeal to “every bosom”, other devices in the poem add to the distance between the speaker’s words and the poem’s ostensible meaning. These include doggerel rhyme (‘school/cool; specs/sex; dude/stewed’), a ‘low’ register (‘dirty dogs/yellow/crap’ etc.) and farcical brutality (‘Me and my cloak and fangs […] / The women I clubbed with sex! / I broke them up like meringues’). If this is how readers feel (or, more precisely, male readers), then the picture is unflattering, to say the least. The reader parodied here manages to be menacing and pathetic at the same time, before retiring into his own impotence.

Although Larkin is unsparing in this depiction—one also thinks of his published recollection ‘Single-handed and Untrained’, about his first library job in Wellington, where he had ample opportunity to observe such reading habits (Required Writing, 31-35)—there is also an implied sympathy for the frustrated speaker. And this amounts to more than commiserating with a lout. (Need it be said one more time that the misogyny expressed here should not be directly attributed to the author?) Although in Larkin’s personal correspondence there is no shortage of ugly or reactionary sentiments (confirmed, yet again, in the 2011 publication of Letters to Monica), for which I would attempt no excuse, one can also recognize, without special pleading, that Larkin the poet is more subtle, that he is adroit with masks and here, as in other poems, he is engaging in a kind of ventriloquism, in order to achieve a calculated effect. Of course the speaker’s observations are suspect, and the poem contains any number of hints on that matter: for instance, his indulgence of his reading habits has ruined his eyes. Yet, at the same time, the desire that reduced him to this condition is not necessarily contemptible: he speaks of “curing” himself of his mediocrity (or of the mediocrity of life itself?). Even if his remedies are poorly chosen and his escapism is naive, that does not invalidate his recognition of his need. In his groping way (at least before he gives up the enterprise and decides he might as well “get stewed”), he takes reading very seriously.

As does Larkin: the title of the poem, which does not come from the poem’s speaker, is itself a locus of parody. A study of reading habits? The impersonal nature of this title, its assertive sterility, is also a joke. For Larkin, reading was first and foremost a means of gratification.  Poetry needed “to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures” (Required Writing, 82). Though a highly accomplished reviewer and critic himself, he never disguised his belief that his professional output represented a lower form of reading, and remarked dryly, “[it] probably did me no harm” (Required Writing, 12). In his 1982 interview with the Paris Review, he could not contain his exasperation when asked what he learned from his “study” of Auden, Thomas, Yeats and Hardy, replying: “Oh, for Christ’s sake! One doesn’t study poets. You read them and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn” (Required Writing, 67).

Is this attitude, which is indifferent to the constraints of “professionalism” and which expresses a desire to emulate what he likes to read—is it really so different from the attitude of the speaker in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’? Granted, he’s not reading the same kind of literature, but there seems to be a similar thrill at the prospect of being able, poetically speaking, to “deal out the old right hook” and maybe even have “ripping times in the dark”. Larkin was only a few years from his death when he made this rejoinder, yet he still clung, without apology, to this highly personal conception of the purpose of reading. It has nothing to do with self-improvement, but everything to do with self-fulfilment.

That is why a late poem like ‘Aubade’, though obviously incongruous with ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, contains nevertheless an odd echo. A solitary speaker looks out into darkness, unable to cure his dread of death. For him, “This is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels. […] / Nothing to love or link with.” Religion and rationalizing offer no solace; the only thing he can do is work by day, and drink at night. But instead of getting “stewed” like the speaker in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, he manages only to get “half-drunk”. Not even this escape is available. Meanwhile, as dawn breaks for the rest of the world, he observes, “Work has to be done. / Postmen like doctors go from house to house.”

This final image recalls the beginning of Trouble At Willow Gables, Larkin’s early parody of lesbian schoolgirl novels written back in his Oxford days, and it effectively serves as a book end for his writing career (Motion, 89).  Only this time, we are a world away from playfulness and high spirits, and — in light of my earlier discussion — there is no allusion to another text or literary sensibility. A parody like Trouble At Willow Gables is eminently unserious but it possesses something which the speaker in ‘Aubade’ avowedly lacks: something to “link with”. ‘Aubade’’s speaker inhabits a world closed in upon itself, an unrelieved material reality. He stands in Prufrock-like isolation but without even Prufrock’s imagined romantic releases. “Telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / in locked-up offices.” Sadly, he knows they do ring for him. “Work has to be done” but it is drudgery, without aesthetic reward. Unlike the speaker of ‘Poetry of Departures’, he cannot get “flushed and stirred” at the prospect of rebellion; nor, in his morose, predawn state of semi-intoxication, can he describe himself as “sober and industrious”. The postmen making their rounds like doctors cannot bring him the sort of “cure” that the speaker in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ enjoyed, albeit temporarily.

If literature — even bad literature — is one of those fear-dispelling “tricks” like religion or specious rationalization, then it is too late for the speaker in ‘Aubade’. He is post-literary;  parody is no longer a possible remedy.

Larkin’s skepticism is central to his work; he raises “no-nonsense” to an aesthetic. Yet he is also aware of the limits of this approach. As Andrew Swarbrick has observed, “the result is an art suspicious of its own claims, resisting its own rhetorical persuasiveness.” Parody, in this light, is a way for Larkin to resist literature while at the same time enjoying its attractions.  As ‘Poetry of Departures’ suggests, it might be a step backwards to create a life “reprehensibly perfect”. But there is still something desirable about it:  even if reprehensible, it’s still “perfect”. Although a poem like ‘I Remember, I Remember’ is premised on the negation of what it describes, it still affords the pleasure of making that description. For Larkin, parody offers more than a pretext for a literary inside-joke. It creates a space for performance, and even if the performance doesn’t solve the problems it enacts, it adds something else which wasn’t there before: a “supplement” which affirms its creator. This mode of existence will never save the speaker in ‘Aubade’—indeed, with respect to his stark terms, nothing will. And that is the final irony of ‘A Study of Reading Habits’. This speaker, for all his limits, might have a point. Books might be a load of crap.  But sometimes, they’re all we’ve got.

Alter R. (1996): The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. New York: W.W. Norton.
Booth J. (1997): ‘Philip Larkin:  Lyricism, Englishness and Postcoloniality’. Repr. in: S. Regan (ed.),  New Casebooks:  Philip Larkin. Basingtonstoke:  Macmillan.

———————————(2006): ‘Resistance and Affinity:  Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot’. Pp. 189-209 in: A. McKeown/C. Holdefer (eds.), in Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance. Paris: l’Harmattan.
Larkin P. (1988, 2003): Collected Poems. A. Thwaite (ed.). East Saint Kilda and London: Marvel Press and Faber and  Faber
——————————(2002): Further Requirements. A. Thwaite (ed.). London: Faber and Faber.
____________________(2011): Letters to Monica. A. Thwaite (ed.). London: Faber and Faber.——————————(1983): Required Writing.  Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.
——————————(2002): Trouble at Willow Gables and other fictions. J. Booth (ed.). London: Faber and Faber.
Paulin T. (1997): ‘Into the Heart of Englishness’. Repr. in: S. Regan (ed.l). New Casebooks:  Philip Larkin. Basingtonstoke: Macmillan.
Regan S. (ed.) (1997):  New Casebooks:  Philip Larkin. Basingtonstoke:  Macmillan.
Swarbrick A. (1997): ‘Larkin’s Identities’. Repr. in: S. Regan (ed.), New Casebooks:  Philip Larkin. Basingtonstoke: Macmillan.

Charles Holdefer’s latest book is Back in the Game. He teaches at the University of Poitiers, France, and his fiction, articles and reviews have appeared in The New England Review, North American Review, Antioch Review, World Literature Today, New York Journal of Books, l’Oeil du Spectateur and other publications.