BBC Radio Four have recently announced their intention to broadcast the full version of Tony Harrison's poem V. This interests me greatly as when it was scheduled on Channel 4 a few years ago it caused controversy near hysteria and nearly gave the Daily Mail a heart attack! (And I'm all in favour of anything that kills off the Daily Mail....)
Harrison is one of Britain's most famous poets, renowned for not only his own poetry but his authoritative translations of several classical works, most notably The Oresteia.
V is a multi stanza rhyming poem that tells of Harrison’s true life experience in going to the graveyard in Beeston Hill, Leeds where his parents are buried to find that their graves had been desecrated with sprayed expletives and the V sign - representing the versus of the various football loyalties close to the United ground.
If buried ashes saw then I'd survey
the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek,
and left, the ground where Leeds United play
but disappoint their fans week after week,
Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem
and taking a short cut home through these graves here
they reassert the glory of their team
by spraying words on tombstones, pissed on beer.
The V (a pun on versus/verses) takes on a greater symbolism throughout the poem as it comes to represent the divide between rich and poor, living and dead, educated and illiterate, young and old, left and right, communist and fascist. Through the exploration of the divide, Harrison expresses both his own pain at the desecration and the pains of the imaginary skinhead youth responsible for the graffiti to whom he sincerely wishes he could credit with a greater purpose than mindless vandalism. We see Harrison reaching out to idealism to make sense of the mess and to allay his own fears of violence without motivation,
Though I don't believe in afterlife at all
and know it's cheating it's hard not to make
a sort of furtive prayer from this skin's scrawl,
his UNITED mean 'in Heaven' for their sake,
An accident of meaning to redeem
an act intended as mere desecration
and make the thoughtless spraying of his team
apply to higher things, and to the nation.”
Harrison's attempts to understand, justify and exonerate the skinhead are the backbone of the poem, with the inevitable collapse into failure as youth and age fail to meet across the widening chasm of the versus.
‘The only reason why I write this poem at all
on yobs like you who do the dirt on death
's to give some higher meaning to your scrawl.'
Don't fucking bother, cunt! Don't waste your breath!
'You piss-artist skinhead cunt, you wouldn't know
and it doesn't fucking matter if you do,
the skin and poet united fucking Rimbaud
but the autre that je est is fucking you.'
As the poem reaches its conclusion we clearly see the divide within Harrison himself - the skin head graffiti scrawler representing his working roots and the middle aged poet trying to defend (to himself?) how he has travelled so far from both his youth and his own working class Yorkshire background.
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.
You get the feeling with V that it was write it or go mad. The torrent of emotion unleashed in the lines of the poem needed to be released and as a poet Harrison had the perfect outlet to do it. Interestingly enough there is a clear parallel between the educated Harrison expressing his frustrations on paper and the uneducated skinhead scrawling his frustrations on the graves. Which of course is the message Harrison intended to convey all along.
V is a brilliant poem and like many brilliant poems it would probably have been consigned to academic obscurity were it not for the vernacular employed by Harrison in his work. V is sadly best known as "that poem with the C word." I believe our literate friends at the Daily Mail actually went through and counted how many times each different expletive appears......information they triumphantly served up to their (presumably equally philistine readers) in an article expressing outrage that such filth can be shown on national television (at eleven o clock on channel 4....)
Now you can't deny that some of the language in Mr Harrison's poem might seem a bit fruity for the average dinner party. But as an emotionally honest reaction to what must have been a pretty devastating discovery, Harrison's words hit the mark. Equally, I doubt his portrayal of the sneering skinhead would have been as effective if the lad has spoken BBC English. In making the decision to eschew the stuffy taboo about naughty words, Harrison brings a realism into his work that only adds to the poignancy of his own very genuine reaction at the state of his parents graves.
Of course you can't expect any in depth literary criticism in the Daily Mail. They'll have missed all the layers of meaning because they were too busy making their tally of the rude words. Which is a shame, because if the papers were a bit more focused on literary merit and a bit less focused on creating scandal where it doesn’t need to exist then a lot more people would be exposed to a lot more good poetry. Although, contrarily, I could be wrong - possibly the best thing the papers could do is to go ahead and condemn the poem. For as a consequence of all this publicity far more people will read it than ever would have done…… And to me that’s a win for good poetry and a sound defeat for narrow minded literature fascism....
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