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Winter 2008

What Larkin Knew

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Adam Phillips

Philip Larkin told John Haffenden that he took "great care" in ordering the poems in a collection; "I treat them," he said, "like a music-hall bill: you know, contrast, difference in length, the comic, the Irish tenor, bring on the girls." Larkin, like many of the best contemporary interviewees, gets into the question by getting out of it; Haffenden's studious question, "Do you take great care in ordering the poems in a collection?" is taken up by Larkin with requisite bathos, "Yes, great care. I treat them like a music-hall bill." The care is taken to keep the reader entertained, to hold her attention; the writer is up against the reader's distractedness, her failing concentration. The wish is always to be somewhere else, at least in one's mind. The get-out clause in any act of reading.

Larkin was a poet acutely aware of The Importance of Elsewhere, of what happens, as he writes in the poem of that title, when "no elsewhere underwrites my existence." And a surprisingly large number of his poems are about, one way and another, that most fundamental experience of elsewhere, leaving home. Leavings, and the anticipations of departure, are everywhere in Larkin's writings. But in this poetry of departures one poem stands out, perhaps his most famous and certainly his most notorious, for the starkness of its directive. Placed carefully between "Homage to a Government," a poem about the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland, and "How Distant," a poem about "the departure of young men / ...keen / simply to get away," there is that poem called "This Be The Verse": a haunting poem with a line that Larkin feared he may not be able to get away from ("I was wondering," he said in an interview with The Observer, "whether in the New Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I was going to be lumbered with 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.' I had it on good authority that this is what they had been told is my best-known line, and I wouldn't want it thought that I didn't like my parents.") This verse from a secular bible begins with an allusion to those people always referred to, in a winning phrase, as our first parents:

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.

Larkin first mentions this poem in a letter to Anthony Thwaite from 1971: "Talking of poetry, I've dashed off a little piece suitable for Ann's next Garden of Verses." Thwaite's wife, Ann, edited an annual of new writing for children called Allsorts. As new writing for children goes this seems just the job. But as new writing for adults it is in some ways a more enigmatic poem than it claims it wants to be. It is a protest poem with a very clear message, and therefore an unusual poem for Larkin, who always fights shy of writing didactic poems, and tends to ironize the voicing of unequivocal positions. It is the nuances of the utterly opinionated that his poems tend to, and indeed that make him such a riveting interviewee. And "This Be The Verse," of course, has echoes and suggestions. It can be read as a poem about poetic inheritance; there is an intimation, as there often is in his poetry, of a full-blown, barely contained romanticism: those who the gods favor die young (and childless). And there is Larkin's abiding preoccupation in the poem about not having children (not having children, of course, insures that they will never leave home). And there are the fleeting and subtle ambiguities that Larkin never wants, and never wants us, to make a literary-critical meal of. Your mum and dad fuck you up, but they also fuck you into being, there is no other way. "They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra just for you" implies that it could be just for you in both senses, and that there is poetic justice in the pun on just, at least in this context.

But though the poem insists on the inevitabilities it portrays — on the helpless and hopeless determinisms that our lives are heir to — it ends with a flourish; it ends, as though coming from nowhere, with the possibility of freedom, as though choices can be made in all this handed-on and handed-out misery. As though existentialism is stronger than geology; as though leaving home and not having children were virtually redemptive; as though This Be The Verse is What Is To Be Done: "Get out as early as you can / And don't have any kids yourself." Leave home and the family as soon as possible, and don't have another one. It's not quite Christ to the disciples, because the only thing that is affirmed is the getting out. And the project, so to speak, is to stop the relentless transmission of misery. What is believed in, or at least what is being proffered and proposed, is just the getting out, the breaking of the cycle.

And yet, to echo Isaiah Berlin's distinction between freedom from and freedom for, there is the question raised in this poem of the difference between getting out from and getting out for. "This Be The Verse" is unambiguous about what there is to get out from, but it says nothing about what there might be to get out for; and it says this nothing, I think, very provocatively. What do you do after you get out? Once the family and the having of children, once home and reproduction have been repudiated, what is a life for? And especially if "they" have already fucked you up, what is getting out going to do for you, since the terrible thing has already happened? You might say, I suppose, that the narrator of the poem is telling us to be the guardians, the protectors of all the unconceived children; that it would be good, for us and for them, for us not to inflict life on them ("I've said that depression is to me as daffodils were to Wordsworth," Larkin remarked to Haffenden, which would make depression restorative as a form of memory). And the end of the poem is half the time banal — most of us would probably agree that it's probably better to leave home as soon as possible — and half the time soppy-stern and at our throats about not having children. The get-out proposed, and it is artfully staged, leaves us wondering whether it may be unduly omniscient. It is one thing to be skeptical of post-Enlighten-ment myths of progress, it is another thing to start (prophetically) predicting the future. Myths of decline are myths of progress inverted. Human unhappiness is not obviously subject to the same laws as coastal shelves, and coastal shelves don't deepen with the kind of inevitability Larkin wants from them. The myth of the Fall is replaced with an erosion myth; what was once called original sin, the fault of our first parents who also didn't mean it, has become the universal acid. It can only be contained by opting out. This is what we get out for, to break the natural order. Larkin, one might say, always knew what he didn't want, but this knowledge only made him skeptical of what he thought he did want.

I want to use Larkin's remarkable poem as a pretext for saying that getting out of things is all too easily a form of omniscience. It is as though when we get out of something we know too much — we act as if we know far more than we could — about what would happen if we stayed. And so sometimes, perhaps more often than we realize, we live as if we know more about the experiences we don't have than about the experiences we do. The conviction of Larkin's narrator comes from his certainty of what will happen to us if we have children. But of course the one thing you cannot know about having children is what it is like to have children if you haven't got them. Perhaps the narrator of Larkin's poem has had children, and is speaking from bitter experience. But by 1971 Larkin's readers mostly knew that Larkin didn't have children himself, and probably thought that they had a good idea of what Larkin thought of children — or "nippers," as he calls them in "Self's The Man" — and family life. Usually the omniscience about what one is getting out from colors one's sense of what one is getting out for. Unusually, "This Be The Verse" does not offer us the usual consolation of a preferred object. Knowing what you don't want doesn't mean knowing what you do want. This Be The Verse.

Adam Phillips's latest books include Book of Interruptions, a series of essays edited with David Hillman, and Intimacies, written with Leo Bersani. He is the general editor of the new Penguin Freud.

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