David Yezzi's post and David Lehman's comment following bring up the basic issues all Larkin lovers (I don't think there ARE any Larkin haters, except maybe Czeslaw Milosz) mull over frequently. When you read Andrew Motion's biography you see what a controlling, often obnoxious personality he was; the compartmentalizing of his love/emotional life is particularly repellant. My favorite index to this side of his character is the spanking; he found spanking young girls very titillating and belonged to at least one circle of fellow spanking-lovers, the members (!) of which traded spanking magazines among themselves. Thus assuring a spanking good time was had by all! (I love the word 'spanking.' Perhaps I'm a closet spanker. Wanker, more likely.) And of course, as both Davids imply, this control-freak aspect permeates his work and career, along with his great erudition, love of jazz, amazing intelligence, and all the other qualities that blend to give us these fabulous poems which I personally have loved since I was fortunate enough to discover them.
But my story is only indirectly about this stuff; and it comes to me from Phil Levine, another great admirer of Larkin, who was visiting England with his wife, Franny--this would be sometime in the late 60s or early 70s--and who wangled an extraordinarily rare and precious appointment with Larkin for dinner. I don't have the details as to how this came about, but I know Phil relates it as an event that was so rare--a visiting American poet granted an audience with the Bath librarian--that he regarded it with awe and gratitude. He and Franny were tremendously excited and felt greatly privileged; they showed up at the restaurant and eagerly awaited the poet. Phil was particularly keen on talking to him about jazz: Artie Shaw, Coltrane. Phil was friends with guitarist Kenny Burrell in Detroit. Larkin was about a half hour late, or more; and when he showed up he was exceedingly shy. Conversation was imposingly difficult; and about 15 minutes into it, Larkin contrived to spill a pitcher--not a glass, a pitcher--of water all over his stomach and lap. He jumped up, made apologies about going to get towel--and never came back! Phil and Franny never saw him again.
I love this story for many reasons, not least of which is Levine's ingenuousness and enthusiasm, though the joke is on him: as he tells it, he's completely on Larkin's side. And of course it's a quick look into the personality of maybe the best British poet of the last half-century; certainly one of them.