'I Hope Jazz has Founds its Enoch Powell'
Ian Smith [+]
Writer, Broadcaster and Musician
We begin with Larkin at the height of his fame. In 1970 Philip Larkin is established as the most widely-read English poet of his generation. He publishes “All What Jazz”, a selection of record reviews from the preceding decade (many of them from The Daily Telegraph). The introduction voices immense love and respect for jazz, with telling passages about Larkin’s first experiences of this (mostly) American music while growing up in provincial England. More controversially, Larkin here sets out a near-polemic against the modernist movement in jazz and jazz criticism. (His argument is similar to his attempt, in the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, to demonstrate that there had been a large body of undervalued English verse pushed to one side by the cultural and critical hegemony of an overvalued modernism.) The analogy with the politician Enoch Powell was Larkin’s own (in a letter), and an exemplary moment of paradox or even contradiction: in an essay which praises and advocates the music of African Americans, not least for the direct treatment of themes of suffering and oppression, Larkin sees himself aligned with a figure widely considered a colonial authoritarian and even a dangerous racist, but praised by supporters (including Larkin, it seems) for speaking “unfashionable truths” on matters of immigration and race in British society. Since the 1970s, Larkin’s own politics have become prominent in debates over the value of his writing and legacy, and negative perceptions have been very influential. Indeed, the excellent recent biography by James Booth, for example, devotes its opening section almost entirely to countering the perception of Larkin as a bigoted misanthropist: it is as though the biographer feels that the story of Larkin’s life can begin to be told only when a direct challenge has been made to a revisionist portrait of Larkin that has become so common as almost be to an orthodoxy. In this context, a wider understanding of Larkin’s work on jazz offers valuable insight into the subtlety and warmth of his thought, and into the paradoxical coexistence of generous humanism with an undoubted taste (in later life at least) for striking poses and making remarks that closely resemble casual bigotry. In the history of literary critical debates, Larkin’s attempt to shift the ground away from Modernist orthodoxy was mostly a failure. By his own account, the research for the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse was unable to uncover a substantial body of more traditional verse written in the twentieth century but pushed to one side by what he called “the modernist claque”. But in the jazz “culture wars” it is worth noting that Larkin’s position has been much more widely vindicated over the past 50 years – and this by the same liberal and post-colonial cultural academic sensibility that is so conscious of the politics of race, gender, and post-colonial history. Since 1970 scholarship and musical practice have moved away from the critical orthodoxies challenged by Larkin. There is now an increased awareness of the greatness and influence of the music in Larkin’s canon, and a decline in the authority of the “grand narrative of emancipation” that once elevated Bebop and its descendants above all else, either in intellectual depth or cultural influence. The power and eloquence of Larkin’s own writing, his rhetorical advocacy of the greatness of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others, and its moving account of the emotional impact for him and his generation, has only endured and even increased.