Thursday, February 20, 2014

`Too Much Complication in Human Nature'

To a reader who had nice things to say about a recent post on Philip Larkin, I wrote: 

“How many poems containing `fuck’ would you even bother reading twice, let alone rereading for decades? (The first time I encountered the word in print was in the book section of a department store in downtown Cleveland. A poetry anthology they had on sale included a poem by Allen Ginsberg. I was shaken, truly. I didn’t know you could say that – and in public.)” 

And she replied: 

“To even think, anymore, of encountering a book in a department store, let alone a book of poems, let alone that word in a poem in a book in a department store. To a twenty-year-old, this would be an entirely implausible tale!” 

Such a shame, on all counts. In those early post-Lady Chatterley’s Lover, post-Tropic of Cancer days, when Lenny Bruce was being rousted by the cops, though a thirteen-year-old could buy Ulysses without blushing, “fuck” as verb, noun and interjection (preposition, anyone?) still packed a wallop. Due in part to people like me, who reveled in its gratuitous use, the word long ago suffered the fate of “awesome” in our day – enervation through overuse. As words with referents, they’re dead. Both are empty verbal gestures, and their use usually signals poverty of imagination. 

In no other poem published during his life did Larkin use the word, though it appears with the regularity of punctuation in his letters, especially among such longtime male friends as Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (“A brawny young man who has just married and fucked his wife without a french letter so that she is now going to have a baby”). I find Larkin discreet in his use of “bad language,” as he called it with ambiguous irony, always respectful of public and private uses. In this, he’ll never be confused with Ginsberg, an attention-hungry deviant. 

Larkin said of Stevie Smith’s poems that he respected their “authority of sadness.” Like Beckett (and Smith), Larkin is witty even when the subject in question is death, despair or everyday human misery. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” grabs our attention with the obscenity but also with its plainness and economy of means. “They gravely damage your self-esteem, your mum and dad” doesn’t possess quite the same piquancy, and not only because of the metrical irregularity. Larkin was contrary by nature, a quality some of us find endearing in an age of groupthink. It was Joseph Epstein who noted that readers scandalized by the poet’s political-correctness deficit were “people who, along with being impressed with their own virtue, cannot stand too much complication in human nature (“Mr. Larkin Gets a Life,” Life Sentences: Literary Essays, 1997).”

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