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High Windows and Four-Letter Words

A Note on Philip Larkin

Stephen Burt

When Philip Larkin published High Windows in 1974, what everyone noticed, besides its general excellence, was its profusion of foul language. Larkin himself told John Betjeman that "whenever he looked at his book he found it was full of four-letter words." It is, too. Among the poems in High Windows that make use of dirty words are the book's title poem, "Vers de Société," and the well-known "This Be The Verse," a twelve-line poem beginning: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do." Robert Crawford described the impact that "Larkin's English" had on English poetry:

The word "fuck" is canonical now. The poem by Philip Larkin which most people find easiest to remember is the one that begins with a fine pun in it: "They fuck you up. . ."1

The pun-that your parents both generate and ruin you-is fine, and it plays on one of the many special properties that "fuck," and some other dirty words, have: Their common figurative meanings have very remote relations to their literal meanings. Heterogeneous ideas are yoked together through the pun, just as heterogeneous expectations are yoked together through the violence with which the title and the first line hijack the words and meter of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem."2

What else did "the fuck-poet" think he was doing? "I think [my use of four-letter words] can take different forms," Larkin wrote to John Sparrow:

It can be meant to be shocking (we live in an odd era, when shocking language can be used, yet still shocks-it won't last); it can be the only accurate word (the others being gentilisms, etc.); or it can be funny, in that silly traditional way such things are funny.3

By his own account, Larkin's language is "performative," does something to or for his audience: every poem "is an action of some sort," as Larkin also said.4 Moreover, Larkin sees his foul language as related to the language of the time, to the generational shifts in talk and behavior that were especially rapid, exciting and unavoidable in the late '60s and early '70s. The rapidfire "fuck" and "crap" with which Larkin begins some poems from this period-especially by contrast with the elevated diction and stately rhythms of the poems' endings-come across, as Crawford (quoting Blake Morrison) has said, as "Larkin's equivalents of dialect."5 But whose dialect?

Sometimes Larkin's four-letter words invoke all-male or working-class worlds. Sometimes, too, as in his "Vers de Société," dirty words can be a means of aggression or derogation, solitary grumbles against all of society. As often, however, the dirty words evoke the world of youth. "This Be The Verse" shows the poet negotiating with the feelings, illusions, and speech he attributes to the young. The gap in diction between the beginning and the end of "High Windows," (or of "This Be The Verse" or "Sad Steps") is a generation gap.6 As Alan Bennett has said, the "real Larkin" of the poems was someone "who feels shut out when he sees fifteen-year-olds necking at bus stops,"7 and one of the ways he reacts in that poem is to move into, and then out from under, their language. Larkin is cultivating, or pretending to have shared, or questioning whether he himself ever did share a solidarity of experience with the common adolescent.

Are kids (and men, and working-class people) more likely than others to use four-letter words (in the form of exclamations, vague approbatory adjectives, generalized derogatory verbs, and so on)? If so, why? What special effects can four-letter words have to make some people enjoy using them and force others to leave the room? Dirty words can obviously, as means of aggression or derogation, demean or devalue their targets. Also, they can be used in order to get attention; they break rules of discourse and establish the speaker's desire to épate whatever parent surrogates can be found. Dirty words are thus signs of affiliation with other speakers and listeners who have the same "enemies," who want to offend or drive off a given authority. This makes them signs of disaffiliation from, of not-being-like (because not talking like) that authority. By saying "fuck" in a room or on a record, an utterer invites his or her listeners to ask: Who does this speaker belong with? Who does this speaker emphatically not belong with?

The utterance of "fuck" (and in Britain, "bloody") can be powerful on the basis of these functions alone-aggression, attention, affiliation, disaffiliation: By using these words the utterer shows on whose side he or she wants to be. Princeton Review SAT-Course instructors are sometimes told to swear at least once per class; the dirty words not only get attention, but establish the instructors' difference from "regular" teachers and their status as co-conspirators against the Scantron tests. Two years ago, every college radio rock DJ in America was familiar with Superchunk's "Slack Motherfucker," not only because it's a great song (and it is), but because you couldn't play it on the air before midnight. In making the record, Superchunk was doing-in a very safe, jocular and self-assured way-what the 1977 punks were doing much more threateningly and in earnest: joining, or conjuring into existence, a social context of youth and confrontation in which calling somebody a "slack motherfucker" was standard, even laudable. In this context, swearing became one of what British cultural critic and sociologist Dick Hebdige has called "signs of forbidden identity, sources of value."8 More recently, in 1984, Britain's Channel 4 broadcast a half-hour video of Tony Harrison's "V," a long poem rife with four-letter words. Tabloids and conservative MP's campaigned to block the program on grounds of indecency. After the broadcast, Harrison's publisher, Bloodaxe, issued a new version of the poem with 41 pages of news stories about the flap appended (with headlines like "Four-Letter TV Poem Fury"). This shows, among other things, that the words Larkin used in High Windows were still so shocking as to be valuable in Britain ten years after he used them.

So "High Windows" and "This Be The Verse"-like Princeton Review instructors, first-generation punks, and Tony Harrison-use dirty words as subcultural indicators, as powerful ways of calling into question who the poet sounds like, who he wants to sound like, and why. But in these poems, Larkin not only appropriates the way kids talk, but also talks about his not being like the kids whose speech he has appropriated. Both poems end in another register entirely, one that is more traditionally "poetic." The subcultural indicators, then, can only be part of the force. In "High Windows," the word "fucking" sounds aggressive, like a smear on the girl and maybe also on the boy in the poem. But this aggressive or derogatory effect is reversed when, further into the poem, the word gets reclassified as high praise: "I know this is paradise." What sounds early on like simple resentment or jealousy modulates into jealous admiration. And since the aggressive qualities of "fucking" set the reader up to expect more derogation, this admiration comes as a neat surprise. The same kind of elevating transition, this sudden shifting upward from the bottom of the poet's speech register, also occurs, I think, in the movement from the sexist language of "he's fucking her" to "paradise / Everyone old," since "Everyone" has to include both genders. It is this inward, self-critical turn away from his own prejudiced impulses and toward self-examination that marks the best of Larkin's poems from this period. It also distin-guishes the Larkin of these poems from the less attractive man who suffers and swears his way through Andrew Motion's 1993 biography A Writer's Life.

Yet four-letter words (as the pun in "They fuck you up" makes clear) are not only sites of aggression, affiliation and disaffiliation, but also of ambiguity. Sometimes we can't even be sure what a particular dirty word means, how figuratively to construe it, whether it's a compliment or a slap: "She thinks he's the shit." Does Fuck Yeah!-the former title of a fanzine-connote a sex-positive attitude, or only generic, joyful affirmation? What about Four- Letter Words, the current title of the same publication? "Swearing," as Craig Raine recently wrote, is (an) example of untranslatability, though a recent one because latterly swear words were expunged. . . Before swear words, however, there was the exclamation-often untranslatable in an identical way.9

The dominance of their performative function, their high level of ambiguity, and their large stock of overlapping figurative meanings all contribute to that untranslatability-the sense of thickness or opacity-which words like "fuck" often have, as opposed to words such as "coffee" or "incarnadine."

Now the effects that I claim some dirty words set in motion (the creation of irresolvable ambiguities, the foregrounding of expression, and the confounding of denotation) ought to sound familiar. These effects have been claimed not only for the phrase "They fuck you up"-or even for its most basic occluded component, "fuck you"-but also for Art In General, or for poetry. "Poetry is what is lost in translation," said Frost, which is what Raine says of obscenity; the writerly element, the effect that exceeds its meaning and which Barthes wanted in his art, is effectively built into all four-letter words. Hebdige argues that the offensive postures of first-generation punks "gestured toward a 'nowhere' and actively sought to remain silent, illegible."10 Isn't gesturing toward a nowhere, into a silence beyond words, one of Philip Larkin's favorite ways of ending poems? Aren't the attention-getting swear-words with which Larkin liked to begin his late poems, in both their opacity and their distracting, disruptive quality, a lot like the gestures offstage and into the endless elsewheres, nothings and anywheres with which Larkin ends some of these same poems? So Larkin's foul language doesn't simply foreground his sad, distant, empathetic, and resentful relation to the kids whose speech he echoes. It also foreshadows and reflects the same self-isolating, sadly certain rejection of ordinary language and society that is realized, at the poem's end, in a negationist gesture out of and away from everything.

"High Windows" closes by looking up to wordless, endless, and radiant nothingness. Of course, the poem is about the end of religion (the windows seem to be those of a church) and the agnostic's fear of death. But, like other poems from this period, it is also about the relation of the poet and his language to the social and to the private, and about the relation of one generation and its pleasures to the next and theirs. Radiant high windows and high diction on the one hand, fucking and four-letter words on the other. And while these pleasures may at first seem rivalrous or opposed, they turn out to mean, and reveal, the same thing: disrupted and disrupting negativity, resistance to meaning and relation, and-most of all-the common unavailability, for the poet, of two contrasting kinds of consolation and joy. Other people, "High Windows" says, especially young ones, seem to me to have wonderful, satisfying, earthly, social, and sensual rewards, though of course it probably doesn't often seem that way to them (any more than it seemed to me, when I was young, a great relief to be rid of the fear of God), and those joys will never be available to me: and, second, the rewards that art can offer me, the rewards I am really built and suited for, are even at their best characterized by deferral, remoteness, vacancy. With Larkin, the rewards that art or "thought" can offer the reader or writer who is old or distant or lonely enough to need them always begin in privacy and end in privation. The invisible, endless, wordless "Elsewhere" in those windows is a final figure for two kinds of emptiness or regret-we might call them social and private, or young and old, or bodily and linguistic, or even life and art-for which the shaky ametricality and confrontational diction of the first stanzas, the fucked-up lines about fucking, comprise a first figure.

We say to ourselves "That'll be the life" far more than we say "This is the life." And what this indicates (a feeling of deferral, the hope that we might have the right experience later, the sense that someone else might be having it now but we haven't or can't) applies to our desires for artistic enlightenment as well as to those for sensual satisfaction. This common experience of the unattainability of whatever we want, or think we want, is one of Larkin's great subjects. It is also the subject of Andrew Swarbrick's Out of Reach, by far the best critical book solely about Larkin. Swarbrick argues that even "the most triumphant of Larkin's poems are about failure and. . . ultimately prefer silence to words."11 The "failures" and "silences" of "High Windows" are then twofold: one is sexual and social, the other is private and abstract. Larkin can't think about the one without the other. Some deep groove in his head connects an inability to reach or speak to the young with a sense of sexual unfulfillment, and associates both with an almost deconstructive despair at the failure of words (and of art) to mean or cohere. This complex of ideas, which animates "High Windows," runs back through his writing like an underground river, from "Love Again" to "Dockery and Son" to the jazz criticism, two sentences of which could almost serve as an epigraph for "High Windows":

In a humanist society, art. . . assumes great importance, and to lose touch with it is parallel to losing one's faith in a religious age. Or, in this particular case, since jazz is the music of the young, it was like losing one's potency.12

Larkin's confrontational "fucks," like his gestures to elsewhere and nothing, respond to this loss, to this sense of failure, which is both spiritual (and private) and social (and sexual).

"The peculiar triumph of Larkin's lyricism," as Swarbrick says (quoting Bakhtin), "is to incorporate 'other people's words.'"13 Talking about the kids in their language, ventriloquizing while showing his distance, the Larkin of these late poems is like the lonely boy John Kemp who spends about a third of Larkin's undergraduate novel, Jill, writing the fictional diary of its heroine. Historicizing his own feelings of outsiderhood in "High Windows," realizing that the same relations have applied whenever the old, resentful, lonely, and goatish (like Larkin) have looked at the young, Larkin turns to "arrogant eternity," solitude, Art, and realizes that their consolations, too, "never worked for me," as he put it in "Love Again." One kind of distance just replaces another. In the end, saying "fuck" and "bloody" turns out to be more like contemplating the depth of the ocean, the height of the air, or the uncomprehending sunlight than anyone but Larkin would have guessed.

ENDNOTES
1 Robert Crawford, "Larkin's English," Oxford Magazine 23 (1987), pp. 3-4.
2 Andrew Swarbrick, Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 138.
3 Andrew Motion, A Writer's Life: Philip Larkin (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p. 444.
4 Interview with Philip Larkin by Raymond Gardner, The Guardian (Mar. 31, 1973), p. 12.
5 Crawford, "Larkin's English,"p. 4.
6 Janice Rossen, Philip Larkin: His Life's Work (Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p. 129.
7 Alan Bennett, "Instead of a Present," Larkin at Sixty, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber & Faber, 1982), p. 70.
8 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 3.
9 Craig Raine, "Bad Language: Poetry, Swearing and Translation," Thumbscrew 1 (1994): 30-56.
10 Hebdige, Subculture, p. 120.
11 Swarbrick, Out of Reach, p. 153.
12 Philip Larkin, All What Jazz (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p. 22.
13 Swarbrick, Out of Reach, pp. 156-157.

 

Originally published in the October/ November 1996 issue of Boston Review



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