Universality in Poetry

It’s an inevitability that you encounter poet Phillip Larkin’s piece “This Be the Verse” at some point within your poetry career. Sometimes it’s an embittered eleventh English teacher who shows it to you partly because its use of the word “fuck” will catch your class’ attention long enough that they stop texting under the desks, partly because they have their own shit going on. It’s a short enough poem that it makes the rounds on platforms like Facebook, lends itself to Pinterest typography, can be photographed from poetry collections using Snapchat filters and sepia for Tumblr. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do.” Well-constructed as the rest of the poem might be, there’s little need to read the rest of it. Those two lines bleed universality. It doesn’t matter how idyllic your childhood was; no parent/guardian is perfect, and they dropped the ball at some point. If they were even holding one to begin with.

How, then, do you integrate universality into poetry? If a poem is interpreted to be a snapshot stuck somewhere between the author and the outside world – depending on where you believe the source is – how do you write a line that can be so applicable to most of the population without being so vague as to devalue the poem as a whole? There are very few universal experiences to begin with – being raised by something or some entity, no matter how removed or of what quality, is one of them – and what does that leave us with?

One Reply to “Universality in Poetry”

  1. This is such a perceptive but also thought-provoking comment. Yes, Larkin’s poem becomes only its first two lines, perhaps in part because the last stanza, espousing something close to anti-natalism, is harder to deal with than a good old anglo-saxon hard -ck word (fuck as word 2 of the poem, as you point out). And of course to forget the middle stanza, as I certainly did as high school-aged reader, is to repeat (my own) teenage narcissism: the poem tries to empathize, however heavy-handedly, with the parents, not blame them alone.

    I’m especially provoked to thought by how universal this poem might be. On the one hand, most teenagers identify with that gap between themselves and their agency, and Freud and others have explanations (rightly or wrongly!). But I nearly glossed teenagers as “Western” because I know the kinds of gap that dominant British culture produced, and that different cultures figure elders with different roles in social hierarchy (in Iceland, grandparents can be elevated above parents…I wonder if Larkin allows this). The truth of Larkin’s statement also changes in situations of neglect and abuse, of course: his statement might be broadly true for all humans, but takes on very different meanings when zoomed in on.

    In this poem, at least, Larkin’s looking for that unifying emotion, but also just expressing personal opinion as something more that personal – the universality might relate less to the truth value of his statement than to a rhetorical need to seem to have right on his side (“our survey says, they fuck you up, your mom and dad”…I’m tickled that the British “mum” makes the poet partly-specific to the UK, even if not in absolute ways).

    In a sense, I might then be unpicking one of your few universals. But I think I’m more saying that universality itself begins with “uni-” with the idea of the singular or the one. What is universality resides not in the experience itself but in the way the experience is represented, the making open of an experience that can be particular to the experience of sharing, of the universal?

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