By Jack Hanson
Well, it has to be said: they fucked it up, the editors. They may not have meant to, but they did.
On May 22, the TLS published a previously unseen poem by Philip Larkin entitled, “In and Out.” The poem, we were assured, marks a period of transition for Larkin. It shows, as Tom Cook wrote in his introduction, “not only where [he] had been, but where he was going next.”
But soon after its publication, two problems arose to complicate the delight of this uncovering. The first was that the poem had already been published several times, even anthologized in A Rumoured City, a volume devoted to poets from Larkin’s native Hull. The other problem, slightly more damaging: the poem had been written by someone else.
The actual author is Frank Redpath, a lesser known Hull resident who, according to the introduction to his posthumous selected works, shunned attention throughout his life. Despite this aversion, others occasionally sought him out. (He appeared in A Rumoured City, after all, for which Larkin himself wrote an introduction.) Some of Redpath’s lines even adorn a statue on the site of a church destroyed by Nazi raids in 1941, as his newly created Wikipedia page mentions. But little else remains of his reputation.
Needless to say, Redpath would not likely have enjoyed the hubbub if not for the misattribution of his poem to Larkin.
But Twitter, that bastion of civility and generosity, certainly did. Once it was known that “In and Out,” a remarkable and remarkably Larkinesque poem, was not a product of the bard of Coventry, many took to their keys to claim other Larkin discoveries, such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, a Cadbury fudge jingle, and endless variations on “This Be the Verse.”
But, as this post to the TLS blog explains, the mistake was really an easy one to make. Redpath, like so many other poets of the time, consciously modeled himself on Larkin. And one can certainly imagine the giddiness with which any editor might receive an apparent gift like this. If only there had been a little more scrutiny.
If anything serious can be drawn from this error, it is from Tom Cook’s original post, in which he treats “In and Out” with care and attention, locating the poem within a larger corpus. It reads as perfectly good criticism, except for the fact that this location is simply, fascinatingly, undeniably false. It shows how blindly a critic walks the line between intelligence and nonsense, and how quickly one can slip from the former to the latter, even in the most innocuous write-up. But that's the risk of criticism.
If you can’t stomach that, get out as early as you can, and don’t write anything yourself.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.