Tony Harrison's v. and the commodification of outrage

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For reasons I can't remember I have two copies of Tony Harrison's collected poems. Perhaps I think one will illuminate the other. I don't read either of them very often. If I have a session which might involve getting even half way through one before realising there are other things to do, I spend the rest of the day or night thinking in iambic pentameters. The recent (18 February Radio 4 11pm) programme about Harrison's v. and his masterly re-reading underscores the significance of the poem as a social commentary. The poetry's not bad either, with lines that deserve to be etched in marble and flaunted in our public spaces, if only to antagonise our civic guardians or provoke, through graffiti or otherwise, the bitterness of the inarticulate or unheard.

The slating of v. the film by a wide range of influential voices in 1987 did not suppress interest in it - just as the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial of the 1960s, gave a massive boost to the book's paperback sales. It's equally likely that as with Lady Chatterley, most pages were skimmed in pursuit of the well-thumbed visceral, leaving much else neglected. Visceral v. is, but not quite as shocking on re-reading, and perfectly familiar, depending on the company you keep. To present the poem on a public service TV programme was daring in 1987 if not outrageous. Interesting that the BBC settled for an analysis and re-reading on radio, rather than showing Richard Eyre's film again, despite its 2.5 million viewers the first time round.

v. presents a demonic and demotic dialogue which while imagined, carries the bluntness of truth. It's the language you don't get in soaps, in situation comedies, or strangely enough in Shameless. It also provides a monologue which touches on altogether deeper if no less provocative themes which reflect the writer's own conflicts and inner demons. v. may have different meanings for different audiences, and both may ignore the other, as they often do in life.

Cut the crap and get to the point, I can hear you say. What's it about? I'm tempted to say if you don't know by now you've been living in a cave, know nothing about your recent history, or are under 30. That's just ill-mannered arrogance on my part, a trait which my parents, like Harrison's, would have been appalled at. Harrison may be an iconoclast but he has a deep respect for learning, for language, for people and for manners. His was a voice of reason in an unreasonable situation. Some reviewers grasped this, including the Telegraph's Peregrine Worsthorne.

So Harrison, this educated, literate academic, makes a periodic visit to his home city Leeds to find his parents' gravestone, along with many others, desecrated by drunken Leeds United supporters.

 

"This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.

Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.

One leaning left's marked FUCK, one right's marked SHIT

sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed."

 

His anger and revulsion at the graffiti leads to an imaginary dialogue between a skinhead and the poet in which no linguistic holds are barred.

 

“Aspirations, cunt! Folk on t'fucking dole

'ave got about as much scope to aspire

above the shit they're dumped in, cunt, as coal

aspires to be chucked on t'fucking fire"

 

Harrison gives an extended voice to his protagonist to clearly list the “us and them” of class war, tribal boundaries, race, religion and gender politics. Despite his anger his empathy is with the offender. After all, he has done his “bits of mindless aggro too”.  He too is struggling to accommodate the changes wrought in Leeds. On the bus to the station Harrison's honest observations on the changes to everyday life are searing.

 

"A pensioner in turban taps his stick

along the pavement past the corner shop

that sells samosas now not beer on tick

to the Kashmir Muslim Club that was the Co-op"

 

The poem was written in 1985, during the national miners' strike, a period which saw the country violently polarised, as the embers of the north's industrial revolution flickered to an end, ably hastened by Margaret Thatcher's fire brigade (or more accurately police force, but the metaphor doesn't hold up). Alongside this theme the poet grapples with his own chosen detachment from the situation, looking backwards for moral reference to a world he walked away from and abandoned, liberated through education and talking proper. In realising his parents' aspirations he has only created a gulf between himself as an artist and the people he was made from.

Of course, the return of the long-lost son is a classical theme not wasted on Harrison. He is a character in his own mythology, and like so many of those myths there is no completion or closure as we now say. Tragedy and uncertainty abound.

And then there's the may tree. A hawthorn in bloom at which children in Leeds United kits repeatedly kick their ball at, to dislodge the blossom and dance mockingly in its confetti-like clouds. A reference to the impermanence of finer qualities such as love, or of the shallowness of man's commitment to them? Looking away from the past to the present the poet considers his blessings but even they are tinged with doubt.

 

"I doubt if 30 years of bleak Leeds weather

and 30 falls of apple and of may

will erode the UNITED binding us together.

And now it's your decision: does it stay?"

 

None of these themes was new to Harrison. Similarities abound in his earlier work and he was never averse to blunt Anglo Saxon to drive home a point, or just to describe those visceral acts of everyday life, those physical pre-occupations and drives, that power our troubled lives (or did do when I was younger). The Loiners ( London Magazine editions 1970), one of his first collections, is awash with Rabelasian excess in West Africa, Central Europe or wherever his formidable language skills had taken him. So it was not really a departure for him, a respectable man of the theatre and opera by 1980, to lapse into his vernacular and use the language of the street, not to desecrate the dead but to antagonise the living.

v. had an agonised quality to it the first time round. It was raw and current and screamed for attention, as if a call for help. The issue was too big for one man to deal with. The destruction of the cycle of certainty that had held communities fast was horrible to behold, and its ramifications are still being felt. Strange that that certainty had probably only existed for three generations, riding on the back of Britain's role as workshop of the world.

The natives were ill-equipped to deal with change, and all Harrison could do was stand and empathise. And write poetry. Did it change anything? I doubt it over the last 30 years. The denied and dispossessed are still around, and certainty has long since been out of fashion.

v. the second time round has created few ripples. Perhaps we are deadened to grief and loss with our daily measure of the same from all quarters. There is no news like bad news. The scenario as described by Harrison would make a comedy today about dysfunctional teenagers, eccentric teachers and cardboard politicians. 

It's illuminating to note that v.'s arch enemy the Daily Mail, which originally described the poem as “a torrent of filth”, did not again make a front page issue of its recent BBC outing. Instead it managed to express front page outrage on behalf of the Great British Public at Hilary Mantel's “hurtful” assault on Kate Middleton, a “jointed doll on whom certain robes are hung”. Of course it neither put in context nor gave the full text. From extracts I picked up from the radio, Mantel has nothing but sympathy for a young woman whose breeding habits will preoccupy the columnists for the forseeable.

The orchestration of outrage on behalf of the GBP is a Mail speciality, a perfect foil for its commodification by characters such as Jeremy Kyle. What Richard Eyres called “synthetically created fury” in his contribution to the Radio 4 programme. Such fury didn't kill Harrison's reputation as translator or poet, and I doubt it will impact on Mantel's status as novelist and historian.                                               

The rhyming quatrains of Harrison's elegy on an urban graveyard may not make next century's Golden Treasury but its exploration of layered meaning in language, such as the contradictions and nuances in the abbreviation v. (versus, opposition, victory), and united (in this and the afterlife), should maintain its importance not only as a social record but as testimony to the importance of literacy and communication in a civilised world.

It's too much to expect it will ever make the A-level syllabus but if we hear this stuff in everyday life, if we gratuitously pursue our demons through reality TV, if we insist on subscribing to the commodification and orchestration of outrage, a little intelligent analysis of the subject matter wouldn't go amiss.

Hearing Tony Harrison reading v. is a provoking and emotional experience for someone of my age and background. I urge anyone, young and old to chase it on BBC iPlayer and make your own mind up before it expires. A text copy can be found on the internet at plagiarist.com.

Dave Morgan’s own Leeds poems, owing something to Tony Harrison, Choker and Goldfinches, can be found on Write Out Loud's website 

PHOTOGRAPH: SANDRA LOUSADA

 

 

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Comments

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Frances Spurrier

Tue 26th Feb 2013 11:18

Thanks for a great article Dave. The hypocrisy of the media is unbearable. Screaming hysterically about a few swear words in a poem, while bribery, corruption and phone hacking are endemic.

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Anthony Emmerson

Mon 25th Feb 2013 14:49

Hi Marc. May I make a few observations on your observations Marc?
Little flies are usually fairly unwelcome in anyone’s ointment (unless of course it’s some kind of fly-based ointment/remedy popular in remote tribal cultures.) It’s probably not the most comfortable place to be – in the ointment that is. Ah yes, we are lured in by that irresistible scent of Parma Violets and Toilet Duck, only to find our feet being sucked into that cloying emulsion of oil, water (and various nasty-chemically things with scientific formulae) and our wings pinioned to our sides by a greasy slick of goo. Ooh no, not for me.
Your assertion that nothing beats a hypocrite is a little questionable. I could well imagine some able chap (say with perhaps an interest in medieval re-enactments at the weekends) with a stout stick beating a hypocrite every time – indeed, I would recommend it (especially since the poetry world seems to be so full of them.)
And must it not be concurrently true that those “small talents – sold for far too much” are therefore purchased too dearly? Shame on all buyers of poetry – and a pox on them!
I’ve tried writing poetry whilst patting someone on the back – I simply hadn’t realised it was a competitive sport; to be honest it’s nigh on impossible. Marc – you must have a rare talent, don’t waste it. I’m sure the performance poetry glitterati will soon be beating that well-trodden path to your door when they hear of your unique abilities. In fact I can see you making the big-time with this idea. Just imagine a great circle of poets – all patting and writing at the same time – sort of like “The Tiller Girls” – except with notebooks. Go for it!
This “little club of fools” idea sounds a good one! Is it a bit like Bullingdon – with a hint of Brownies and Tufty thrown in? Do they have cake? I’m all for it – sign me up!

By the way – welcome to WOL Marc (note to self: sounds uncomfortably like Wal-Mart.) Hope you enjoy the friendly and mutually supportive atmosphere here.

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Isobel

Mon 25th Feb 2013 13:26

Is that a criticism of this poem Marc - or of the article and the consensus of enjoyment? I'm just curious.

Some of what you say I'd probably agree with. In every field of art there are people who get on through networking and self publicising. Once people or a poem has a reputation, it becomes hard to say exactly what you think - even if they are a one trick pony.

For many, poetry is a hobby, a means of thrashing ideas around, of communicating with like minded people. Should we really castigate them for supporting fellow poets? On the opposite side of the same coin are the poets who never read or comment on the work of others – just expect the world to revolve around them – is that scenario any better?

If your comment is about the poem, I must admit to finding some of the rhyme contrived. I don't think it's the technique of the poem that makes it newsworthy though. For me it is the ideas. The poem dares to talk about real issues - something many people would shy away from today. Confronting loss of community, alienation, and the potential to be ugly that lies within us all.

Those are my thoughts anyway

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Dave Bradley

Thu 21st Feb 2013 16:40

Really well written Dave. Thank you. The poem is many many things but the word at the top of the pile for me is 'truthful'.

"He took the can, contemptuous, unhurried
and cleared the nozzle and prepared to sign
the UNITED sprayed where mam and dad were buried.
He aerosolled his name. And it was mine."

That was a reminder of Doppelganger by Dory Previn - 15 or so year's previously. A sung poem in which the writer is dismayed to find she is the source of obscenities in her own bathroom. It's got something to do with fascination with one's shadow side....how it reflects and interacts with the dark side of the world around us.

But perhaps one shouldn't be too cerebral about it. Maybe the emotion, the anger, the longing, the ?love are the most important elements of a v v complex poem.

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Dominic Berry

Thu 21st Feb 2013 16:18

thank you for this interesting article. nice one.

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Isobel

Thu 21st Feb 2013 14:03

Crumbs, that was a hell of a long poem to read, with so many layers to it. I think Harrison could probably have made his observations more concisely - but then I don't suppose it would have been the same poem :)

This is a wonderful article Dave. It took me a long time to read and think about the poem. Reading your review afterwards was affirmation of some of my thoughts, plus extra ways of looking at it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Anthony Emmerson

Thu 21st Feb 2013 12:49

Thanks for this excellent article Dave. Much to adsmire and consider.

Alan Pascoe

Thu 21st Feb 2013 12:41

I heard Tony Harrison read V at Bradford Library years ago. One misses his intellect.

In the poem he depicts both violence and lyricism at the same time. It makes art eternal.

Alan Pascoe

darren thomas

Thu 21st Feb 2013 10:23

Really enjoyed reading this Mr Morgan. Thanks for sharing.

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Louise Coulson

Thu 21st Feb 2013 10:21

Really interesting and thought provoking review in regards to how v could be considered today.

The children playing football, kicking the Hawthorn tree both joyous and heartbreaking.

I had never read nor listened this poem before but will be revisiting as there is so much to take in consider and possibly respond to.

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Paul Sands

Wed 20th Feb 2013 20:03

Wonderful broadcast and a cool headed thoughtful write Dave

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