blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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Don’t Have Any Kids Yourself: On Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”

One week into the third semester of my PhD program, the chair of the department called me into her office for a meeting. A student in my poetry course had complained. It seemed I was teaching obscenities, and the freshman had decided to withdraw from the university. The young woman had intended to declare as an English major but, after one day in my classroom, she was leaving to enroll elsewhere. Meanwhile, the student’s father was planning to write letters to the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, the president of the university, and the local newspapers. When he met with the chair of the department, the distraught father had said, “my precious, virginal daughter—she shouldn’t be exposed to this filth.”

The problem was Philip Larkin. The day before, I had assigned “This Be the Verse.” My class spent fifty minutes discussing rhyme and meter, how a poem can say serious things but sound like a nursery rhyme at the same time. I chalked words on the blackboard. Diction. Tone. Some students believed that parents were to blame for a child’s hurt. Some did not. When I asked for a volunteer to read the poem out loud, nearly everyone raised a hand; all of the male students and most of the females wanted to say “fuck you up” in class.

At the time, I hadn’t noticed the one girl. And later on, facing the chair of the English department (sometimes I just thought of her as the Venerable One), I couldn’t remember the girl’s face, her name, not a thing about her. Had she said anything to me? Not that I could recall. Had any of the others seemed uncomfortable with the poem? No, not a one.

And so we discussed Larkin—that my first encounter with the poem had been as a high school senior at the International School of Brussels, in a class evenly split between Americans and Europeans. That was the same year the group read Larkin’s “Toads.” We were tested on his “A Study of Reading Habits,” which ends, “Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap.” I was seventeen. Our teacher made us memorize “This Be the Verse”—the way so many public school kids in the British system do—so that the poem’s beat would become part of our bodies, she said. Larkin, she explained, proved that poetry was large enough to hold both tradition and the twentieth century in its lines.

“This Be the Verse” appears in Larkin’s last poetry collection, High Windows, published in 1974, the year before my birth. The poem is perhaps one of Larkin’s most quoted, most anthologized. A Google search of the title produces 101,000,000 hits in 0.14 seconds. On YouTube, viewers can listen to recordings of Larkin, his delivery a mix of deadpan inflections and sincerity. Once, at a poetry conference—2 a.m. and most of the room drunk on cheap vodka—I heard a group of twenty people recite “This Be the Verse” from memory, all of them so sure of the words they might as well have been declaiming the Pledge of Allegiance: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”

“This Be the Verse” takes its title from an equally famous poem, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem.” Larkin not only quotes Stevenson but also echoes the rhyme scheme (abab) and the epigrammatic phrasing of “Requiem.”

This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

“Requiem” and “This Be the Verse” are poems at rhetorical extremes. In his depiction of the coldness of childhood, Larkin offers a counterpoint to Stevenson’s warm representation of death as a restful homecoming. Together, the two texts work as opposing visions, one poet speaking about the ending of life and the other about its beginnings. “Glad did I live and gladly die” Stevenson proclaims, while Larkin offers his counterview: “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself.”

As with any nursery rhyme, “This Be the Verse” privileges musicality. The poem wants to be memorized; before we begin to question Larkin’s argument, we have already begun to learn its music by heart. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” The iambs reassure, while tetrameter gives the poem momentum. “They may not mean to, but they do.” Caesura and end-stopping work together to create the impression that each line is bite-sized, easy to swallow. Whether the poem’s message is heartwarming or cynical, rhyme and meter make the didacticism of nursery rhyme palatable.

Like many readers, my first introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson came in the form of his book, A Child’s Garden of Verses, a collection of Victorian nursery rhymes, many of which are written in tetrameter. These are songs of innocence, sweet as vanilla pudding, without the possibility of experience. Even a poem that could exhibit some of Larkin’s darkness, Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane,” explores the subject of a child’s sickbed without casting the shadow of duende.

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

Here, we find no awareness of the threat of diphtheria, chicken pox, smallpox, or any of the other diseases that locked Victorian children in their airless bedrooms. How different is a villanelle like James Merrill’s “The World and the Child,” which considers the same subject many decades later:

He lies awake in pain, he does not move,
He will not scream. Any who heard him scream
Would let their wisdom be the whole of love.

People have filled the room he lies above.
Their talk, mild variation, chilling theme,
Falls on the child.

In “This Be the Verse,” all of childhood becomes a form of sickness and parents the source of malady.

The poem begins with a proposition that couldn’t be easier to follow or more clearly stated: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” The language is simple, direct, conversational. Because the poet employs plain speech, it becomes difficult to argue his point. He’s so matter-of-fact he could be sitting across the breakfast table from us, drinking a cup of tea. Perhaps, he takes a bite of a scone. “You know,” he says, wiping a crumb from the corner of his mouth, “they fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Larkin uses the second person, an address that can include the reader, some unseen interlocutor, or instead could be the speaker conversing with himself. “[Y]our mum and dad” becomes all of our parents. If the poem were written in first person—“They fuck me up, my mum and dad”—we might pity the speaker or doubt him. In third person—“They fuck him up, his mum and dad”—we might not care. But you ensures that the reader feels invested in the narrative of familial dysfunction.

This personal engagement with the text is what makes the poem so teachable; Larkin connects directly with the reader, lays out his thesis (that our parents ruin us), and then supports his opening statement with additional information: “They may not mean to, but they do.” Larkin offers a picture of unintentional harm, the way we might accidentally sprinkle too much salt on our dinner thus making it inedible. Certainly, the parents’ neglect or incompetence could be forgiven were they burning a pot roast rather than raising children.

The stanza ends with a fuller explanation of what such damage entails. “They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” In “This Be the Verse,” the act of fucking up one’s offspring is much like a bad recipe for a cake. A child is the batter into which the parents stir their mixture of “faults,” adding “some extra” flaws to the recipe simply because something’s missing or this doesn’t taste quite right. Again, we see the same accidental cruelty (i.e. “They may not mean to”), the extra faults added to the child almost as an afterthought.

In “This Be the Verse,” each stanza is end-stopped, each functioning as a distinct component of the speaker’s argument. As Larkin moves into the second stanza, he extends the narrative to consider the ways in which our parents were damaged “in their turn” by their “mum and dad,” our grandparents. Now, we find ourselves amongst the Victorians, who wear their “old-style hats and coats,” all of them “soppy-stern,” no doubt tipsy on some boozy tonic or morphinated elixir, even as they try to remain buttoned-up and authoritative. Not only are the grandparents corseted drunks, but they are also democratic in their distribution of pain, fighting with each other when they aren’t mishandling their own child. Despite our expectation that top hats and bustles necessitate good manners, the grandparents are at “one another’s throats,” perhaps both figuratively and literally. We can read in this disordered representation of Victorian life a critique of Stevenson’s idyllic portraits of the late 1800s.

With the final stanza, Larkin takes a further step away from the immediacy of “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” We have moved from present tense to the recent past and are now in the vast realm of human history. “Man hands on misery to man,” the speaker intones; his assertion has the appeal of an aphorism, the elevated tone and expansive reach of hyperbole. Larkin’s dramatic shift in diction shows the reader how great a distance the text has travelled in eight lines. Here, the poem engages in inductive reasoning, moving from the specificity of the first two stanzas to the generalization of the closing. Induction, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “process of inferring a general law or principle from the observation of particular instances.” In logic, inductive reasoning offers an argument that is likely but not definite.

The probability that the speaker is right about the cruelty of mankind does not negate the possibility that he may be wrong. And this is why “This Be the Verse” always results in lively classroom discussion. Through its use of inductive reasoning, the poem gives readers room for argument. Or, as I learned the first time I taught “This Be the Verse,” some students will believe that parents are to blame for a child’s hurt while some will not.

Larkin follows his proclamation about man with the first and only metaphor of the poem, which only makes the stanza more complex: “Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Misery has become not only ancient and historical but also geological, a “coastal shelf,” the seabed that borders continents and then stretches into deep ocean. We are reminded of Matthew Arnold: “Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Or Percy Shelley: “the deep wide sea of Misery.” The coastal shelf, which marks the transition from land to open sea, also sends the mariner in Stevenson’s “Requiem”—“home is the sailor, home from sea”—back out into dark waters.

And just as the poem begins to groan under the weight of such freighted figurative language, Larkin hurries onto dry land, as it were, returning to his proper territory of colloquialism. “Get out as early as you can,” the speaker urges, “And don’t have any kids yourself.” We are where we started, in the vocabulary of the twentieth century, in a time when urgent situations demand urgent phrasing. Get out of childhood, out of the house, out of your parents’ toxic orbit, Larkin instructs.

What’s obscene in “This Be the Verse” is the narrative and not the language used to convey the story—not the vulgarism “fuck” but the very fact of that fucking-up. Parents may wound their children simply by parenting them; sons and daughters carry pain into adulthood and then pass the wounds on, in turn, to their offspring. “Man hands on misery to man.” If “fuck” is obscene, then its function is to serve as a mirror for the trauma which parents can (and sometimes do) inflict on their children. How else are we supposed to respond to the cruelty of family than with words like fuck? “They mess you up, your mum and dad?” No, too euphemistic to make its point visceral. “They %#$* you up, your mum and dad?” Absolutely not. “This Be the Verse” fails if it censors what has so often been euphemized in the past. We should be offended by the idea that parents sometime ruin their children through abuse or neglect. And if the thought of trauma doesn’t make us pay attention, then perhaps the language must.

That day in the office of the chair of the English department, I spoke for nearly forty minutes about Larkin. I wanted to say—but how could I without sounding defensive or self-righteous—that only a father who had something to be ashamed of could imagine a poetry class had the power to damage his daughter. Trying to be discreet, I wiped my damp palms against my pants. Had I been wrong to assign Larkin? Was I going to be kicked out of the program? Surely this was the end of my graduate career.

And then the Venerable One leaned towards me. “Frankly,” she whispered, “I think this guy just wants to fuck his daughter.”

That was the end of the conversation, my fellowship still safe, my syllabus intact. Whenever I teach “This Be the Verse,” I always think about the girl who took my poetry class for one day. What became of her? Did she go on to major in English somewhere else? Did she marry, have children of her own? I wonder. Wherever she is, is she still her father’s precious, virginal daughter?  end

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