Ugly on Purpose
By Richard Palmer
Tenor saxophone enigma John Coltrane baffled even some of the most ardent jazz lovers with his work of the 1960s, but poet and music critic Philip Larkin found a creative way to respond to the Coltrane conundrum: he assertively expressed his incomprehension and reveled in his disgust over the style changes Coltrane initiated. Coltrane’s dogged quest for a new sound earned him both disparagers and devotees. Similarly beloved in some quarters and reviled in others, Larkin, in his pageant of outraged insensibility for where Coltrane (and others) took jazz, attracted followers such as Richard Palmer. In the sloppy, undercooked Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin, Palmer insists Larkin’s many jazz reviews and essays offer a vital but inadequately explored route to reaching Larkin as a poet and a person.
|In the parallel thesis indicated by his title, Palmer depicts Larkin as a Proteus whose “governing deceptiveness” has misled prior readers. He, however, believes he can pin the man down. And prop him up, since his only slightly obscured objective is to rescue his much-admired Larkin from those who took the posthumously revealed mask of the racist reactionary as the real man. The “tough-minded,” “profoundly affirmative” jazz fan who could not abide John Coltrane – that’s the man to attend to, according to the acolyte Palmer. Oddly, though, he strays from the centrality-of-jazz argument long before his conclusion and overlooks the full extent of Coltrane’s relevance to Larkin’s writing.|
Larkin wrote extensively about Coltrane and other jazz artists he disliked, and Palmer detects “subfusc pleasure in finding les mots justes to signify his aural pain.” Larkin reviewed records for the Daily Telegraph from 1961 to 1971, but the paper rejected a piece he wrote after Coltrane’s 1967 death in which he confesses that he “still can’t imagine how anyone can listen to a Coltrane record for pleasure.” (The let’s-speak-ill-of-the-dead obituary appears along with other Telegraph pieces in All What Jazz).
As a reviewer, Larkin dutifully endures individual records in order to report that Live at the Village Vanguard (1962) blends “insolence and ugliness, ” that A Love Supreme (1965) betrays “a degree of self-seriousness most inimical to an artist,” and that Meditations (1966) is “the most astounding piece of ugliness” he had ever heard. Posthumous releases like Expression (1968) and Cosmic Music (1969) he dismisses as “the scribbling of a subnormal child” and “the usual tumult of noise.” In the introduction to All What Jazz, Larkin appraises Coltrane:
With John Coltrane metallic and passionless nullity gave way to exercises in gigantic absurdity, great boring excursions and not-especially-attractive themes during which all possible changes were rung, extended investigations of oriental tedium, long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity. It was with Coltrane, too, that jazz started to be ugly on purpose: his nasty tone would become more and more exacerbated until he was fairly screeching at you like a pair of demoniacally-possessed bagpipes. [Italics in original.]
He created the word “polycacaphony” to describe Coltrane’s playing. “Exuberant contempt” is how Palmer describes the first stanza of Larkin’s poem “Vers de Société”; he could have applied the phrase to Larkin’s commentary on Coltrane.
Larkin inspired others to aim critical vitriol at Coltrane. His close friend Kingsley Amis warns against listening to Coltrane while hungover because he “will suggest to you, in the strongest terms, that life is exactly what you are at present taking it to be: cheap, futile and meaningless.” In the 1963 novel One Fat Englishman he creates the character-name equivalent of Larkin’s neologism when he puts one John Colvoutie on a jazz-club stage. With “three other persons of Afro-American decent,” the man with a moniker suggesting both “Coltrane” and “convoluted” produces “a fearfully prolonged wavering squeal.” In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James complains of Coltrane “subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder” and the “full, face-freezing, gut-churning hideosity” of his playing, in which “shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals.”
Coltrane not only found detractors among white poets, novelists and critics based in Great Britain (where Australia-born James moved in 1961); Miles Davis also disparaged his late work. “I don’t like the music Trane was playing at the end of his life,” Davis writes in his autobiography. “I never did listen to his records after he left my group.” He “got monotonous,” according to Davis. Ultimately, Davis also does not know what to make of Coltrane. With uncharacteristic humility, he concedes that he could be wrong about his former band mate’s work as a leader. Just as competitiveness between Larkin and Amis extended to their colorful insults of Coltrane, Davis also reveals professional rivalry in his remarks about the saxophonist.
|However, Palmer does not turn to Davis for support of Larkin’s gleeful disparagement of Coltrane, most likely because Larkin also could not stand much of Davis’s output, which he enjoyed deriding:
I freely confess that there have been times recently when almost anything – the shape of a patch on the ceiling, a recipe for rhubarb jam read upside down in the paper – has seemed more interesting than the passionless creep of a Miles Davis trumpet solo.
Amis similarly cautions that life “cannot possibly be as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be.”
Instead, Palmer turns to critic Stanley Crouch, who believes Coltrane, “one of the intellectual giants of jazz,” sabotaged his music in the 1960s by cultivating sterile, “emotionally narrow” ground.
Palmer seeks backup for his man Larkin for two reasons. First, Coltrane achieved undeniable popularity and influence. Second, Larkin’s writing on jazz inevitably involves race, a minefield of a topic for Larkin, especially after the publication of Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940 – 1985 (1992) and Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993), which used a trove of previously unpublished personal papers and sparked a reevaluation of Larkin. The letters “stand as a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became,” Tom Paulin writes in The Times Literary Supplement. In The Times of London, Peter Ackroyd says Motion’s biography exposes the “foul-mouthed bigot” Larkin’s “rancid and insidious philistinism.” Although Motion, one of Larkin’s literary executors, reports that Larkin was “unrepentant about his attitudes,” Palmer believes that Larkin’s jazz writing demonstrates that Larkin was neither a Philistine nor a racist, “two slurs” whose currency he attributes to detractors like Motion. According to Palmer, Motion’s “extensive but partial biography” and the letters engendered “unduly politicized readings” of Larkin’s work, which he endeavors to counterbalance.
Whatever befuddlement he may have caused Larkin, Amis, and James, John Coltrane achieved great prominence, even if jazz in general did grow less popular. In The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records, Ashley Kahn reports that by the time Coltrane died he was “reaching a wider range of ears than any other jazz player, save for his former boss, Miles Davis.” Furthermore, Coltrane’s “Impulse albums had sold tens of thousands of copies – over a hundred thousand in the case of A Love Supreme – attracting a younger generation that gloried in the sound of rock, folk, electric blues, and other breaking styles of the period.” Kahn sees another measure of Coltrane’s impact in the number of songs by Impulse artists that incorporate Coltrane’s name, citing Yusef Lateef’s “Brother John” and Elvin Jones’s “Dear John C.” along with several others.
Coltrane continued to shape the sound of jazz long after the 1960s. “He has been more widely imitated in jazz over the last fifty years than any other figure,” Ben Ratliff reports in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007). Ratliff says that as a critic for The New York Times during the 1990s and 2000s, he often heard the too-familiar sound of Coltrane’s pre-A Love Supreme style at gigs he reviewed.
Palmer concedes, as he must, that “history has not vindicated Larkin” with regard to his take on Coltrane. He acknowledges that Coltrane remains a major, obvious influence on twenty-first century saxophonists, and an artist whose recordings still sell well. However, “being right in such a fashion” did not interest Larkin, Palmer says. He could not predict Coltrane’s longevity, but no matter, since “prophecy was not his métier.”
|Besides, Larkin’s beef with Coltrane penetrated into nonmusical areas that are simultaneously crucial to Larkin’s views of art and inextricably bound to his thinking about race. Larkin’s “opposition to Coltrane went beyond what he thought of the music itself,” writes Palmer. In the “quasi-obituary,” Larkin expresses “heartfelt” disapproval of Coltrane’s conception of art and his attitude toward listeners. “Latter-day Coltrane embodied an idea of the artist that Larkin found alien and offensive,” says Palmer, who believes some of the qualities of his best poems, such as their economy, “have their origins in Larkin’s collisions with John Coltrane.”|
To shore up this intriguing claim, Palmer cites the following line from the 1967 essay: “He did not want to entertain his audience; he wanted to lecture them, even annoy them.” What, after all, could be more different from the approach taken by Larkin, the laureate of the ordinary who found “beauty in everyday things” and who, despite a reputation for writing “dismal, despairing” poems, “can inspire even at his bleakest” and be damn funny? Tellingly, Palmer omits the next line from the piece refused by the Daily Telegraph: “His ten-minute solos, in which he lashes himself up to dervish-like heights of hysteria, are the musical equivalent of Mr. Stokely Carmichael.” As Ratliff concisely conveys, for Larkin, “Coltrane’s aesthetic problem…was that he was an American Negro.” Although Palmer believes Larkin’s jazz pieces disprove the accusations of racism set off by Motion’s biography and Selected Letters, he ignores Larkin’s linkage of Coltrane with Black Power separatists like Carmichael and some of Larkin’s most divisive statements on race.
Here, too, Miles Davis provides unturned-to support for Larkin’s surmises. “Trane’s music and what he was playing during the last two or three years of his life represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time,” Davis says in Miles: The Autobiography. “He was expressing through music what H. Rap Brown and Stokely Charmichael and the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were saying with their words.” Of course, Davis would never refer to the music of Coltrane’s fellow tenor player Archie Shepp as “these death-to-all-white-men wails,” as Larkin does, though he might have relished the fear it sparked in at least one white man.
Because of such associations, “I don’t think I was meant to” like Coltrane’s music, Clive James whines in an essay nominally about Louis Armstrong (Larkin’s jazz hero). “Coltrane made listening compulsory, and you had to judge him serious because he was nothing else,” James writes in another piece, one purportedly devoted to Duke Ellington. James, like Larkin, discerns “a political component as well as an aesthetic one” in the developments led by Coltrane. He says the political element “made it difficult to argue against at the time, and makes it difficult even now.” However, he handles matters more gracefully than Larkin when he writes that the political part “had to do with black dignity, a cause well worth making sacrifices for. Unfortunately, the joy of the music was one of the sacrifices.”
Larkin believes the progression – or, rather, degeneration – of jazz reflects changes in the status of black Americans, and hints at some regret about how improvements in their conditions affect his once-loved music. As he understands the situation in 1963, “if in the course of desegregation the enclosed, strongly-characterized pattern of Negro life is broken up, its traditional cultures such as jazz will be diluted.” Further, what Larkin identifies as “the desire for the status of musical literacy, for sophistication, for the techniques and instrumentation of straight music” results in a “paradoxical position” of a simultaneously wanting “jazz that isn’t jazz.” He envisions the possibility of jazz becoming “an extinct form of music…because the society that produced it has gone.” While Palmer claims the recognition of exploitation and suffering among black jazz musicians acquits Larkin of racist insensitivity, it is not hard to hear in Larkin’s comments on segregation a lament for the passing of what produced unsophisticated, entertaining dance music in the pre-World War II period. Larkin could countenance persistent maltreatment and humiliation, the passage implies, as long as it meant more of the jazz he enjoyed before Coltrane came along and ruined it for him.
The same piece contains another series of sentences that Palmer says completely absolve Larkin of racism:
The American Negro is trying to take a step forward that can be compared only to the ending of slavery in the nineteenth century. And despite the dogs, the hosepipes and the burnings, advances have already been made towards giving the Negro his civil rights that would have been inconceivable when Louis Armstrong was a young man. These advances will doubtless continue. They will end only when the Negro is as well-housed, educated and medically cared for as the white man.
According to Palmer, “those four sentences expose all the post-Motion and post-Letters furore about Larkin’s ‘racism’ as the nonsense it is. A true racist would either be incapable of having such thoughts in the first place or wouldn’t dream of proclaiming them so eloquently.” Disregarding the specious comment on eloquence, a less forgiving reader could counter by asking if this does not qualify as the thought of a “true racist”:
I find the “state of the nation” quite terrifying. In 10 years’ time we shall all be cowering under our beds as hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.
We don’t go to [cricket] Test matches now, too many fucking niggers about.
Selected Letters contains numerous such examples, but Palmer opts not to cite them. Instead, he alludes to the damage they inflicted on Larkin’s reputation.
Palmer does not wholly ignore the letters, but even when he does address them directly, he refuses to permit anything Larkin said undermine his confidence in the poet and critic’s public virtue. He quotes a letter Larkin wrote to Donald Mitchell, the man who commissioned him to write reviews for the Daily Telegraph, in which he expresses “a sneaking affection” for the introduction he prepared for All What Jazz and proclaims, “It’s about time jazz had its Enoch Powell.” Palmer dismisses Larkin’s likening of himself to the “right-wing ideologue who identified rampant immigration as the British sickness and repatriation as the certain cure” as quite evidently “idiotic” but also entirely irrelevant. As Palmer sees it, the “PC cops who have been after Larkin ever since the appearance of A Writer’s Life and Selected Letters” and who point to this letter as “damning evidence of his unwholesomeness” are the problem, not Larkin. “Whatever may have been his private views,” Palmer assures readers, “Larkin the jazz critic was always an eloquent champion of black musicians and culture.” Despite this proclamation, Palmer does grudgingly acknowledge Larkin’s occasional lapses, as when he finds Larkin in a published review referring to the “jolly, rather noisy stuff such as a Negro crowd wants on its nights out.” Nonetheless, he remains certain that all accusations of racism amount to no more than “calumnious nonsense.”
Palmer’s turning to fellow Coltrane critic Crouch is a transparently lame tactic for burnishing Larkin’s credibility. Crouch says Coltrane’s work suffered when the musician separated his music from the “indelibly rich domestic influences black and white people had had on each other.” Put another way, a misguided Black Nationalism is to blame for Coltrane’s sound. Palmer identifies Crouch as “the distinguished black American critic.” He does not indicate the skin color of other writers listed in his bibliography. He all too obviously hopes that if Crouch and Larkin view matters the same way, if a “Larkin-Crouch ‘line’ on Coltrane” exists, then his “favourite twentieth-century poet” cannot be reproached. How could he be racist if a black man says similar things?
A more legitimate question might be whether Coltrane deserved to be lumped in with the Black Nationalists who so upset Larkin. “Despite claims to the contrary,” writes Kahn, “the screams and shrieks he summoned from his horn seemed one with the righteous rage and indignation blowing through the sixties.” Yet some of those contrary claims warrant consideration.
Although he did have ties to explicitly political musicians and writers, Coltrane did not actively participate in any political program. Ratliff says Coltrane’s “work became unofficially annexed by the civil rights movement: its sound alone has become a metaphor for dignified perseverance.” Even if his sound was co-opted for a cause, Coltrane was no activist. The reality of his engagement with his time took a more complex and nuanced form. Coltrane may have helped Shepp get a recording contract with Impulse, which released songs like his “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm,” but that does not mean Coltrane shared Shepp’s views. Amiri Baraka (as LeRoi Jones) wrote of black art reflecting the consciousness of Black Nationalism, and also wrote enthusiastically about Coltrane’s work; while Coltrane did play one benefit concert for Jones’s Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, he “had no direct links to the Black Arts movement,” according to Ratliff. Coltrane may have written “Alabama,” recorded in 1963, to commemorate the church bombing that killed four black girls in Montgomery that year, or in reaction to other events in the civil rights struggle that occurred earlier in that state, including Martin Luther King’s imprisonment in Birmingham. No one is really sure. Coltrane may even have composed the opening to resemble a King speech, Ratliff reports, though no one has identified which one it would be.
“Strange to know nothing, never to be sure,” Larkin writes in “Ignorance.”
Another dissenter from the view of Coltrane’s instrument as a bullhorn for Black Nationalism comes from Coltrane’s wife Alice, who told Kahn: “Many people wanted John to take his music into a militant zone,” the zone in which listeners like Larkin thought he had firmly situated himself. However, according to Alice Coltrane, “He would not be a part of it. He just said, ‘That’s not the way for me to go with this music.’ I would imagine John’s philosophy would be closer to Martin Luther King [than Malcolm X].” Whatever militancy Baraka and Davis may have heard in Coltrane’s music, Coltrane did not deliberately put it there. Indeed, as Ratliff puts it, “although Coltrane’s music had some potent connotations in its titles – ‘Song of the Underground Railroad,’ ‘Africa,’ ‘Alabama’ – it was moving toward ineffability.”
Beyond the question of any ideological content Coltrane’s music may have held, another inevitable one would be: if Larkin hated all this why did he write so much about it? In addition to All What Jazz, he also wrote enough jazz-related material to fill another volume. In order to address this, Palmer resorts to his second thesis: “Larkin wore many masks.” Or, rather, Larkin lies.
The primary reason for the impression of Larkin as a curmudgeon who could not appreciate jazz that did not sound like what he heard as a young man is All What Jazz’s misunderstood introduction, asserts Palmer. The introduction, he explains, is really an elaborate joke; it “contains several passages rife with dishonesty or at the very least crafty disinformation.” Thus, when Larkin describes astonishment, disbelief and alarm rapidly replacing the eagerness he initially felt as a reviewer when actual, wretched records started to arrive, he does not really mean it. Palmer’s evidence? The reviews themselves, “which evince genuine pleasure more often than not.” Larkin even found a live recording of Coltrane’s “Alabama” to be “delightful.” This ability to assess such work disinterestedly highlights his “judiciousness.” He might have called his stint as a reviewer a “nightmare,” but he really took great pleasure in it and in much of what he heard. He might have issued a “famous tirade against Modernism” in the introduction but he actually loved many aspects of it. Getting the gag depends on appreciating that Larkin engaged not in “mendacity” but in an artful form of “dualism.” Larkin “regarded jazz as high art (even jazz he disliked) and … wanted to proselytize it.” In this respect, Palmer grants, the joke failed. However, the “mixture of subversive and affirmative characterized him right up to the end.” These qualities discernable in Larkin’s criticism connect his jazz writing to his poetry, Palmer contends.
Palmer stops dancing with his date early in the evening, however. When he turns from looking at the jazz pieces in the first part of Such Deliberate Disguises to Larkin’s work as a poet and a librarian in subsequent chapters, he abandons jazz almost entirely. Except for two paragraphs in which he repeats his belief that Coltrane, through negative example, contributed to Larkin’s aesthetic outlook, he says nothing about jazz in the second half of the book. Tantalizingly hinting at Coltrane having an even greater impact on Larkin than he previously discussed, Palmer raises a potentially fruitful prospect but does not pursue it. Further, by considering Larkin and religion, as he does in one chapter, Palmer creates an opening for extended analysis of the Coltrane question but then simply skips it. Further still, he identifies humor as a key component of Larkin’s art, but, except for his take on Larkin’s introduction to All What Jazz, does not deal with how this, too, could relate to his thinking about jazz.
If Larkin cannot be taken at his word in some self-assessments (“There’s nothing much to say about my work. When you’ve read a poem, that’s it, it’s quite clear what it all means.”), he can be relied on with others (“Actually, I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through in my writing.”). “Has there ever been a funnier serious poet than Larkin?” John Banville asks in 2006’s “Homage to Philip Larkin” in The New York Review of Books. It’s almost the right question.
One of Larkin’s funniest poems, “This Be the Verse,” happens to be one of the few that Palmer does not like. He says “Larkin’s most renowned poem” amounts to less than the “sum of its parts” – the same trite dismissal he uses with another piece. After he notes that Larkin took the title from the epitaph of Robert Louis Stevenson (whose name Palmer misspells), Palmer calls the suggestion that the authors of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and High Windows (where “This Be the Verse” appears) both disappointed their fathers with their career choices a “revelatory explanation.” Yet he cannot see its connection to the poem’s “infamous first stanza,” which begins: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” (He also ignores the cue to revisit the dualism idea suggested by the Stevenson allusion.)
Turning to the end of the poem, Palmer runs into more trouble. The first line of the last stanza – “Man hands on misery to man” – is “wholly unambiguous” but Palmer cannot fathom how it connects with the next line – “It deepens like a coastal shelf” – which he finds “not entirely satisfactory” for its “far from clear” connection to the subject of family behavior. He misses the metaphor’s clear indication of a grindingly inexorable process of each fucked up generation fucking up the following one. Unlike the quatrain’s first line, the last two – “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself” – Palmer finds ambiguous in an “unhelpful, unenriching” way. Palmer avers that “anyone who believes Larkin is offering [the last line] as an injunction or solution to the human race is not thinking straight, or indeed at all.” Yet Larkin does not offer it “straight” either; the final lines operate as a resigned joke: there is no way out, but he can find humor amid the gloom.
Here Palmer forgoes an opportunity to return to the subject he says was “a primarily enabling force in Larkin’s personal and professional life as well as his greatest joy” – jazz. When Palmer briefly reiterates his conviction that Coltrane contributed to Larkin’s understanding of what an artist should and should not do, he adds a surprising twist. When in the latter half of Such Deliberate Disguises Palmer writes that “what Larkin saw as Coltrane’s bloatedness led to his honing his poetry into a kind of compressed, intense minimalism both lean and multi-layered,” he merely restates a point made in Part One. When he says, “What struck him as Coltrane’s deliberate rejection of the audience’s pleasure (or even involvement) inspired him to even greater demoticism, with no hint of condescension or compromise,” he again repeats himself, a debilitating and far too prominent part of Palmer’s writing method. However, Palmer then adds that “from Coltrane he also learned, or had invigoratingly confirmed, the power that can attend shock and ‘ugly on purpose’ aggression.” This is unexpected and frustratingly undeveloped. Certainly in poems like “This Be the Verse” and “Love” Larkin aimed to be shocking as well as deliberately unpleasant and provocative. However, the possibility that Larkin would condemn in his jazz criticism a characteristic he not only knew he possessed but actively nurtured deserves more than the fleeting suggestion Palmer makes.
While Palmer believes “This Be the Verse” does not deserve the popularity it achieved, he believes an earlier poem, “Church Going,” counts as one of Larkin’s best works. The piece from 1955’s The Less Deceived “encapsulates almost all of what makes him a great poet: lucidity; multi-layered deceptiveness; unceremonious gravitas; impeccable craftsmanship; doubting-but-utterly engaged truth-seeking; compassionate awareness of that which binds us all as moral beings.” Palmer knows that Larkin “lived and died an atheist,” but he believes “Church Going” and several other works in which “Christian redolences proliferate” show that “Larkin may not have embraced that belief, but he certainly understood it.” While the account of a visit to a suburban church is a work of “surpassing seriousness” (Palmer’s italics), it also involves elements of satire, a punning title (with “going” meaning both attending church and the institution’s diminishment in a secular era) and a joking tone early on (as in the reference to “…some brass and stuff / up at the holy end”). Palmer acknowledges the “mischievous fun” but mainly concerns himself with what he sees as sincerely considered spiritual concerns. The poet might not have shared the beliefs of those who seek the truth in that “serious house on serious earth,” but he recognizes and respects the “hunger…to be more serious.”
Once again, Palmer fails to pick up the thread he unspooled at the beginning of Such Deliberate Disguises. The quest for understanding and seriousness characterize Coltrane’s 1960s work. He made music his calling. For him, music became a religious project. (This happened with his listeners too: one Bishop Franzo King founded the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ, better known as the Church of St. John Coltrane, in San Francisco a few years after Coltrane died.) Larkin refers to this in his commentary on Coltrane. For instance, in a piece included in Larkin’s Jazz (successively retitled Reference Back and Philip Larkin’s Jazz Writings), which Palmer co-edited with John White, Larkin calls A Love Supreme “a four-part attempt by the sheets-of-sound father of the New Thing to say ‘Thank You, God’ in his own angular fashion, moving from frenzy to faith in doing so.” Larkin alludes to Coltrane’s liner notes for the album in which he does give thanks for receiving “the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” (In All What Jazz, Larkin dismisses such remarks as “pretentious guff.” “Rightly so,” Palmer says in one of the many fawning and intrusive footnotes in both Larkin’s Jazz and Such Deliberate Disguises.)
Anyone consciously setting to become a saint would certainly end up insufferable, but Ratliff quotes Coltrane wishing to become one. His late sound is not only serious; it is solemn. Coltrane sought to infuse his music with his spiritual interests. The droning that characterizes much of his 1960s work can be intense, but it never seems boisterous. Even his most “out there” recordings feel highly controlled. He displays deliberation, dedication, and care. These qualities do not render Coltrane’s sound lifeless or unpleasant, at least to ears more receptive than those of Larkin (and Amis and James). The testimony of Nat Hentoff gives a taste of the enthusiast’s fervor. “As for the music itself,” he writes of Transition (1970), “there is so propulsive a joy here in the very act of searching and of finding forms that follow Coltrane’s quintessential function as he saw it – going as deep into himself as he could and extending the limits of his horn so that he could bring back whatever he found.”
Yet even the most joyful moments do not express a laughing pleasure. What Coltrane does not demonstrate is a sense of humor. “Listen intently,” he implicitly instructs. “No chuckling, please.” An attraction to the sublime rarely accompanies an appreciation of silliness. Ratliff does not indicate whether Coltrane said he said he wanted to become a saint with a straight face, but he was not known for his jokes. Larkin, of course, was, even when at his most serious, as Palmer shows in his analysis of “Church Going.” Writing about A Love Supreme, Larkin points to the dangers of an excess of seriousness, yet Palmer does not address the two artist’s divergent approaches to religion.
With the coda he appends to Such Deliberate Disguises, in which he lauds Larkin’s work as a dedicated librarian, Palmer misses still another connection. Although Larkin pretended not to enjoy work, and affected a persona of one who did not work hard as a poet, these were just more “deliberate disguises,” according to Palmer, who (twice) insists that Larkin “had as little time for the work-shy as he did for the second-rate.” Although he concedes that Coltrane was “a driven man,” Palmer barely hints at the extent of his commitment to his craft. Known for his rigorous commitment to practicing his saxophone playing, Coltrane would stain his reeds red with his blood.
Palmer’s failure to pursue the implications of his argument throughout Such Deliberate Disguises is doubly unfortunate. It undermines what contributions to understanding Larkin he does venture. Further, by straying from his central tenet, he ends up simply recasting numerous points previously made by others. For instance, James in Cultural Amnesia anticipates and concisely encapsulates Palmer’s main thesis when he says that the references to Coltrane in All What Jazz “are the ideal way to the burning centre of Larkin’s critical vision.” Palmer does not mention Cultural Amnesia, but he does quote an earlier work where James contends that Larkin’s reviews offer “the best available expression by the author of what he believed art to be.” Palmer merely echoes this without raising the critical volume.
The point about the vital coincidence of humor and seriousness has also been made, and made better, before. Martin Amis, who once said of a book reviewer, “by calling him humourless I mean to impugn his seriousness,” believes that if anything redeems the Larkin of the letters it is “the comedy of candor.”
Other writers have also theorized that Larkin constructed various personae, transforming himself into an unreliable narrator of his own life. In First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin, Richard Bradford offers what could be called the mask defense to explain the offending letters. He says that “virtually all indications that Larkin was a misogynistic, intolerant racist occur in his letters” to a couple of friends, including Kingsley Amis, who might find such stuff amusing. In other words, he chose to be ugly on purpose in order to meet the expectations of a particular audience. Reviewing Bradford’s 2005 biography, Banville says that a face wearing an “impish and highly ironical smile” can be glimpsed in Larkin’s poems but that “in the letters the smile is turned into a leer so horrible that it seems less the grimace of a bigot than a mischievously fashioned Halloween mask.”
Still, Banville believes that the published work matters, and that racist comments in letters (as well as a penchant for pornography, dishonest dealings with lovers and other revelations mined by Motion and displayed in Selected Letters) are incidental issues that should not obscure the poet’s artistic accomplishments. Earlier still, James said what may be the most sensible thing there is to say about the matter: “Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say noxious things. But he didn’t say them in his poems….” Martin Amis, in an essay in The War against Cliché similarly insists that “only the poems matter.” While not defending all Larkin says in the infamous correspondence, he insists that his politically correct denouncers distort Larkin’s attitudes when they reduce them to simplistic truisms: “Just as a ‘philistine’ does not, on the whole, devote his life to his art (however clumsily), so a ‘misogynist’ does not devote his inner life to women (however messily).” Palmer makes equivalent maneuvers when he says no tin-earned modern music-hater would devote so much time to listening to and writing about jazz and, less convincingly, when he claims that no one who could find positive things to say about black musicians could harbor racist attitudes.
Perhaps more damaging than his parroting oft-stated (and conventional) views about the need to look at the work instead of the man, Palmer does not address challenges to his music-centric defense of Larkin that predate his mounting of it. Writing in 1993, fifteen years before the publication of Such Deliberate Disguises, Christopher Hitchens in “Something about the Poems” (in Unacknowledged Legislation) finds inadequate the claim that Larkin’s love for jazz makes it impossible for him to be a real racist. He believes the jazz writings Palmer believes exculpate Larkin actually do the opposite. “Britain’s most conservative literary icon,” as Hitchens dubs Larkin, only sympathized with underdogs as long as they remained underdogs: “Larkin…had no use for ‘the other’ except as victim.” Martin Amis too looks at All What Jazz, where he sees “admiration and nostalgia for black musicians…sometimes tinged with condescension.”
While Palmer’s contention that critics have not looked at Larkin’s jazz writing is plainly inaccurate, and his premise that those essays and reviews express ways of thinking also evident in the poems may not be wholly original, he occasionally offers too-brief flashes of insight. In a less revealing one, he claims that Larkin’s antipathy toward Coltrane resulted from hearing many performances “simply too long to sustain attention.” Palmer’s concentration also wavers. As a result, he leaves the surprisingly resonant comparison of two confounding artists only superficially examined. He does not follow the path on which he begins to the point where “ugly on purpose” ceases to be an insult.
John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s work has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan.