“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.”
In the shadow of the first line, the second never gets enough credit. It’s the apologetic indecisiveness of “may” that gives the story away and makes the poem. The meter and rhyme contain the rage like an over-wound alarm clock. In free verse, the poem would amount to little more than a Sharon Olds tantrum, relishing its pain. Instead, Larkin, the former novelist, suggests a man and an oblique narrative, his history in twelve lines. No one can read the poem impersonally. We gauge ourselves against it and suspect it may be judging us (as children, parents). “This Be the Verse” appeared forty years ago in Larkin’s High Windows, his final volume though he lived another eleven years. Dave Lee has posted a video of the poem as read by Sir Tom Courtenay, forever the voice of Ivan Denisovich. Once you get over the gimmick of young men and women mouthing Courtenay’s voice, the film works as a glimpse at resignation stunned by melancholy, like Lear after Cordelia’s death. Courtenay’s voice is grief modulated, untainted by melodrama.
Larkin took his title from the un-Larkinesque Stevenson. He started writing it in 1967, on the same day he wrote “Annus Mirabilis,” but finished it four years later. All but eight of its eighty-three words are monosyllables, and all are common and unpoetic. “Coastal shelf” is perfect – that vast, submerged, unseen border of a continent, sloping to the ocean bottom. The poem’s hinge comes in the final two lines. The speaker must do something with what he knows, so he preaches, unconvincingly. “Get out as early as you can” is conventionally read as advice to leave home as soon as possible. Might it not suggest early suicide?
With time, the obscenity no longer offends. How else could he say it? “Mess you up?” “Screw you up?” In his notes to the poem in Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes an interview Larkin gave John Haffenden in 1981 (collected in Further Requirements, 2002), on the subject of “bad language”: “…these words are part of the palette. You use them when you want to shock. I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking. `They fuck you up’ is funny because it’s ambiguous. Parents bring about your conception and also bugger you up once you are born. Professional parents in particular don’t like that poem.”
Clearly, Larkin enjoyed the poem’s naughty renown, even if that’s not why he wrote it. In a letter to Judy Egerton in 1982 he writes, with a nice swipe at Yeats: “`They fuck you up’ will clearly be my Lake Isle of Innisfree. I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.” Donald Justice isn’t taken in by this. In Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem (Middlebury College Press, 1996), Justice selects Larkin’s “Coming,” written in 1950. He refers in passing to “This Be the Verse” and “Annus Mirabilis,” saying, “In the hands of a lesser master they might pass for vers de société, clever and very fine but not much more than that.” Justice distinguishes several voices in Larkin’s work, but hears even in these “witty” poems, with their “mordant strain,” a “note of plangent bitterness or regret, some perhaps sudden invasion or flash of feeling.”
Larkin’s best poems imply one reading without eliminating others. Is “This Be the Verse” an angry protest against child abuse? A misanthrope’s credo? An elegy for lost innocence, if such a thing can be said to exist? A schoolboy prank, such as Larkin and Kingsley Amis played all their lives? Is it damning or forgiving? Brutal or sentimental? Donald Justice concludes his essay like this:
“It has been claimed for Larkin that he was never sentimental, never brutal. But the truth is that I find him both sentimental and brutal, though in different poems, or in different parts of the same poem…Irony, diffidence, skepticism, wit: not all of these together are enough to keep out a certain unreasonableness of feeling—the sentiment, the sentimentality—that keeps rising up out of Larkin’s poems. Actually, it is what saves them. Doesn’t everybody really know this?”
[Here is Larkin reading “This Be the Verse.”]