This essay considers how British poetry responded to the rise of graffiti after World War II, using the work of Dannie Abse, Philip Larkin, and Tony Harrison as case studies. Poets of this era were awkwardly placed to discuss graffiti. The striking formal differences between the two genres made graffiti difficult to imitate and cannibalize. Moreover, poets occupied an ambiguous position vis-à-vis the establishment culture that graffitists wished to contest. Conscious of their difficult situation, poets took up a variety of approaches, each marked by distinctive paradoxes. Abse viewed graffiti with a distancing sociological eye, even as he recognized the limits of that perspective by stressing the culpability of each person, including himself, in widening social inequalities. Larkin approached graffiti with a mix of disdain at the defacement of public property and envy over the liberties that the graffitist could take against middle-class sensibilities. Harrison found himself pulled between sympathy for a social world that was once his own and a deeper sense of alienation now that his education and his work as a poet had set him apart from that community. Such paradoxes lend the poems a special value when set against a broader public discourse that tended to simply defend or condemn graffiti.

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