Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-1982, by Philip Larkin. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 328 pp. $17.95 cloth; $9.95 paper.
Philip Larkin is one of the triumvirate of modern British writers (the other two being the late poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman, and Barbara Pym) who have done most to bring literature into the lives of ordinary people.
Americans have discovered Pym; her novels sell extremely well in paperback. Sir John's poetry may be just too British to make a good first impression on unwashed Americans; his poems are thick with the particulars of everyday life in England.
In ''Required Writing,'' Larkin writes about Pym and Betjeman; if you have not been introduced to them, start here. Both writers mean a lot to Larkin. When he made Barbara Pym's acquaintance in 1975, she had gotten so used to rejections, after a period of popularity, that she was writing her next novel (''Quartet in Autumn'') not for publication but for her friends. His friendship meant much to her; eventually things turned in her favor, and Larkin had something to do with it.
Larkin's longish essay on Betjeman (at l5 pages it's the longest in the book) , written for the long out-of-print Houghton Mifflin edition of the bard's ''Collected Poems,'' convinces me today even more than when I read it in situ that Betjeman has something for everybody. Americans should make the effort to read him.
Effort is not required by ''Required Writing.'' Larkin's prose is as much fun to read as his poetry. One suspects, however, that, like the photos in his poem ''Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album,'' these pieces may seem ''faithful and disappointing'' to Americans; we have grown accustomed to such metaphysical thunder in our poetry! But then, like the young lady in the poem, Larkin in his prose will doubtless appear ''smaller and clearer as the years go by.''
Larkin's smallness is a special thing; his collected works would fill no more than two books the size of ''Required Writing.'' It is a smallness that Ben Jonson strove for: ''In short measures, life may perfect be.'' It is a smallness that comes from Larkin's acknowledgement that literature isn't everything. As a poet he sometimes let his desire to write compete with more quotidian desires, like watching TV or taking a walk. The results, to borrow from the American poet Yvor Winters, have been ''small but good.''
As for the clarity of Larkin's prose, it will be appreciated the more it is read. Until now, it has not really been available in this country. Some of the best pieces originated as ''talks'' given upon receiving and accepting awards, or talks on the radio. Unlike most talks, they look good in print. Larkin is very insightful about the damage done to poets on the lecture circuit, especially when they are also teachers who conceive of a poem as a text to be studied. Poets who do much public reading often yield to the pressure to communicate instantaneously and may even adopt the strategies of the advertising copywriter. Poems so conceived look pretty pale in print.
Larkin's subjects include, besides Betjeman and Pym, Hardy, Wilfrid Owen, Edward Thomas, and Stevie Smith among others. Sometimes he surprises with a revisionist piece, such as the brilliant one on Andrew Marvell. As his astonishingly readable - and to many infuriatingly modest - ''Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse'' indicates, Larkin's passion for the ordinary perception memorably communicated is not one that limits him so much as it frees him to see things that have been overlooked.
Some jazz reviews written for the Daily Telegraph close the book. Larkin disapproves of everything after Bird; his affections are squarely with, for example, Louis Armstrong.This too will give American readers fits. We shall probably continue to cherish our Coltrane albums.
Larkin's subjects inevitably include himself. He granted interviews, somewhat begrudgingly it would seem. He is perhaps most himself when being interviewed by the earnest well-read person from Paris Review who frames his questions in the academic mode. At one point Larkin is asked what poets he ''studies'': his reply is unfortunately unprintable here.The point is, one shouldn't ''study'' poetry; one should read it for pleasure. As one reads ''Required Writing.''
If hearing about the Abrams ''Hours'' book in this month's column by Robert Dahlin (Page B2) has awakened an interest in these wonderful books, you will be glad to know that George Braziller, who pioneered the reproduction of illuminated books, has produced, among other titles, his own edition of the ''Tres Riches Heures.'' Printed in gravure by the Draeger Freres in Paris, it is a handsome specimen of bookmaking.
The intricacy, beauty, and wit of the pages repay hours of quiet looking. The Braziller ''Tres Riches Heures'' fulfills George Braziller's desire to bring books like this into as many libraries and homes as possible. It is not only beautifully bound and boxed, but it has an authoritative and eloquent preface by the great Millard Meiss. Finally, it is affordable and available at fine bookstores, or direct from George Braziller Inc.