Instantly Unforgettable

Martin Amis remembers Philip Larkin.

Martin Amis

Philip Larkin in a library. Philip Larkin in a library

In the mid-1970s I edited the Weekend Competition in the literary pages of the New Statesman (with the judicious assistance of Julian Barnes). One week we threw down the following challenge: contestants were asked to reimagine Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress" in the style of any modern poet. It was a corpulent postbag: many Gunns, Hugheses, Hills, Porters, Lowells, Bishops, Plaths; and many, many Larkins. First place went to our most trusted star – a reclusive gentleman named Martin Fagg. At the Comp we gave out small cash prizes (Fagg got the maximal fiver), but no prizes are now on offer for guessing which poet he had in mind. This was his opening stanza:

You mean you like that poncy crap
Where some sex-besotted chap
Makes love a kind of shopping list?
Item: two juicy tits. Get pissed!

The lines have a pleasantly hysterical tone (as do many of the best parodies). They also have the virtue of being rich in allusion: allusion to Marvell (the octosyllabic couplet, the poet’s fantasised vow to spend 200 years adoring "each breast"); and allusion, also, to Larkin. The "crap"/"chap" rhyme inverts the "chap"/"crap" rhyme in "A Study of Reading Habits" (whose anti-literary sullenness Fagg noisily endorses); the poem ends, "Don’t read much now … Get stewed:/Books are a load of crap." Now, to transform "Get stewed" – where "[I]" is torpidly or indeed drunkenly understood – into an emphatic imperative ("Get pissed!") surely veers close to genius. More than this, though, Fagg manages to imitate what is surely inimitable. I read his lines twice, 35 years ago, and yet I summoned them without the slightest strain. This is the key to Larkin: his frictionless memorability. To use one of Nabokov’s prettiest coinages, he is mnemogenic.

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