Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Poems I Like #3: This Be The Verse

By Philip Larkin
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.

Philip Larkin’s verse is accessible. Iambic tetrameter – da dum da dum da dum da dum – is probably the most ‘natural’ metrical form. It’s found in ballads, nursery rhymes, and usually comes up whenever people try to ‘write poetry’. The words used are very simple, too: I count three adjectives in the whole poem, and the only three-syllable words, ‘misery’ and ‘another’, are very workmanlike. Unlike Dirge Without Music and Ulysses, there’s no flowery language or attempt to dazzle the reader. It’s just a stark message, intended to inform rather than impress.

From the first line – they fuck you up, your mum and dad – we get a sense of the voice of this poem. It’s workmanlike and blunt, not afraid to use profanity, and the halting rhythm sounds very verbal. It could come from the end of a bar: an old man, crouched over his drink, growling advice to an amused young man. It corrects itself – they may not mean to – but doesn’t shy away from firm pronouncements. If not for the rhyme, this could very well be actual dialogue.

There’s no impressive poetic trickery, unless you count the regular caesura placement in the first verse or the repeated ‘f’ sound through the poem. The craft here is in the apparent simplicity of the wording, man hands on misery to man, for instance, and the beautiful imagery of coastal shelf. Unfortunately, the poem flags a little in the second verse – fools in old-style hats and coats is a round-about way of saying ‘older people’, and soppy-stern isn’t particularly evocative.

The last verse, though, is one of the most perfect stanzas written. The bitterness is palpable; at this point the old man would be gazing down into his glass. Get out as early as you can is a half-truth, but it’s spoken from a place where that’s the only half that matters.

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