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September 2006

Nomination: Neurotics [March–April 1949. From Collected Poems (1988)]

What surprises me most about ‘Neurotics’ is that fact that its author doesn’t seem to have valued it very highly, since the poem was only published after Larkin’s death (and nearly forty years after it was written) in the superior, original version of the Collected Poems. For me it was one of the most impressive additions to the Larkin canon that came to us when that volume appeared and reading the poem today I’m still mystified as to why, given that it was completed in 1949, he deemed it of insufficient quality to find a place in The Less Deceived. To me it seems as strong as (or even stronger than) many of the poems that did make the grade.

The title is a little problematic perhaps, as the now defunct psychiatric term “neurotic” was surely inappropriate, even in 1949, when applied to the far more severe mental problems the poem describes. This point, no doubt, is arguable and it’s not as if it detracts from the poem’s power. What I particularly admire about ‘Neurotics’ is the fact that Larkin really does (to use a line from another of his poems) “think of being them”, entering into the world of his “neurotics” in a sympathetic and compassionate fashion, with none of the irrational fear and revulsion that often characterises people’s responses to those suffering from mental disorders. I’m not sure if Larkin’s descriptions of the symptoms and suffering of the mentally ill are based on direct experience or are purely instinctive, but they certainly feel authentic and accurate. He describes them as being weighed down by clinical depression (“You drag your feet, clay-thick with misery”); trapped by obsessive-compulsive behaviours (“None think how stalemate in you grinds away,/Holding your spinning wheels an inch too high/To bite on earth”); and – in the most memorable segment of the poem – the helpless prey of dark, delusional thoughts:

…The mind, it’s said, is free:
But not your minds. They, rusted stiff, admit
Only what will accuse or horrify,
Like slot-machines only bent pennies fit.

Sadly, Larkin’s neurotics have long been abandoned as hopeless chronic cases by those psychiatric professionals who are supposed to be providing them with care (“No one gives you a thought” and “No one pretends/To want to help you now”). Treatment is no longer a component of any “care” being offered. Instead younger patients jostle for prime position and, as is so often the case in such institutions, there’s only so much actual treatment to go around. Inevitably it’s the older patients who find themselves sidelined. Their basic wants are met, but without the treatment which ought to be theirs by right, predictably they lose their battle for mental health and the poem ends on a tragic note with them being enveloped by the world of delusion and hallucination with little hope of finding their way back (“a hired darkness ends/Your long defence against the non-existent”).

If you’re one of those poor individuals who owns a copy of the slimmed-down version of the Collected Poems and are therefore seeing ‘Neurotics’ for the first time, then my advice is that you immediately print out a copy and paste it into the Collected in the place where I believe it always ought to have been: holding its head high amongst those poems originally published in The Less Deceived.

Colleen Hawkins

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