Larkin and the Gray Lady, again

I’ve been on break from remarking on some of the obsessions of the New York Times — its periodiphilia, its taboo avoidance, and so on — but I’m moved to return to the second of these topics because the Gray Lady has managed to reproduce, in deail, one of its previous encounters with taboo vocabulary, a tussle with poet Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”.

The background. If you want to write about Larkin and the dark side of his poetry, or about the baleful effects some parents have on their children, you will probably turn to to the beginning of “This Be the Verse”:

(FU) They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

in which Larkin uses fuck (up) to package two ideas in one expression: that by fucking, your parents cause you to come to be; and that your parents damage you. Replacing fuck in (FU) with a euphemistic substitute loses this cleverness — and it ought to be unnecessary in a publication written for, and read by, adults. So: either the paper should ax the Larkin quote (rather than doing violence to it), or it should use the quote as is.

For the previous occasion, note this 4/16/12 posting of mine, “The Gray Lady avoids”:

Just out on Language Log: a piece (“Larkin v. the Gray Lady”) by Mark Liberman on taboo avoidance in the New York Times, specifically on Michio Kakutani quoting Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” as beginning:

They mess you up, your mum and dad.

… But what Larkin actually wrote (about 40 years ago) began

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

So the NYT has daintily avoided the offensive word — and also eliminated much of the effect of the line.

Then it was Michio Kakutani and mess. Last week it was, of all people, Stephen King, in a review of Paul Theroux’s Mother Land (“a portrait of a truly horrible mother”), and screw:

Philip Larkin more succinctly knew how they screw you up, “your mum and dad.”

(Big hat tip to Ann Burlingham.)

If you’re sticking to V … up, then mess up and screw up are pretty much it as alternatives to fuck up. And it turns out that over the past 33 years the NYT has gone for mess at least four times, for screw at least twice:

mess #1. “In Search of a Laureate: Making Book on Britain’s Next Official Poet” by John Gross on 7/15/84, indirect quotation, but with a comment on the unprintability of fuck:

A droller objection, one that the satirical magazine Private Eye has not been slow to seize on, is that two of Mr. Larkin’s best-known lines – about how your Mum and Dad mess you up – contain a word that would have been unprintable until around 1960. They have been quoted to death by his admirers, but Private Eye produced a neat parody of the effect they might be made to have on a wider public – a Fleet Street tabloid screaming about filth-mongers being allowed into the royal presence.

mess #2. “Food; Letting Off Steam” by Jonathan Reynolds on 7/9/00, indirect quotation:

But what about the imagined barbecues of Mr. Albee, of Strindberg and Francis Bacon, of that obstreperous British poet, Philip Larkin, whose feelings about family eloquently inform ”This Be the Verse,” in which he explains how they mess you up, your mum and dad

mess #3. “Toy Story | Late Gift Giving” by Ethan Hauser on 12/11/09, direct quotation with fuck replaced, but a reference to Larkin’s “more florid language” (florid?):

[on being late in buying Christmas presents:] Like most of our adult shortcomings, this failing has roots in my childhood: “They mess you up, your mum and dad,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin (albeit in more florid language). And in my case, Mum and Dad had what might generously be described as a casual relationship with dates and times.

mess #4. Kakutani, above.

screw #1. Theatre review of August, Osage County, “A Matriarch After Your Attention, if Not Heart” by Charles Isherwood on 8/13/07, indirect quotation, but with a recognition of the replacement of fuck:

(The verse that really should be quoted in the play is Philip Larkin’s famous dictum about how mum and dad really, um, screw you up.)

screw #2. King, above.

We can only hope that someday the Times will stop fucking up Larkin’s text.

6 Responses to “Larkin and the Gray Lady, again”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Lawler on Facebook:

    The title “This be the verse” is a reference to R. L. Stevenson’s “Requiem”

  2. annburlingham Says:

    I wonder if King wrote it correctly and then ran into editing.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I suspect the heavy hand of editors in this case — King is far from shy about using fuck — and a number of others. Writers for the paper sometimes complain (but only in private; you might just lose your job) about having taboo vocabulary they thought was essential to their story edited out. The paper dug in its heels on the matter some time ago, maintaining that it’s a family newspaper and that obscenities can have no place in it. (Their actual practice is more complicated than that.)

  3. This Be the Word | Says:

    […] New York Times has a history of bowdlerizing Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”. Here’s my response to […]

  4. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at various bowdlerizations of Philip Larkin’s famous quote about what parents do to their […]

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