WTM?!?

17 Apr

Last week, the New York Times reviewed Philip Larkin’s Complete Poems.

His poems would not be complete without the most famous one:

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.

In the Times, the reviewer paraphrases (and cleans up) the first line of the poem, according to NYT stylebook rules:

They mess 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.”

Mark Liberman responded with a fun piece on Language Log (Larkin v. the Gray Lady) about this and other taboo words at the Times.

Here’s my call to action, in a form suggested (this time) by Jan Freeman’s blog post They f— you up, those stylebook rules:

They mess you up, the New York Times.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They paraphrase your zesty rhymes
In bland and bloodless book reviews.

But they were messed up in their turn
By prissy readers who deplore
The sight of those four letter words
They’ve heard a million times before.

If you’re a Philip Larkin fan,
And think Grey Lady’s rules too prim,
Jot off a letter to the Times,
And tell her not to mess with him.

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96 Responses to “WTM?!?”

  1. Thomas Stazyk April 17, 2012 at 12:40 am #

    The NYT will print stories (and pictures) of killing and mayhem but they protect us from the F-word? That’s messed up.

    • jenny April 17, 2012 at 7:33 am #

      You made me laugh! Thanks.

  2. Cyberquill April 17, 2012 at 4:51 am #

    I don’t why the NYT would even go through the trouble of rewriting the poem and drawing predictable fire for it. A simple prose synopsis would have elegantly preempted this whole controversy:

    In his poem “This Be the Verse,” Philip Larkin puts forth that parents, perhaps inadvertently, exert a negative influence upon their children’s psychological development by way of passing on to them their own undesirable qualities along with an unspecified number of additional imbalances, from which cumulative atavistic process, says Mr Larkin, can be extrapolated a progressive deterioration of society’s emotional health, as evidenced, in particular, by an increase among individuals of unwarranted lachrymosity alternating with episodes of physical violence; in order to retard this trend, Mr Larkin advises adolescents to abandon their parental abodes as early as possible and refrain from reproducing themselves.

    • imagenmots April 17, 2012 at 6:47 am #

      Brilliant take…but censorship none the less. I hate censure.
      Paul C.

    • jenny April 17, 2012 at 7:36 am #

      Cyberquill! This be the comment!

      I love it. Terrific.

      • Cyberquill April 17, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

        Can’t wait for the NYT piece on this developing story..

        Since the residents of this town are looking for a new name anyway, they might as well change it to Messing.

      • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:27 am #

        This reminds me of the joke about Peter Johnson changing his name….

      • Cyberquill April 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

        What did he change it to? Dick Johnson? Willie Johnson? Can’t blame him. I’m not crazy about “Peter” myself.

      • jenny April 19, 2012 at 7:01 am #

        I knew you’d figure it out.

        Also makes me think of this story:

        Ethnic Tatars object to the well-worn Russian expression “An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar.”

        The Russian Academy scrambles to remove the offense by proposing: “An uninvited guest is not worse than a Tatar.”

      • Cyberquill April 19, 2012 at 8:20 am #

        The Fucking city council has proposed to change the name of the town to Formerly Fucking.

  3. sledpress April 17, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    One of my very. favorite. poems. ever. Larkin speaks for me; the New York Times needs a high colonic.

    • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:06 am #

      I like it too, Sled. See: We agree about a lot of important things.

  4. Richard April 17, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Grandpapa was out of luck.
    Along with chicks aboard a truck,
    He drove it hard and got it stuck.
    Now hens do lay and chicks do cluck.

    My papa tried another stunt,
    Not on a truck but in a punt.
    He’d learned, you see, just how to shunt
    And use a gun when on the hunt.

    If I’m to make this story stick,
    I’ll have to use another trick.
    Chicks may grow up and have their pick,
    For hens, in short, require a cock.

    • sledpress April 17, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

      There was a young lady named Buck
      Who had the most terrible luck.
      She went out in a punt,
      Fell out of the front,
      And was bit on the leg by a duck.

      Collateral relative, I think.

    • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:30 am #

      Sled and Richard: Geez! 🙂

      • Richard April 18, 2012 at 8:24 am #

        It’s not true what they’ve been saying about us – is it Sled? 😉

      • sledpress April 18, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

        I don’t know, what have they been saying?

      • Richard April 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

        Oh – it was just a general, unreflective denial – just in case.

  5. Andreas Kluth April 17, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    I’m proud to say that The Economist does occasionally print the word “fuck”. I’ve got it into some of my own pieces. I think my editors take pride in being cavalier and classy ENOUGH to be above NOT using it.

    • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:04 am #

      The world doesn’t need me to say that The Economist is classy. But it is.

      I’ve seen you use this word in writing. Very effectively. So effectively that I remember it.

  6. Christopher April 17, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    Is there a correlation between the frequency of use of the four-letter word and a diminished vocabulary?

    Is the lack of censorship epitomised in the tolerance, nay prescribed, use of the four-letter word, a ruse to divert attention away from the real censorship?

    Have the verboten words of yore, simply been replaced by new ones?

    • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:09 am #

  7. Mr. Crotchety April 17, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    I don’t care about the NY Times, at all. But, if Jenny cares about this poem, I care. We all agree that messed up is way different from f— up. Gosh, Hurricane Katrina sure messed up New Orleans. The thing is, f—ed up is a word way different word from the naughty, f—. You could make a new word. Fuctup. (you can’t split it, though).

    Having parents f—s you up? Not having parents f—s you up, too. Childhood f—s you up. Full stop. Childhood ends in adulthood, which begins with what? F—ing. That’s the trouble. Let’s all be Shakers.

    • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      Enter Mr. Crotchety. Speaking philosophically.

      So many ideas here. Shall we be Shakers? Sure. I’m going to agree with whatever you say, Mr. C, after that winning second sentence. 🙂

    • Andreas Kluth April 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

      To paraphrase St Augustine:

      Oh Lord, make me a Shaker,
      but not yet.

    • Richard April 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

      I think I’ll have a little ch—le now.
      Ah! That feels better.

  8. Richard April 18, 2012 at 4:08 am #

    Christopher is right.

    The use of that precious word FUCK is mostly in mindless, automatic repetition.

    At other times its use is a substitute for unresolved aggression, and so results from censorship, or is a lazy indifference to the true meaning of the word – an abandonment of the quest for the correct word. Philip Larkin’s poem is a mixture of these abuses.

    Its use to shock or as comedy has long outlived its sell-by date. The banality and lack of subtlety themselves are tedious and constitute a different sort of unresolved aggression – an attack on the language itself.

    • jenny April 18, 2012 at 7:22 am #

      We must attack language. Aggressively.

      Didn’t Mercutio say something like that: If language be rough with you (and it is) be rough with language.

      • Richard April 18, 2012 at 8:02 am #

        Thanks for editing.

        I looked this up. It’s about love not language. Something one might expect from Mercutio.

        Roughness isn’t always strength – often it’s weakness.

      • jenny April 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

        Richard,

        Though it is true that I hate language, I do know what Mercutio said. Just messin’ with the text. I’m afraid it’s another attack on language.

      • Richard April 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

        Will, jenny, there you are. I didn’t.
        Game, set and match to you. 🙂

    • sledpress April 18, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      I think Larkin knew exactly what he was doing — speaking a universal, hard-to-admit truth in a voice apostrophizing people at exactly the age when they have to come face to face with the matter. Lest we forget, one of the rites of passage of adolescence is the discovery that you can say fuck and not immediately burst into flames, after which people tend to say it a lot, exuberantly, before adopting a more parsimonious approach.

      When you are thirteen or fourteen, you know exactly what “fucked up” means. And you are probably wrestling with the dawning awareness that it describes pretty aptly what happens in families. Which are, I note, social units invented to deal with the results of fucking. Do you know there is a German insult which amounts to “get yourself refucked” (that is, get your parents to start over from the beginning)? But I digress…

      • Richard April 18, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

        Sometimes cheap thrills are OK.

      • jenny April 18, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

        Sled,

        I love your thinking about the poem’s language! You are so right! Fabulous. Thanks.

      • sledpress April 18, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

        *curtsy*

  9. Christopher April 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    The four letter word that has been most discussed in the above comments, plus other words of this ilk, are, in Richard’s phrase, a “……substitute for unresolved aggression……..”.

    But, unresolved aggression again whom? Since these words are used mainly by men, and have to do with women, is it not women who are the objects of this unresolved aggression, nay unresolved hatred?

    If so, why aren’t these words as verboten as racial epithets now are?

    • Thomas Stazyk April 18, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      To answer your question, Christopher, it’s because the academics, who are the arbiters of such things, won’t let it happen because then they would not be able to talk about poets like Larkin and would have to stick to boring Milton, who, as far as I can tell never used the F word and if he hadn’t had daughters, there would be some question as to whether he knew the concept.

    • sledpress April 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

      Used mainly by men? Says who?

      (And what do you mean, have to do with women? Not necessarily. Surely you have seen Brokeback Mountain.)

    • Richard April 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      Don’t the objects vary from person to person, Christopher? That would mean the aggression is not confined to one sex.

      We might as well discuss the merits of throwing china about; the subject is soon exhausted and doesn’t get us very far.

      There is no strong enough single-interest group to do the forbidding and so the vandals have a field-day.

    • Cyberquill April 19, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

      Since these words are used mainly by men, and have to do with women, is it not women who are the objects of this unresolved aggression, nay unresolved hatred?

      Mainly by men? What planet do you live on where women mainly talk as if they were on network TV?

      And what, if I may ask, does the particular word in question “have to do with women” any more than it has to do with men?

  10. imagenmots April 18, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Gilles Vigneault, a Québec poet wrote “Violence is a lack of vocabulary”. (In French, of course)

    • sledpress April 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

      And yet in my school years, outstripping everyone in my class (most of them two years older) in writing, vocabulary breadth and all other matters of language, I was the one consistently rusticated for brawling. How would Vigneault account for that?

  11. jenny April 19, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Richard and Christopher,

    Your views surprise me. When my daughter was in high school, she and a group of friends put together a stage production of scenes from dramatic literature, including a scene from Othello. The principal insisted that Othello could not call Desdemona a “whore” on the school stage. He would have to call her a “wench” instead.

    I thought this was just our small-town provincialism, but it is exactly what the NYT has done to Larkin.

    Forget about your feelings about the words (and the damage that some do with them) for just a moment. What about fairness to the author who chose those words?

    • Richard April 19, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      I have no wish to censor anyone or to prevent discussion.

      I ask for a like privilege to express my views as to the use or abuse of a particular word. Whether they are fair is precisely the question under discussion. There is no final determination of it. This is not a court of law.

      The whole issue is one of feelings on both sides.

    • Richard April 19, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      …and the NYT is free to edit without notice and put its reputation at risk.

  12. Christopher April 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    Jenny – “…….What about fairness to the author who chose those words?……..”

    What about context? In the case of Othello, those words were chosen four hundred years ago. Had Shakespeare (or Bacon) written Othello today, would he have used the same words?

    To return to the topic of the word that Michiko Kakutani changed when reviewing Larkin, this word is as much a fundamental part of the language of misogyny as a washbasin is of a bathroom.

    It is therefore not for nothing that this word, along with the countless other distinctly unfriendly words (like “whore”) that men have conjured up to describe women and their sexual and reproductive bodily parts, is a fundamental part of the language of the barrack room – as pristinely manly a milieu as you get.

    Given that women sometimes use these words because it’s, well, cool, does this change anything?

    I’m currently reading Faulkner’s “Light in August”, and have noted that his characters often use a particular racial epithet that is now strongly proscribed. If a high-school should put on a play based on “Light in August”, should it omit this word? Based on your logic about fairness to the author, it shouldn’t. But, what about context?

    Were this word to be omitted or changed in such a high-school play, would this be “….small-town provincialism…..”?

    • Thomas Stazyk April 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      No, Christopher, it wouldn’t be small town provincialism. It would be wrong.

    • Richard April 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      Are we talking about the same word, Christopher? A woman’s body part?

      I remember the same consternation about another word when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

    • sledpress April 19, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

      I am just totally baffled, Christopher, by your insistence that fuck is a misogynistic word.

      I mean, what the fuck?

      If takes two people to fuck. She is fucking him. He is fucking her. Very possibly, he is fucking him. Quite likely they are married. Or possibly both are married, but not to each other, and this is the best fun they have had since their respective spouses got more interested in fire trucks or cable television.

      Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, wrote a little gem of a book called “Sex in Human Loving,” in which he disdained pale terms like sexual intercourse and, to satisfy the censors, wrote the required words “sideways and backwards” as “cuff, kirp and tunc.” He felt that this book on loving required the term.

      And indeed, when parents fuck up their children, the harm done is usually tangled up with love somehow.

      Aretino began a gorgeous sonnet:
      Fottiamci, anima mia, fottiamci presto!!!
      — which means what you think it does.

      I hope it does not qualify as TMI to say that some of the most delightful moments of my life have involved shouts of “Fuck me.”

      Of course, you can also say “Fuck me!” on an occasion when, say, you have dropped that night’s dessert for the dinner with your boss face down on the kitchen floor, as one of my many ex’es once did. I knew he did not propose that I ravish him then and there, and I remember him tenderly, despite the way he eventually became more interested in fire trucks.

      And you can yell (or even gently intone) “Fuck you!!!” at someone whom you want to dismiss or scorn. It is a challenging sentiment to parse, but I would say it involves at least some implication of “may you have something shoved somewhere unpleasant whether you like it or not.” “Fuck off” is an interesting but more often cheerful variant (see also “sod off,” “bugger off,” in parts of the world where boarding schools for young men are common). To me it carries a sense of “stop bothering me, go somewhere else and occupy yourself with a refreshing fuck.”

      But a verb/noun bound up with misogyny? I honestly don’t get it.

      Richard: “This is my mistress’ hand; look, just so she makes her C’s, her U’s, her N’s and her T’s…” Can’t beat the Bard.

      • jenny April 19, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

        Sledpress!

        Make me a willow cabin at your gate!

      • sledpress April 19, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

        and make the babbling gossip of the air
        cry out…

        hm, let me think this through a bit…

      • Christopher April 21, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

        Sled – Are you, perchance, of the Henry Miller/Erica Jong school of writing?

        I did read much of their stuff (but a long time ago, I must admit), and enjoyed it hugely.

        However, I still adhere to the sentiments I’ve expressed in other comments in this conversation.

        As to Henry Miller and Erica Jong, are they now…..how shall I say…..old hat?

      • sledpress April 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

        Actually, Christopher, I found Erica Jong and Henry Miller both dismally boring (I’m glad someone liked them); sex is magnificent, and deserves to be written about honestly — but obsession exhausts me. In fact, to the extent I have ever finished works of fiction, they have been conspicuously sparing of explicitly anatomical conjunctions, which is not to say that the people in them don’t have sex. (Jong and Miller seemed preoccupied with telling the world the exhaustive particulars, as if unsure they had actually had sex unless they could record same for posterity.)

        I do, however, represent people talking pretty much exactly as the people I know talk — ex-cops and politicians were among my character models, so the more popular forms of fornicatory malediction were inevitable and appropriate. (Disgruntled office-seeker upon winging a sitting council member with a .50 pistol: “Fuck. That was supposed to be a warning shot. You moved.”)”

    • sledpress April 19, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      Also: one has not even yet touched on the nuanced use of “fucked up,” in the sense Larkin used it, to mean confused, baffled, snarled or malfunctioning, but also in more cheerful contexts related to, typically, herbal intoxicants, as in Ben laid some terrific bud on us and we got so fucked up. I believe this usage works because it recalls the postcoital haze and disorientation which, despite its temporary dleterious effect on competence and critical thinking, may well be the human nervous system’s finest hour and the model for more complex forms of symphonic or terpsichorean ecstasy.

    • jenny April 19, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

      Christopher,

      Sledpress is on fire tonight: honest, sharp, funny, joyful, true.

      She’s right. There’s a lot more to this word than what is going down in the most manly milieu (a phrase that made me smile, by the way).

      But even if you’re not buying that, let’s talk about the questions you pose. Shakespeare does not use the word “whore,” Othello does. If Shakespeare were writing Othello today, he would still want to show us who Othello is by the words he chooses. So context changes nothing here.

      Fictional characters say (and do) all kinds of nasty things. They always will. That’s drama. (I guess you’re not a big fan of David Mamet.)

      And it’s natural that teenage girls are interested in this particular scene from Othello. Don’t you think they’re called whores every day in high school hallways? How better to sort that out than to take a look at that tragic Othello and poor Desdemona…unless the principal takes away the chance.

      What, though, if the words that bother you come directly from the narrator? Quite possibly, it’s still not the author speaking, but some fictional persona, whose character is revealed by his words.

      Maybe that’s not true of “Light in August.” I don’t know. I haven’t read it(though I probably will now, as I frequently take your suggestions for what to read) but I can tell you without hesitation where I stand. If it’s a book worth reading (and staging, if you please), then I’m opposed to changing the author’s words. Period. Especially on the high school stage. We can’t, as Andreas once pointed out to me, scrub history clean.

      If it’s a lousy book, just don’t read it.

      • Christopher April 21, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

        Jenny – I’m only reading “Light in August” because it’s by Faulkner, and I’d never read Faulkner before and always meant to, so why not begin with “Light in August”.

        I’d also been led to understand that there are resonances between “Light in August” and Kafka’s “The Trial”.

        So far I’ve not detected any resonances. On the other hand, Lit Crit has always been over my head.

        That said, I’m finding “Light in August” a wonderful read, and I have this, like, feeling, that you would find it a wonderful read too.

        “…….We can’t……..scrub history clean……”

        Tell that to the State Department and like authorities, which, in the 1950s, decided to airbrush (they hadn’t invented this tiresome word then, I do realise) Paul Robeson out of history, and did such a good job that almost no-one today has heard of him.

      • jenny April 22, 2012 at 6:28 am #

        OK, Christopher, I’ll read it. I’ve been needing some isolation, alienation, misogyny, racism . . . all in the Mississippi heat.

        For you (in search of more Kafka), there is the magical Bruno Schulz: Polish Jew who died tragically, but not before writing some marvelous short stories.

    • Richard April 20, 2012 at 1:02 am #

      I shouldn’t like to second-guess Shakespeare on his use of words, Christopher, and he is obliged to use offending words vicariously in order fully to represent a character. If he had known Sledpress and written her (as I am sure he would have 🙂 ) he’d have felt no inhibition. That does not mean approval or acceptance of her justifications.

      Here we are concerned with the word direct from Larkin’s mouth and, as so often, it is used merely to shock or offend and carries a meaning that belongs to some other word.

      English has degenerated over the last 400 years, and the process clearly began in Shakespeare’s time. I share your concerns, Christopher, and feel a duty to slow the decline by its judicious use. It is not necessarily that I am repressed or a bigot.

      • Richard April 20, 2012 at 2:34 am #

        aside it looks like the Brits fucked up the arrest of Qatada, though.

      • Richard April 20, 2012 at 2:36 am #

        I judiciously omit the square brackets.

      • sledpress April 20, 2012 at 8:50 am #

        I’m stumped, Richard. If the poet had said “They eat you up, your Mum and Dad” — which aptly describes the emotional conduct of many parents toward their children — would you go all prim about the poet’s usage simply because the parents under discussion did not actually sink their teeth into their children’s flesh a la Kronos? That image would certainly be shocking, and offensive. (The rest of the poem proves that Larkin has all the resources he needs to illustrate his point, so I maintain that he used the word because it was the right one. Sometimes a bit of shock is exactly what is called for.)

        Or are you simply digging your heels in on the position that there is something inherently heinous about fucking, as opposed to ninety-eight other things a person could do, or in any event about naming the action, even invoking it metaphorically? By cock (as Ophelia would say), it’s almost trite of me to ask why it is necessarily offensive to reference the prerequisite for all of our arrivals in this world.

        And as for the English language deteriorating starting with the time of Shakespeare (!), I offer you Geoffrey Chaucer, who was not afraid to call an ers an ers.

        Tee-hee! she cried, and clap’t the window to.

      • Richard April 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

        You beguile me with your love of cricket and your vastly superior knowledge bowls me centre stump, Sled. In any event, at my age I lack the thrust to check your references.

        Is all forgiven?

      • sledpress April 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

        Ah, there is nothing to forgive. This has actually all provoked me to an even greater appreciation of Larkin’s compact profundity. One feels one has risen from the ashes.

      • Richard April 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

        A true lady. 🙂

      • Christopher April 21, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

        Richard – “……English has degenerated over the last 400 years, and the process clearly began in Shakespeare’s time…….”

        While English has changed, I’m not sure it has degenerated. However, if it has degenerated (and it’s a big “if”) this process may arguably (there I go again) only have begun within the last fifty years.

        I put this out because I’ve come across those studies of American broadcast news that show that the range of vocabulary used in them has steadily decreased over the last fifty years.

        What applies to the American broadcast news is no doubt replicated in the broadcast news in the other English-speaking lands.

        If these studies are true (and why shouldn’t they be?) is it possible to conclude that their findings would apply also to the vocabulary range of people today?

        If so, would this mean that English has degenerated? To use a phrase much used by Barack Obama: that’s another debate.

      • Richard April 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

        One only has to read your writings to understand that English has guardians, Christopher, and It needs them.

        The desire to over-sensationalise and draw attention for its own sake leads to the hijacking of words and loss of their true meaning through repeated use and familiarity. Scandal, disaster, crisis are obvious examples, used when there is no scandal, disaster or crisis at all and they then evolve towards towards synonymity. When such events do occur, the language has to be scoured and another inappropriate word hijacked for emphasis.

        The same process takes place in everyday speech but in the case of the word which is the principal subject of this debate it is particularly reprehensible. Not only is it laziness and attention-seeking ito employ it, it is also a cynical desire for superficial titillation at the expense of depth of feeling and meaning. As a result we are obliged to use two long words, including a latinism – so investing an unintended scientific flavour.

        That this desecration should be aided and abetted by those who are blessed with a superlative sensiblity and flair for the language is a form of self-destruction.

        What is the mentality that takes a beautiful word, separates it from meaning and mutilates it?

      • sledpress April 27, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

        I get ever more confused, Richard. Is it a beautiful word or an offensive one? Or am I closing in on your meaning when I infer you object to the word for a beautiful thing (fucking as a transitive verb) being pressed into service as a metaphor for mishandling of a person or situation?

        To me it’s the two-edged sword thing; the beautiful thing isn’t beautiful if you’re not consenting. It seems the elegant way, in some contexts, to denote skewering, thwarting, violating someone, up close and personal, even if only in a psychological or social sense. Cf. the rape camps of Bosnia, as a referent.

        I don’t find Larkin’s usage titillating, if by titillation you mean the giggly frisson that accompanies apprehension of sexual content by people who don’t get out much. My first reaction to the line when I encountered it was much like the “Amen!” that accompanies a revival preacher’s rehearsal of The Word to his congregation, only not so joyful. Someone gets it, I thought.

      • Richard April 28, 2012 at 10:06 am #

        Hi Sled.

        It’s stretching it a bit to call Larkin’s use of the word metaphorical. Metaphor implies new insights gained through the displaced use of a word. Language would not progress without it.

        What he does is to arouse ambivalent feelings about the thing represented by the word – nothing else. That is the sense in which I use titillation – an incomplete or superficial arousal of a barely specified emotion. Larkin leaves you to guess whether there was indeed an illegal act by his parents. Maybe his composition is therapeutic for himself and others – in which case I have no quarrel with it – but I’ve an idea that he is trying to pass it off as art. We all do that, but don’t expect to be taken seriously.

        If one means rape, abuse or assault,say (all beautiful words), then one should use rape, abuse or assault. It is significant that none of those words is ever deputed simply to shock of offend or for therapy. Could the reason be that the associations are exclusively unpleasant?

        I think I’ll stop using offensive or shocking in this context. I should not seek to account for others’ tastes. Instead I’ll use unpalatable subjectively. If Larkin seeks to communicate something to me, he therefore immediately places himself at a disadvantage.

        Best wishes

        Richard

      • sledpress April 28, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

        Well, Richard, I was not at all implying that an illegal act took place. Nor, I am sure, was Larkin. Nonetheless, the behavior of parents toward their children can often involve a kind of slow-motion, intimate violation on an emotional level. That is one of the many senses in which I think the word is the right word — beyond the simple aptness I cited of using a term exactly characteristic of the age at which most kids figure out what has happened to them.

        Why this word? why is there a problem with the use of this term instead of some literal expression, alone in all of poetry, an art form characterized by the compounding of meanings into terms not meant to be taken literally and by the use of terms other than the literal for what is meant?

      • Richard April 29, 2012 at 12:06 am #

        An absorbing exposition, Sled. You almost persuade me. Larkin’s use of the word jars, though, and distracts me from a fair critical appraisal of his work, as this discussion shows.

      • sledpress April 29, 2012 at 8:40 am #

        I recommend the experience of dating an ex-cop, Italian and from Boston yet. After a while it becomes simply a word like any other. 😉

      • Richard April 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

        I think I prefer to remain a virgin.

  13. Christopher April 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    My solution to all the controversy that has been voiced in this most animated discussion, is a tax cut.

    • Thomas Stazyk April 21, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

      WTF??

    • Richard April 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

      now things are getting really near the knuckle.

    • Richard April 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

      Of course.

  14. Cyberquill April 23, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    BTW, a few years ago I went to see a therapist in NYC, specifically because I wanted to find out whether I had any deep-seated issues that manifested in my chronic inability to make a proper living in this world. A subconscious fear of money perhaps.

    In the course of my first (and only—I couldn’t afford to continue) session I predicted that eventually I might not be able to pay my rent anymore, at which point I’d probably move back to Europe, where I could stay with my mom in our family home for free.

    The therapist emphatically advised me against moving back in with my mother and told me that I’d be much better off being hungry and homeless on a beach somewhere, because my parents were the ones that fucked me up in the first place.

    Those were his exact words.

    And I hadn’t even talked about my parents yet.

    • jenny April 24, 2012 at 7:01 am #

      A Jewish therapist? Good chance of that in New York. I know what he was thinking:

      Look, who wants to move back in with Jewish parents? Under the rollercoaster at Coney Island, just like in Annie Hall.

      • Cyberquill April 24, 2012 at 7:25 am #

        Sure, because the way I look and talk, everyone immediately thinks “Brooklyn” and “Jewish.” And the therapist was Italian-American. Catholic, I presume. The practice of adult men living with their mothers happens to be quite common in Italy, and there’s not even any stigma attached to it. They even have a word for these guys: mammone (“mama’s boy”). 60 Minutes once did a story on the phenomenon. .

  15. Christopher April 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    I think of a film like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, in which the two main characters try to eviscerate each other through words, but there is nary the word that has been the subject of all these comments.

    The absence of this word does not take away the power of the film’s dialogue. Its absence may even add to the dialogue’s power because it leaves something to the audience’s imagination. Isn’t this what artistry is about?

    Had Albee written “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” today” he would no doubt have had the dialogue peppered with this word because it’s now de rigeuer to do so in this sort of play. But, it would have vitiated the dialogue’s power and artistry.

    Woody Allen’s films are refreshingly free of this word, despite that some of his films have been heavy dramas. He did, however, feature this word, and many times, in one of his films. He never did so again because it was a disaster.

    I surmise that part of the controversy over this word is because it’s an extremely violent word. To the extent that it becomes an integral part of the vocabulary of everyday life, only adds to the violence of everyday life.

    This word is, as I’ve said elsewhere, a part and parcel of the language of the barrack-room. Why not leave it there?

    • sledpress April 29, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

      I absolutely *refuse* to leave it in the barrack-room, Christopher, because it has been used to such tender and violent, passionate, physically welding, spiritually naked effect in my bedroom. Nobody, at the moment when tender regard annihilates caution, or when the electricity of the body exceeds its boundaries, shouts “Make love to me! Make love to me!” Agreed, no?

      Wayland Young suggested a derivation of the word from the Indo-European root -bhug meaning — as I recollect — to cover, contain, incorporate; to take one thing inside another. This can happen violently, or not.

      And there is no other single word in the English language which means exactly what FUCK means. We require it.

      Colloquial, metaphorical, and intensive uses are at the user’s discretion, but variations in taste do not entitle one to sniff.

      • Christopher May 1, 2012 at 12:24 am #

        Sled – Your comment put me in mind of a short passage I recently came across in William Faulkner’s “Light in August”, that I’m getting to the end of.

        This passage concerns Miss Burden, a reclusive fortyish spinster, who had never known a man in the Bibllical sense until she met a young drifter, Joe, who led her down paths which she’d heretofore only imagined.

        Hence Miss Burden, while in transports of passion with Joe “…..had an avidity for the forbidden wordsymbols; an insatiable appetite for the sound of them on his tongue and on her own. She revealed the terrible and impersonal curiosity of a child about forbidden subjects and objects; that rapt and tireless and detached interest of a surgeon in the physical body and its possibilities…….”

        It can easily be imagined that Miss Burden screamed out the word that has been the topic of this discussion, and screamed it out many times.

        Isn’t this enough?

      • sledpress May 1, 2012 at 9:03 am #

        Christopher, after reading that passage, all I can say is that I’m glad I never tore one off with William Faulkner.

        I now know a lot about how Miss Burden, and the people in her social milieu, regard fucking and the naming thereof — the use of “forbidden” twice is telling — but only Faulkner’s literary grace prevents this rather Baroque passage from coming off as impossibly precious. (I can say “coming off,” can’t I?)

        I won’t argue that authors can produce a great effect without saying Fuck even when that is the subject under discussion, e.g. Boccaccio, but why is it so urgent to refrain in all cases? (Even the prim C. S. Lewis depicted crass workmen disrupting a solemn funeral with a snarl of “Get your bucking great foot out of the light,” which was the closest he could have expected his publisher to tolerate.)

        We have an act, and we have a single verb representing the act, just as we have words like eat, jump, walk, or scream. We also know the many slangy ways in which everyone up to U. S. Presidents has used it in consternation or exasperation, and sometimes it expresses a sense that no other single word can express. Some people overuse it to the detriment of eloquence, but that hardly seems justification for avoiding it at all costs even when it is apt.

        @ Jenny — is the “cone of silence” anything like the loathed plastic neckwear required by my late beloved Maine Coon in allergy season? He was not at all silent about having to wear it.

    • Richard April 30, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      Nary … nary? That’s a new one on me. Four letters, too. I wonder what I could use it for? Hmmm.

      Nary off? Yeah.
      I made a nary of that one. Better still.
      Make nary to me! Nudge, nudge. – 😉
      They nary you up your mum and dad. Perfect

  16. jenny May 1, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    I may have to activate the cone of silence.

  17. Christopher May 1, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Jenny, Sled – “……I may have to activate the cone of silence……”

    Have I said too much?

    There’s nothing more I can think of to say to you. But all you have to do is look at me to know that every word is true.

    • jenny May 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      No, Christopher, the cone of silence is for me. You’re fine.

      It’s for me, and mainly just because I love the idea of the thing. It’s funny. Anyway, you will recall that it never worked.

    • sledpress May 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      What the hell, Christopher, at this point we’re practically flirting, aren’t we?

      I could make you wear it…

  18. Man of Roma May 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    God, I missed A LOT of fun. Fucking spring!

  19. Richard May 11, 2012 at 4:24 am #

    “… These people will worry and grieve more over unorthodox ritual, or the speaking of an unseemly or unsuitable word, than they will for a thousand vain thoughts …”
    [The Cloud of Unknowing c1370]

    The debate is not a new one.

    • Christopher May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      Est-ce que these people are of the sort that don’t see the forest for the trees?

      En revanche if they take care of their pennies, their pounds will surely take care of themselves.

  20. Richard May 11, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    The passage is taken, Christopher, from Chapter 54 of a translation by Clifton Wolters for Penguin in 1961 of this book of Christian mysticism . The anonymous author, a country priest, warns of false contemplation and hypocrisy, and addresses himself as much as anybody.

    See how, in Chapter 55, he subtly he uses their own language to sanction those who set themselves up as arbiters of others’ morality:

    “… The fiend will deceive some men in this way; in a most remarkable fashion he will set them on fire to maintain the law of God and to destroy sin in all other men. He will never tempt them with anything that is openly evil. He makes them like those busy ecclesiastics who watch over every condition of our Christian life, as an abbot does over his monks. For they do not hesitate to reprove us all for our faults, just as if they had the cure of souls. For the sake of God they think they dare not do otherwise than declare the faults they see. They say they have been moved to do so by fervent charity, and by the love of God that is in their hearts. But they lie. It is the fire of hell which is welling up in their minds and imaginations …”

  21. Christopher May 12, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    “…..It is the fire of hell which is welling up in their minds and imaginations……..”

    Would the Jungian “shadow self” be the “fire of hell” here? The unacknowledged “shadow self” hiding within the pious ecclesiastic, that contains the very faults he refuses to see in himself but sees in others.

    The more the piety, the bigger the “shadow self”. Always keep a wary eye on the pious, is what I say.

  22. Richard May 12, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    I would never have thought of the parallel to Jung’s “Shadow” archetype, Christopher. It’s interesting that Jung’s father was a parson. This debate is a Christian one and it is a measure of how deeply Christianity is embedded in Western culture that it is entered into so enthusiastically by believer and non-believer alike.

    There is a chilling ambiguity about it, isn’t there? What of those who reject piety in others? I simply ask the question. Piety is a private matter.

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