Larkin in the Middle Kingdom8 min read

They fuck you up, your poetry teachers – Elyse Weingarten

When I entered the classroom, I expected it to be abuzz with joy. Instead, the students filed in silently, looking at their phones until class began, and then remained characteristically taciturn. It was my second year living in Beijing and teaching at a university. For weeks, I had been looking forward to teaching British poet Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ to the Chinese undergraduate English majors in my creative writing class. They had read the poem as part of their assignment before the class. I had assumed they’d delight in the poem’s mischievousness and musicality, like so many of their Western counterparts before them. I thought I’d finally elicit enthusiasm from them. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

We discussed the two other poems first, and finally it was time for ‘This Be the Verse.’ At first, no one volunteered to read it aloud, with a refusal that seemed stronger than usual. Then, as I spoke briefly about the poem and began asking questions, a frenetic movement of fidgeting and surreptitious glances took over. Many stared at their notes, avoiding my engagement. When I called on students, they stumbled or refused to answer. Something was clearly bothering them, but when I asked what, no one responded. I don’t remember how I realized the answer: maybe I guessed, maybe a brave student spoke up. The issue was that most of the students had been made uncomfortable by the word fuck in the poem’s first line, believing it to be sexual in meaning:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

“To ‘fuck up’ in colloquial English means to ‘mess up,’” I clarified. “It’s not being used in a sexual way.” I repeated this several times, and my students visibly relaxed, turning towards each other and talking in Chinese. “I didn’t know that!” one student chirped at me.

The class’s understanding of everyday English had been uneven in the past, and I felt guilty for not thinking to explain this point before they read the poem. I was also in disbelief that a room full of 19- and 20-year-olds could be rendered nearly speechless by the presence of the “f-word.” And why hadn’t anything I’d just explained about the poem alerted them to their miscomprehension? Even if they had completely ignored me, why hadn’t context clues helped them out? I wanted to yell: “Did you really think I brought in a poem about incest?!”

Their unease had not completely dissipated, and after a few failed attempts to initiate discussion, I jumped ahead. “Do you agree with Larkin? Can we hold our parents responsible for our pain?” My question was greeted with bafflement. How could anyone blame their parents for their own failings? One after another, my students responded with varied formulations of how grateful we should be to our parents, and how each of us is solely responsible for our lives and the choices we make. We discussed Confucius and how deeply ingrained xiào , the virtue of filial piety, is in Chinese society. I stood stock-still, overwhelmed by the weight of this cultural dissonance – surrounded by students barely out of adolescence who seemed unable to experience resentment towards their parents. “In the US, we blame our parents for everything,” I joked.

In the class’s immediate aftermath, their confusion over the word fuck overshadowed their inability to relate to the poem. Afraid some of the students would complain, I went to the head of the English department, a middle-aged Chinese man I had always respected. He asked to read the poem. His eyes popped out behind his reading glasses.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “Did you explain the metaphor?”

“The colloquialism? Yes, I did.”

“Good. You know, Chinese people consider sex very private,” he explained. “They just don’t talk about it. They receive no sex education.”

“The poem’s not about sex,” I exclaimed.

“But they don’t understand that.”

“I explained it,” I repeated.  

“Yes, but still, it doesn’t matter. For Chinese people it is a very private thing.”

That evening, still trying to suss out the day’s events, I exchanged messages with a student I was close to on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous social media app. Her response echoed my boss’s. “Well, it’s true that some of the class didn’t like the poem, but I think we’re just not comfortable to talk about the f-word [a]loud,” she explained. “Cause most of us still regard the word as something dirty… In Chinese culture we don’t talk about sexual issue[s] very directly, especially in class.”

What both my boss and my student were trying to say, and what I hadn’t understood, was that it didn’t matter what the word fuck meant or how it was used in the poem; its existence was indictment enough. In China, any mention of sex in the public sphere is overwhelmingly taboo, and its presence in a classroom is inconceivable. Because of this, fuck’s other significations, such as in the colloquialism “to fuck up,” contain a malignant trace of the forbidden signified, sex. In short, I had embarrassed them. While it may be a stretch to say that I had violated social decency, I had certainly committed a transgression.

The following semester, I got permission to teach ‘This Be the Verse’ in a poetry seminar I was leading for English masters students, older and more mature. While this class had no issue with the word fuck, they found the moral precept of the poem as difficult to swallow as my previous students had; they too iterated the necessity of feeling gratitude towards our parents and taking full responsibility for our lives and our own mistakes.

‘Why would I bring a child into this world if he was going to hate me?’”

A day or two after the creative writing class, I was in the department office and ran into my immediate supervisor, Maria, who has a teenage son. I told her about my discovery: at home in United States, the hereditary nature of trauma and bad parenting’s fractious legacy are among our most abiding social narratives; in China, my students found filial resentment difficult to comprehend. Maria nodded in agreement with her countryfolk. “Why would I bring a child into this world if he was going to hate me?”

I didn’t know either. What I wanted to say was that it wasn’t simply a matter of hate, or rather that this kind of hate didn’t preclude love. How could I explain that in much of the Western tradition, love and hate are so proverbially interwoven that we can’t understand one without the other, and the closer the distance between the two, the more incandescent we believe the love?

The subversion of Larkin’s poem lies in its playfulness: existential truth set to the poetic meter of a nursery rhyme. The knowledge that our parents will irreparably “fuck [us] up” is so rudimentary, Larkin suggests, it can be compressed into the child’s language of monosyllabic words and predictable sound patterns. That we also feel bound to our parents through obligation and affection goes without saying, for who typically recites nursery rhymes? Our parents, on whom we are dependent as young children. From the perspective of traditional Confucian thought, however, feeling emotional ambivalence towards one’s parents is not only disrespectful, but a threat to the social order. There is no “Get out as early as you can.”

In a Confucian society, the hierarchical relationship between child and parent is parallel to that of the individual and the state. Children are expected to obey, or at least respect, their parents throughout adulthood. In contemporary China, the relationship between parents and their offspring is tied to a legal framework. In recent years, both national and provincial laws have been established to force adult children to visit their parents and provide “spiritual” support.

I don’t think that Chinese children grow up with the same expectations of their parents as those for whom ‘This Be the Verse’ is an anthem. We expect emotional sustenance, demand unending, unconditional love, and need our parents to understand us, though they usually never do. Maybe because the power dynamics of filial piety impede such intimacy, or because after the social upheaval and attendant poverty of the Mao era, these claims often seem to rank low for most Chinese on a Maslow-esque hierarchy of needs.

One of my initial culture shocks on arriving in Beijing was learning that Chinese parents traditionally don’t tell their children that they love them. When I asked one of my students how her mother would respond if she said “I love you,” she laughed and said that her mother would likely assume she was either sick or pregnant. I can only imagine how, in the US, such parental aloofness might lead to years of unhealthy relationships or extensive time in psychotherapy. Yet my student was confident in her parents’ love because of their actions, and equally confident that they knew she loved them back.

In my recent re-readings of ‘This Be the Verse,’ I have experienced the horror of someone who has just realized that their much-recited punchline to a favorite joke is dirty. When Larkin writes, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” ‘fuck you up’ can be read as a play on words, referring both to the colloquialism “mess you up” and to how our parents bring us into the world. Though not perhaps as they had anticipated, it turns out my students may have been right, after all. ∎

Header: Portrait of Philip Larkin by Humphrey Ocean, National Portrait Gallery, London. (Creative Commons licence via Wikicommons)