High Windows and Four-Letter
A Note on Philip Larkin
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
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
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.
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),
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.
in the October/ November 1996 issue
of Boston Review