Tuesday, December 16, 2008

`To Pay Back the Audience'

Monday morning I was reminded why I never listen to so-called “talk radio.” Scanning the dial I heard an announcer say “They `F-word’ you up, your mum and dad.” His tone was haughty, disdainful and over-emphatic, like a teenager who thinks he has caught his parents in a lie. The euphemism was sillier and more salacious than fuck could ever be. He was apparently outraged that a school district had included Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” in its curriculum. It’s reassuring to know people can still get upset over a poem, though what bothered this guy was not the “F-word” but the “disrespect” the poem showed for “the family as an institution.” I got the idea he thought Larkin was a “hip-hop artist.” After long absence, enjoy it again:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

“But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”

An hour later, on my way home from a round of errands, the announcer on a jazz station said he was about to play “the greatest Christmas recording ever.” I was expecting yet another dose of irony but it was Louis Armstrong’s reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which its author, Clement Clarke Moore, titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem was anonymously published on Dec. 23, 1823, in The Sentinel, a newspaper in Troy, N.Y. Years ago, while working as a reporter in nearby Albany, I wrote a story about Moore’s Troy connection and was permitted to hold a copy of the now-185-year-old newspaper in which the poem appeared, in the collection of the Troy Public Library. Armstrong begins:

“This is Louis Satchmo Armstrong talkin’ to all the kids all over the world at Christmastime.”

Go here for the entire recording and wait for Armstrong’s laughter after he says “a bowlful of jelly.” No recording has made me so happy in a long time. Here’s what Larkin wrote about Armstrong after his death in 1971:

“Armstrong was an artist of world stature, an American Negro slum child who spoke to the heart of Greenlander and Japanese alike. At the same time he was a humble, hard-working man who night after night set out to do no more than `please the people,’ to earn his fee, to pay back the audience for coming.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ha. What a coincidence...I just turned to this poem for comfort and wisdom last night.

Our nearly 4 year old, a generally very good boy, has been making my wife and I pull our hair out the past month or so. What are we doing wrong, what should we be doing, are we unaware that we're fucking the young lad up...???

I doubt I could articulate what this poem offers me at this point in time...it certainly offers me something different from my first reading of it as a young man...I just know I closed the book with a smile and felt my perspective had been restored.