Last night, I read Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2 (Picador, 2007). Larkin wasn’t the most amenable interviewee (he was downright cranky at times), but his answers make for interesting reading.
The interviewer, Robert Phillips, said: “Davison also sees your favourite subjects as failure and weakness”, referring to Peter Davison, an American “poet-critic”.
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”
Similarly, I’ve read reviews in which poets are berated for being “too personal”, for writing about menstruation, menopause, infertility or masturbation. These topics make some people uncomfortable, but surely nothing should be taboo. What is poetry, if not personal? Who are the final arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? It’s subjective, a matter of personal taste. A poem should be judged on merit, on whether it is well written, not on its subject matter. How boring it would be if all poetry toed the line. Vive la différence.