Rebel with an age-old cause

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Philip Larkin's pungent poetry strikes a chord at AS-level, says Andrew Cunningham

Long before Eminem, one famous poet was wielding the word "fuck" like a weapon, shocking an age that still considered "bloody" a serious swear word. Philip Larkin died in 1985 but his language still has the power to shock. And today's teenagers seem to lap him up. With his sexist attitudes, his hostility to so many of the things they hold dear (jeans, trainers, Coke and cars), his nostalgia for an England that seems to have little in common with their own world, you would think teenagers would loathe Larkin. Look at any picture of him, and he seems the archetypal old-fashioned Englishman: bald, pompous, sober-suited. But the whole point of poetry is to stick in the reader's mind and Larkin's poems certainly do that. He is on the syllabus of the new OCR AS-level English Literature course - and he is going down a treat.

One of the secrets of his success is his infamous and liberal use of the word "fuck" in an age when it was never seen in print. I have spent the past two terms teaching his best work, High Windows, to two Year 12 classes taking the new AS course. It has been a joy to watch these students open up this slim volume for the first time. Usually when young people pick up a pristine text, the novelty lasts 10 seconds, then they are bored. With Larkin, the nudges, winks and surprise start the moment they spot the first swear word. These teenagers are already reacting to a classic work of literature. For any teacher, moments like these must be savoured.

This Be The Verse is the poem guaranteed to bring the house down: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." Thirty years after it was written this short poem still rings true. No teenager on earth can resist its first two lines - or resist the spectacle of the teacher having to utter them with total embarrassment when reading the poem aloud in class. All 30 of my students, totally unprompted, committed these lines to memory like some favourite rap lyric. This short poem speaks to them in a way few other writers manage - even the more "relevant" poets such as Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Benjamin Zephaniah that they studied at GCSE. "It's so true that poem - that's just what your parents are like" was one typical comment.

Many of Larkin's anti-feminist and anti-Semitic atitudes are, of course, deplorable. His famous comment "Fuck all women!" rightly causes consternation. One student was so appalled she nearly walked out. But, like Eminem, Larkin seems to get away with it somehow, because the thrust of his poetry is on the big issue that fascinates most teenagers - death. Perhaps only middle-aged adults and 40-something teachers find Larkin unbearably pessimistic. Like Sylvia Plath, his unblinking examination of death seems to fascinate many teenagers. In the face of this common enemy, all humans are equal. The teenagers I teach have been quick to see this deeper reality that underlies his superficial sexism and prejudice.

His most famous poem on death, The Old Fools, with its blunt descriptions of "extinction", "drooling" and "pissing yourself" is a brutal description of old age and what comes after. But even this tricky poem goes down a treat - the reactions of one 16-year-old were typical: "He's not afraid to say what he thinks - even on paper. No one wants to admit it, but Larkin is right. That's what old age is like. Old people do have 'toad hands' and 'ash hair'." Young people also like the way he was ahead of his time on other issues. Despite his hilariously uncool appearance, they are quick to recognise a rebel: "All that swearing and those descriptions of getting old are quite radical - particularly for the time he wrote. You wouldn't expect all that stuff about pills and diaphragms in High Windows either. And he's not afraid to admit he fouled up his own life."

Many students particularly identified with Going, Going, the poem where Larkin describes England sinking under a mass of new roads and buildings - "concrete and tyres". Here, too, he seems ahead of his time on the environment - one of their biggest concerns - and they respect him for it. They like the fact that he points the finger of blame for greed-inspired pollution firmly at City fat cats.

Before Eminem was born, Larkin proved shock tactics were not the sole preserve of rebellious youth. Aged 52 when High Windows came out in 1974, superficially conservative to the core, he put a challenging nonconformism into his poems that still has the power to speak to today's teenagers. He too brandishes words like unblunted chainsaws.

Andrew Cunningham teaches English at Cranleigh School, Cranleigh, Surrey

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