What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Larkin the Photographer

Philip Larkin with his Rolleiflex, 1957

Philip Larkin as a shutterbug? It’s a surprising revision of the reclusive Larkin image. Nevertheless, it’s a fact, as reported by Lev Mendes in his fascinating "Philip Larkin's Life Behind the Camera" (, “Page-Turner,” January 29, 2016). Mendes describes Larkin roaming the countryside, taking pictures with his Rolleiflex. He writes, “Rather than a poet committed to monkish isolation and routine, Larkin the photographer appears as an eager traveller through Britain and Ireland, with [Monica] Jones often in tow.” According to Mendes, Larkin took at least five thousand pictures, two hundred of which have now been assembled for the first time in a book titled The Importance of Elsewhere.

Mendes asks, “What drew Larkin to take pictures?” His conclusion – “Photography, like poetry, may have simply provided him a way of noticing and preserving” – strikes me as brilliant. It fits with Larkin’s view of poetry as set out in his “Statement” (Required Writing, 1983), one of the most compelling expressions of artistic purpose I’ve ever read:

I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.

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