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Fucked-Up Poetry

So, I suppose the whole point of having a Poet Laureate is to trick people into paying attention to poetry. And it works; Your Humble Blogger, who reads very little poetry, not only read Carol Ann Duffy’s recent Politics, her Official Poem Laureatem Primus, but picked off the shelf an actual book of poetry because it had her name on the spine. Well, most of her name; the sticker with the call number covered up the last letter, so that her name was Duff, but I recognized it anyway, because of the laurel wreath and the barrel of wine or whatever. Anyway, the book is called Answering Back: Living Poets Reply to the Poetry of the Past, and it’s essentially a collection of fifty or so pairs of poems and response-poems. And I still don’t read a lot of poetry, so it’s not like I am going to take it home and actually read a hundred poems. I mean, seriously. But flipping through it at the library? Yes, that I did, and it’s because the Crown gave Ms. Duffy her own crown, so that’s all right, Best Beloved, d’y’see?

Anyway, I hadn’t read the Muriel Rukeyser and Louis Macniece or even the William Carlos Williams or Christina Rosetti poems that were being answered, so there’s that. But what caught my eye, of course, on the page flip was the Philip Larkin poem. You know, the one that starts They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do. I quote that a lot, in my mind and to a fellow parent, to the point where we use Larkin as a verb for the effect we have on our children. The poem is called This Be The Verse, which I always forget, and which makes a difference, actually. Anyway, I stopped and read the response, which is by someone named Carol Rumens, has the same title, and begins

Not everybody’s
     Childhood sucked:
There are some kiddies
     Not up-fucked.

I laughed.

And then, because of who I am, I wound up thinking about the two. I’m not, sadly, going to quote both poems extensively, because they are quite short and you can, I suspect, fairly easily find them (ask your librarian about ILL!) if you are interested. But essentially, Mr. Larkin is writing from a wryly depressed persona (one he often uses, and which may he may in fact have inhabited), and he concludes the poem with the admonition not to have children. Ms. Rumens responds that on the whole, people do OK, and dismisses the earlier poet as a “sad non-begetter”.

Now, I think Mr. Larkin is not, in his verse, arguing that one should share the point of view of his narrator (or himself, to the extent that it is himself). He is evoking a mood, not endorsing it. Well, and endorsing it, too, I suppose, but mostly evoking it. The rhythm of the thing swings too much, it’s too funny, it’s too rhymy to be a real endorsement of the miserable conclusion.

Ms. Rumens, on the other hand, does not appear to be evoking a persona or mindset, so much as responding to the (semi-fictional) Mr. Larkin; to the limited extent I can imagine the speaker of the verse, it’s a smart-ass. And yet, sure, the sympathy lies with the smart-ass rather than the depressive. And don’t we seem to muddle along, generation to generation, somehow, with most kids, most adults, turning out OK, for reasonably large values of OK?

And it’s those values of OK-ness that, in the end, bring me back to the first verse. Do those non-up-fucked kiddies actually escape Larkining? Did you? Your Humble Blogger is a happy sort of a fellow, even tempered and, well, nice. And yet, I got Larkined pretty extensively and inadvertently. I ate a bottle of aspirin when I was fifteen or so, by way of a rather dimwitted teenage suicide attempt; am I a Rumens or a Larkin? My Perfect Non-Reader, a magnificent nerd, socially awkward and self-imprisoned in a fog of her own (rather impressive) imagination: did I not Larkin her, not meaning to? And yet is she not, Rumens-ish, non-Larkined? Is OK-ness the bright line, a spectrum, a label, a myth?

I think, where I am at the present moment, is with Philip Larkin, in the sense that—seriously, if you are that worried about Larkining your kids, don’t have ’em, because it will happen. Or, at least, you will have those moments where you feel, like the narrator of the verse, that you are Larkining them, that you have been Larkined, that there is no escape from it all, misery deepening “like a coastal shelf”… but then, there is this: as you go deeper, you get bigger, which is why objects in Mr. Larkin’s poems are smaller than they appear, and closer.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,