The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 12, 2012

On Larkin's Doggerel

Nearly everyone who has reviewed the new Complete Poems of Philip Larkin has commented on Philip Larkin’s doggerel—the “frequently scatological, often crudely misogynistic” poems, the “disposable juvenilia, unpublished verses…oddments salvaged from letters and Christmas cards.”

Does it really enrich our knowledge of Larkin to learn that the man who wrote “Church Going” (a poem about church in iambic pentameter) also wrote this untitled poem by “Shaggerybox McPhallus…the brilliant new Post-Masturbationist poet”:                                   

Larkin jacket
O what ails thee, bloody sod,
Alone and palely loitering,
The leaves are blowing in the quad
           And no birds sing:

 Along the lines of windows spring
The orange lights of cosy fun
The radiogram is whispering
            The day is done.
[…]

And this is why I shag alone
Ere half my creeping days are done
The wind coughs sharply in the stone,
            There is no sun.
[...]                                                                                                                                                                                       

I feel enriched, and here’s why. In his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand, Auden compares doggerel to “found art”:

If formal verse can be likened to carving, free verse to modeling, then one might say that doggerel verse is like objet trouvés — the piece of driftwood that looks like a witch, the stone that has a profile. The writer of doggerel, as it were, takes any old words, rhythms and rhymes that come into his head, gives them a good shake and then throws them onto the page like dice where, lo and behold, contrary to all probability they make sense, not by law but by chance. Since the words appear to have no will of their own, but to be the puppets of chance, so will the things or persons to which they refer; hence the value of doggerel for a certain kind of satire.(pp. 294-295)

Auden’s sense that doggerel verse rids the poem of its sense of having been intended seriously seems right to me. Maybe that’s one reason Larkin chose it—because it registers his discomfort with the serious tradition he was writing himself into. Pretending to be a “puppet of chance,” Larkin could release himself from the more serious act of putting pen to paper, while still allowing himself to write. How characteristic it is for the many-minded poet to step hesitantly into the most serious of houses.

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