This Be the Verse

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.

This poem lures you in with profanity gleeful cynicism, but loses steam like a childish rant; by the end we see that blaming all our problems on our progenitors makes self-extinction the only proper solution, taken to its logical extreme. It’s difficult to steer out of the ruts they’ve carved in the road for us. It’s easier to say “I turned out all right,” and hand it down. Or to cop out and not have any kids yourself, perhaps out of fear or spite. Larkin packs a lot into this little poem. Which is what the best poetry can do. Distill an epic saga into a few paragraphs, or the whole history of humanity.

Rachel Hadas, my poetry teacher at Rutgers (and a fine poet in her own right) introduced me to this one. She tolerated my bombastic and colorful poems, written before I had a clear vision of what I was actually trying to say. Thankfully they are buried on a hard drive somewhere, never to see the light of day. One you can read is over at Gerald So’s excellent Crime Poetry site, The 5-2.

It’s called “Just Ice,” and whatever resonance it may have is owed to Gerald’s patience and skill as an editor. Some of the best hardboiled fiction, or minimalism—whatever you want to call the hard-edged grit song that rose from ashes of the Great War through Hammett, Hemingway, Jim Tully, and others—has the ring of poetry, and Gerald writes and curates some fine modern verse that keeps that song alive.