Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Public Standards" at the New York Times

Mark Tushnet

Far off the usual (and not the promised third post on the First Amendment), but it's late at night and I can't sleep and this has been nagging at me, so: Two weeks ago the daily New York Times published a review of Philip Larkin's "Collected Poems." The review "quoted" -- the scare quotes matter here, and watch where the quotation marks come in the "quotation" -- Larkin's famous poem, This Be the Verse. Here's the poem as "quoted" in the Times: Your Mum and Dad, they mess you up/"They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you."

Notice where the quotation begins? And why there? Because the poem -- by common agreement one of the great short poems in English from the late twentieth century (and some of those qualifiers can probably be stripped out) -- actually begins, "Your Mum and Dad, they fuck you up."

Now, I understand the Times's problem. As the Public Editor put it to me in response to an e-mail, "the Times stylebook says 'we very, very rarely print obscene words like "fuck.'" Of course, "very, very rarely" doesn't mean "never," and one might think that quoting a great poem in which the double meaning of "fuck you up"is one element of its greatness could cross the threshold.

But, OK, maybe not. Still, bowdlerizing -- "paraphras[ing]," as the Public Editor put it (to "capture[] virtually all but the offending word") -- doesn't seem the right solution. Larkin wrote a lot of great poems, a couple of which were also quoted in the review. It would have been better to do no more than name This Be the Verse.

I leave the parodies that flow almost naturally from the idea of "paraphrasing" a poem by changing one word as an exercise for the reader.

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