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Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love review James Booth's life of the poet is wide of the mark

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Except when dealing with the poetry itself, James Booth's biography of Philip Larkin reaches some muddled conclusions

As treasurer of the Oxford English Club, the young Philip Larkin met several famous writers, among them Lord Berners, George Orwell and, most anticipated of all, Dylan Thomas. The poet visited the university in the winter of 1941 and went down a storm, his audience rolling on the floor as he parodied Stephen Spender. Larkin, though, couldn't quite get with the programme. Thomas's reading was "wonderful", his voice slow and artfully lingering. But how quickly the memory faded. In the days afterwards, he came to a far sadder verdict, writing to his pal Jim Sutton: "On the whole, he was rather a pathetic figure. It was difficult to connect the man and his poetry."

Seven decades on, and while Thomas is the stuff of stirring movie biopics, it's Larkin who's the pathetic figure: a racist, misogynist, death-fixated porn addict whose refusal to commit to any of the women he was blithely three-timing stole from them the best years of their lives. Just as the undergraduate Larkin could not connect Thomas with his poetry, so many 21st-century readers have had trouble coping with the fact that he, Larkin, wrote such exquisite masterpieces as At Grass, Love Songs in Age and An Arundel Tomb. It's true that the poems, luminous and wise, have sailed irresistibly on since the publication of Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin in 1993; my sense is they're more loved than ever. But Larkin himself is an ongoing problem, like a smell that won't go away.

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