Rejected from military service during World War II, Philip Larkin graduated from Oxford University in 1943. Upon graduation he worked at several university libraries, including Queen’s University in Belfast. In 1955 he became University Librarian at the University of Hull, a position that he held until his death in 1985. This library was made famous when it became the first library in Europe to install a Geac computer, and the first to have an automated online circulation system.
It was his work as a librarian that gave him the financial stability to pursue writing in his off hours as he became a noted poet and novelist. In succession he started by publishing The North Ship, his first book of poetry in 1945, followed in 1946 by his first novel, Jill, and then his second novel, A Girl in Winter in 1947. His second book of poems, The Less Deceived, in 1955 catapulted him into prominence as a writer. His other two books of poetry, The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), were critically acclaimed and further fueled his prominence.
In addition to his duties as a librarian, poet and novelist, he also served as the jazz critic for the Daily Telegraph from 1961-1971, becoming one of Britain’s foremost experts on the jazz scene.
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, a 2014 biography by James Booth, quotes Larkin about a colleague, “John’s being working-class was kind of equivalent of my stammer, a built-in handicap to put him one down.”
Larkin was known to assess his lifelong struggles with stuttering. The 1993 biography A Writer’s Life: Philip Larkin by Andrew Motion cites some of these statements. For instance, it quotes Larkin as saying, “It was on words beginning with vowels rather than consonants. There was no obvious reason for it: no left-handedness or physical accident. If I had some deep traumatic experience, I’ve forgotten it. This went on up to the age of thirty-five or so, after which the impediment slowly faded away, only to return when I am tired or confronted with a ‘stammering situation’ – post offices, for instance.”
Motion’s book contains other quotes from Larkin that address his stuttering. When writing about his family life and upbringing, he wrote, “Second child, myself, lived in a private world, disregarding what awkward overtures he could make, and was handicapped by an embarrassing stammer.”
Larkin’s girlfriend Ruth made the statement, “He used to stammer very badly in public then, of course, but in private it soon went away.”
Larkin’s sister Kitty commented on the Larkin poem “Next Please.” She said that the poem was based on a phrase he dreaded hearing as a child whenever he reached the head of a queue at school or shops: “it meant he would shortly have to speak, which would be embarrassing because of his stammer.”
Motion continues with the interesting statement, “In all these things he struck his colleagues as far minded but brisk, devising ways of accelerating a meeting towards the conclusion he wanted it to reach. He often used his stammer for theatrical effect.”
The number of literary awards Philip Larkin earned during his long career is staggering. While never an advocate for stammering organizations, throughout his life he not only struggled with stuttering, but many times gave a fresh assessment of his life as a person who stutters.
From the Summer 2023 Magazine