Monday, 10 March 2008

Philip Larkin: Toad Prince

Philip Larkin loathed performing his work. Introducing one rare recording caught on tape, he announces that it will be both his first and his last. The poet so admired the inexhaustible improvisation skills of the jazz greats whose vinyl output he reviewed for many years (collected in All That Jazz, 1970) - it’s ironic that he resolutely refused to record his own work. Paul Farley, in last week’s broadcast on Radio 4, explained that Larkin lacked as much confidence in his voice as in his looks. Having abandoned his Yorkshire accent for RP early on, when reading he also had to make a great effort to swallow his stutter, which appears in extant recording as a ‘bush-man’s-like click’.

These rare, nervy, formal readings are now supplemented by recently discovered material, recorded in a garage by Larkin with the help of a pal on a reel-to-reel machine. John Weeks, Larkin's drinking companion, also happened to be a skilled sound engineer. It is compelling to hear Larkin reading with the truth and feeling that comes to the relaxed performer. ‘Toad’ is full of mordant pathos, the slightly querulous note of self-righteousness. The recordings could easily justify the praise Larkin once lavished on Pee Wee Russell ('How Am I To Know?', 1966): ‘His timing is perfect, his phrasing oratorical without being melodramatic, his tonal distortions involuntary, and all conceived in that vein of unique, hard-hitting lyricism the Commodore crew made their own.’

Like Larkin, I used to be uneasy with the sound of my own voice. Last week I visited the South Bank Centre to record some poems published in Painted, Spoken for the Poetry Library. Dean ushered me into the Violet Room. For Sigmund Freud, violets, semantically akin to the French ‘violer’, were heavily suggestive danger and intrusion. I suspect The South Bank Centre did not factor this association in when naming the venue to soothe performers' nerves. Things have moved on since the time of the reel-to-reel machine. Freedie the sound engineer was able to cut and splice my readings to erase all the tongue twisters and slips not to mention the noise from trains which shook the room as they rolled over Embankment Bridge. Freddie expressed reservations about this enhanced performance. She felt that the original reading, with its moments of human imperfection rather than air-brushed glamour, had more jive, more soul.

'The Batik Block' and 'Cowrie Hunters' can be seen in Painted Spoken Number 16 and will be available to download from the Poetry Library at

No comments: