Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Misanthrope of the day

I've posted this poem before, but I've never heard a reading from it by its author, Philip Larkin. I implore you not to watch the clip: it's nastily animated which rather detracts from the poetry. 

The poem is This Be The Verse, and Larkin's reading alters the text in minor ways. It's a beautiful, bitter summary of the Angry Young Mens' reaction against their parents' generation, allied to the anti-abstract form of the Movement. Not a new feeling of course: the Bloomsbury Set rejected its Victorian forebears equally passionately in texts such as Lytton Strachey's incendiary Eminent Victorians

Larkin knew whereof he spoke: his racist, misanthropic politics were echoes of his father's open Nazism: Larkin Sr. had to be ordered to remove his Nazi memorabilia from his Coventry Town Hall office after World War Two had started. Philip's relationship with his mother was also fraught, claustrophobic and troubling, explaining at least some of his manipulative, dependent, cruel and exploitative behaviour towards other women in his life. 

And yet… his poetry is often so beautiful, aurally and conceptually. It's the final stanza that does it for me. 'They fuck you up…' is almost standard adolescent, Kevin and Perry stuff, and 'mum and dad' is a nod to the post-war generation. But the final stanza's 'coastal shelf' is so evocative, bringing to mind the unseen misery of claustrophobic, mutually incomprehensible and destructive family dynamics. 

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.

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