Philip Larkin - This Be The Verse
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.
Was Larkin right to blame mums and dads?
The Times October 10, 2008
This year, The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival is built around Philip Larkin's This be the Verse. Here, writers at the festival give their responses to his cynical view of parenting
Isn't it interesting that this whingeing, self-pitying doggerel of a childless old drunk became the anthem of our age? It certainly did. Quiz your average Briton between the ages of 25 and 50 and these will be the only lines they know. All the real bores you meet start moaning about their parents sooner or later and quote, or misquote, pathetic old Larks.
But why take him as your guide for life? For most of us - certainly for me - the lines are completely untrue. I owe almost everything to my very far from perfect mother and father, and if, as an adolescent, I found some of their ways annoying, the years brought forgiveness.
The ending of Larkin's poem - “Get out as quickly as you can / and don't have any kids yourself” - is the clue to its vacuous absurdity. It is when you have children of your own that you begin to understand your parents. So for me, as for most people, the lyric would be truer if it were rewritten as: “They tuck you up, your mum and dad”. Mine did, and read me bedtime stories, and now they are gone, I miss them.
My mum calls me mum these days. It's the Alzheimer's. She does it when I'm washing her face, or putting paste on her toothbrush. At first, there was anger in it. But that's all drained away now. So I grin, and sometimes we make a joke about how crazy it is, this topsy turvy situation in which we have found ourselves.
The fact is, she didn't mess me up. To the extent I am that way, it's all my own work. She was a wonderful mum. We didn't have a lot of material things growing up, but she gave me the best gifts of all: unlimited time and imagination. “Let's tour our estate,” she'd say, and we would, making a stately progress around our quarter-acre block in working-class Sydney, lingering to learn the stories that every plant or cobweb or insect might have to tell. Some days we would watch the midday movie together and she'd painstakingly fill in the blanks of my childish understanding, making sure I got the nuances, understood the satire. In any crowd, she was pretty much always the smartest person in the room.
These days, crowds make her anxious, and movies are just noise. She can't follow the plot, and much as I'd like to explain it to her, I know it won't work. So I help her in and out of the shower, give her her meds, try to be patient when she asks me for the twentieth time that day where her money is. It's all I can do: small, interest-only payments on the huge debt I owe her for being a remarkable mother.
Larkin was unfortunate in his parents. He has described his father's personality as having imposed a “taut ungenerous defeated pattern of life” on his family that made them all miserable. His mother was an “obsessive snivelling pest” and their marriage left Larkin with two convictions: “that human beings should not live together, and that children should be taken from their parents at an early age”! If he said that in the 1950s, it's not surprising that the poem so infamous for its first line should end: “Get out as early as you can / And don't have any kids yourself”.
In fact, it was more complex than that since, after his father died, Larkin used his relationship with his mother as a mechanism to keep his women friends at bay.
However, Larkin did have a sense of humour and was delightful to talk to. Anyone who has had a more fortunate childhood knows that what he said isn't generally true. But his immaculately chiselled poems express unforgettably the insecurities that we all experience.
Professor Peter Dickinson
Like most people, I first heard rather than read this poem. I was 15 or 16, and it was quoted to me by an intimidatingly well-read classmate.
We were both thrilled by the use of swearing, which seemed both judicious and reckless at the same time. But this was nearly 40 years ago and the F-word was still literature's H-bomb. I didn't hear Larkin's acid take on parenthood again until years later.
Is it a good poem? Well, the percussive shock wave of the opening line long ago weakened to a ripple. And the sentiment is impossibly generalised. Some mums and dads mess up their kids; most don't. Mine didn't. But glory arrives in the ninth and tenth lines. “Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Now that's writing.
I wish I could believe that I had escaped the effects of family that Philip Larkin describes. But at the age of nine-and-a-half I made a very conscious decision not to have any children of my own. My decision became more resolute as the years went by - until necessary surgery took the choice away.
I had watched my father as he did his best to bring up my brother and me following my mother's suicide; I had seen how difficult life was for him. I decided that I never wanted any child of mine to suffer what he had suffered, or to be in my position, witnessing a parent go through what my father - or mother - had gone through.
They f*** you up, your sprog and brat. Kids can do every bit as much damage to their parents as vice-versa. Which is why in Nebraska parents are now depositing their teenage tearaways at public hospitals and walking away because they can't cope. So give Mom and Dad a break, and call it a draw!
Don't we all mess each other up? Every intimacy entails the risk of injury - of trust violated, or confidence betrayed. Along with the power to comfort and uplift, love conveys the power to let us down.
Further, can we grown-ups stop whingeing about having been irremediably scarred by the terrible trauma of being denied an ice-cream when we were seven? And blaming our every irksome character trait on two folks who were at least decent enough to make us breakfast?
Sure, Larkin's right - “They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra just for you.” But haven't most of us been inventive enough in adulthood to generate a few faults on our own? Now that I'm 51, my capacity to make a mess of myself with no help from my parents is a point of pride.
Families: the crucible of security as well as the crucible of misery - often all in the same day. But I can't feel as hopeless as Philip Larkin. Around the age of 13, most of us draw up a secret list of all the things we hate about the way our parents raised us. “When I have children, I will never...”
We hide it at the back of our sock drawer. And it gets lost. But, years down the line, most of us manage to wipe at least the first few off our list of parenting sins. I'm sure that fewer children get bashed around than in the past. And that relentless barrage of criticism on which earlier generations seemed to be raised appears to be melting away.
There's lots of unhappiness about. Families are often more complicated. But schools are kinder, to make up for it. It's easier to find the words to tell your problems. And childhood doesn't last for ever. I'm a fan of Larkin, but these are not the wisest lines he ever wrote.
Of course our parents do what Larkin says they do. Parents socialise us in their image. They give us life, breath, nourishment, do what they can for us in the light of their own natures: and it is our natures to feel they have failed us. Just as we fail them by failing to be perfect. Best not to hold them responsible for all our woes.
Some mums and dads are nasty, some nice, some mad, some sane, it's the luck of the draw: but then the same goes for their children.
An impressionable society seems to have fallen upon the line and hugged it to its bosom. A new race of therapists was born, of the “their fault, not yours, you're lovely!” variety. But I don't suppose it would be right to blame Larkin for all the woes of contemporary society.
I read Philip Larkin’s poem to my brother, my mother and a colleague.
“If one of my children wrote that,” said my mother “ I would really act up. They’d certainly have me to contend with”.
“We do have you to contend with”, I thought. “Philip, you’re right.”
“Hmm”, said my brother. “ My response is to take that negativity and change it into the opposite. Something like:
They pick you up, your mum and dad
They may not have to, but they do.
They fill you with the love they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
‘”Brilliant” said my mother. “That’s what you should write Pamela.”
“Absolute proof of Larkin’s words,” I thought.
My colleague said, “I love my parents... I do use my mum as a punch-bag, but we all do that, don’t we?”
I thought of Clarence Darrow’s words: “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents and the second half by our children.”
It seems to me that life is a bargain - it’s one of the few things that we get for nothing. The trouble with bargains however, is that there’s always at least one flaw.
Yes, yes we all know that, but saying it doesn't help, ain't necessary, and ain't necessarily so.
True enough, we are handed down a set of genes and a set of circumstances in our upbringing that, of course, do influence what kind of people we turn out to be, how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to others.
Sometimes, undoubtedly, the weight of this predisposition is so heavy that it can be overwhelming and permanently corrosive. But we all know many people who have been dealt a disadvantageous hand, and have won through - and vice versa.
No, what it comes down to for most of us, is that if we spend our lives blaming our mums and dads for our misfortunes or our shortcomings, for our existence even, we do it because it is the easy way out. But it's the weak way out. The truth is that we have to play the hand we are given, whatever it is. Complaining about the croupier is pointless.
It is now confirmed using neurobiological assessments that your parents do mess you up. Chronically distressed mothers pass on their stress, affecting the brain, immune and endocrine systems of the developing foetus.
If exposed to traumas such as domestic violence or chronic poverty, the already vulnerable child will be further disadvantaged. This is the child who grows up unsupported to repeat the cycle and create havoc as a parent.
Society's response is to create parenting academies, a brigade of “supernannies” and punitive measures in the hope that the parent could be redirected into a pro-social agenda.
But the really dysfunctional parent is suffering from neurochemical turbulence. They often cannot stabilise their moods and are emotionally confused. The task is to help parents to put in place the care relationships that they have missed out on. Only through compassion and reparation does the parent learn to nurture the “child within” and the offspring, halting the destructive cycle.
Cinderella's father abandons her to her ghoulish stepmother; Little Red Riding Hood's mother sends her daughter instead of herself through the dark wood.
If stories are anything to go by, then parents have been messing up their children since the beginning of time. Rather than castigate them for the mark they leave upon us, why not celebrate the obstacle course that is early life?
Moreover, as Larkin wrote, the parents had their own issues to contend with. Cinderella's stepmother probably had abandonment issues and maybe Red Riding Hood's mother suffered from agoraphobia due to growing up in a tenement with a large family.
Yes, our parents mark us with their foibles, worries and desires, sometimes irrevocably so. But truly they are our only means of getting here. So for all the damage they do, it's worth it, isn't it? Just for the ride.
Clare Muireann Murphy
The Larkins may well have “f***ed up” their delicate and gifted son, Philip, but only because he was looking at them through the wrong end of his telescope. The abiding fault of nearly every young child is the tendency to regard his parents as superior to himself. It is not usually until his mid-20s that a person realises he was wrong, and the shock of it is that very bitter sensation which the poet so memorably described.
I never suffered from this myself. My affection for my parents has been sustained by a long-held belief that they are not in the least superior to me. In fact, from the age of 16, I saw them as little more than naughty, misguided teenagers; morally unstable, lacking self-restraint, occasionally ill-mannered, unreliable and quite in need of basic correction.
Since then I have tended to view them more favourably but I still hold to the optimistic Darwinian belief that each generation marks a decided improvement on the last.
The Sixties generation, to which my mother and father belonged, were pretty hopeless at parenting but I am sure that their mothers and fathers were a lot worse. I see my own children as vastly superior to myself. So it is they, I suspect, rather than my mum and dad, who will finally “f*** me up.”
Great poet that he undoubtedly was, Larkin's emotional extremism makes him a slightly unreliable guide to human relationships - certainly any that I've ever been involved in.
I adored my parents, relished the time I spent in their company and appreciated the efforts they made on my behalf. I know this sentiment isn't universal - and I can think of at least one close friend who hasn't spoken to his father in 30 years - but I think it's an underrated one.
Just the other night, in fact, I was conducting one of those maximally embarrassing chat sessions at the church youth club where the topic under discussion was: “Who do you most admire?” Two of the first three teenagers plumped for “my dad”. What Larkin meant, of course, is that heredity gets us all in the end. But poetry requires something a little more eye-catching than that.
Your parents do affect you, even when they're dead and gone. I am fatherless myself now - well, it happens to most people eventually - but I became fascinated by the stories of three of my Scottish friends who lost fathers at an early age, and the extraordinary drive and ambition the absence seemed to cause. Those three boys became a millionaire banker, a newspaper editor and a TV executive.
It holds true in politics, too. Bill Clinton, whose father died before he was born, once said: “I had the feeling that I had to live for two people, and that if I did well enough somehow I could make up for the life he should have had.”
You need only look at the abandoned Barack Obama to see the pattern continue.
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