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?