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To what extent can Tony Harrison’s poem v. be considered an elegy for a passing culture?
When first broadcast on Channel 4 in 1987 Tony Harrison’s long poem v. caused a furore, mainly in the popular press. Famously, the Daily Mail condemned it as ‘featuring a torrent of four-letter filth’ (Harrison, 1989, p.40), and a number of other, principally tabloid newspapers published critical articles and columns which helpfully totted up for their readers the number of swear words used in the poem. In the House of Commons an Early Day Motion was proposed on 27th October 1987, calling upon Channel 4 not to broadcast the poem on the grounds that it featured a ‘stream of obscenities’ (Harrison, 1989, p.60). For a brief period Harrison’s poem was a battleground fought over by conservative and liberal opinion concerning freedom of expression in the media.
That so much attention was paid to the use of ‘bad language’ in the poem may be at least partly explained by Harrison’s innovative development of the film poem medium (see Harrison, 1995), which meant that v. gained the sort of exposure otherwise closed off to contemporary poetry in Britain. This suspicion is to some extent supported by the observation that the poem had appeared in print in 1985 and caused not much of a stir beyond the fairly small readership for contemporary poetry. However, the main point here is that such a focus upon the ‘controversial’ nature of the language of the poem might distract us from its main concerns and strengths. In a newspaper article written in support of v. Blake Morrison described it as ‘a real state-of-the-nation poem’ (Harrison, 1989, p.57), and said that the real ‘shock’ delivered by the poem is that ‘it describes unflinchingly what is meant by a divided society’ (Harrison, 1989, p.56). Such an assessment identifies the political character of v., a poem written at the time of the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5, which is often considered to be not only the most bitterly fought industrial conflict of the post-war era in Britain, but also the event which brought about the end of that era and of a whole class and its way of life, especially in the North of England. It is for this latter that v. may be said to be an elegy, an elegy which has both personal and collective dimensions.
Traditionally, as a genre the elegy has been seen as providing consolation to those who have lost someone they have loved or valued. According to Jahan Ramazani, the elegy has had the propensity ‘to translate grief into consolation’ (1994, p.3). Ramazani cites such examples as John Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Percy Shelley’s Adonais as elegies which end with their subjects affixed in the firmament or in the landscape as permanent, transcendent entities whose light will never fade (1994, pp.3-4). Much the same tendency may also be found in Rupert Brooke’s self-elegy ‘The Soldier’ (1914), in which the speaker offers the compensation that after his death ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ (see Ramazani, 1994, p.70). For the purposes of a discussion of Harrison’s v., however, it is arguably the most famous example of the elegy in the English language which has the most relevance – Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751). That relevance is partly founded on the fact that Gray’s poem was apparently prompted by the writer’s contemplation of the churchyard in Stoke Poges where his mother was buried, just as Harrison’s poem arises from a visit made to the family plot in Holbeck Cemetery in Leeds. Moreover, like Harrison’s, Gray’s poem is a self-elegy concluding with a self-composed epitaph for the speaker, as well as being an elegy for the nameless ‘rude forefathers’ (Price (ed.), 1973, p.662, l.16) mouldering away in their unmarked, or crudely inscribed graves in the churchyard. In these ways, Gray’s poem combines both personal and impersonal or collective elements.
Tony Harrison has explicitly acknowledged his use of Gray’s ‘Elegy’ in discussions of v. (see, for example, BBC, 2011). In doing so, Harrison focusses upon his use of Gray’s metre, stanza and alternate rhyme scheme (although, it should be said that he employs rhymed iambic pentameter organised into quatrains in many of his best known poems). For Harrison, to write using such versification is important in making his poetry accessible to a wider audience, but also it may be said that he employs such forms for subversive purposes – to take the traditional forms of poetry and fill them with explicitly political, if not ‘confrontational’ content. In an interview with John Tusa on Radio 3 in 2011 Harrison talked of v. as ‘a rage in an urban churchyard’ (BBC, 2011), and of his purpose being to find a voice for that ‘rage’ rather than melancholic reflection. If the humble dead scattered about Stoke Poges are for Gray largely anonymous, for Harrison they are family, or substantial people, in more than one sense. However, in the poem Harrison communicates his sense of division with regards to his relationship with the people who occupy the grave-plots in Holbeck Cemetery and to his origins in the working class community of Beeston Hill in Leeds more generally. It could be said that v. is an elegy for his parents (both of whom had died only a few years before the poem was written), and is also an elegy for the working class community and culture from which they and Harrison came, a community slowly dying from the process of de-industrialisation hastened along by the Thatcherite economic policies of the 1980s. However, in addition it may be said that the poem constitutes an elegy for the poet’s own lost connection with and belonging to the community and family in which he was brought up.
At the beginning of the poem the speaker takes us on a tour of the tombs and memorials of the solid citizens who made up the community of Beeston Hill in the past – ‘Wordsworth’, who ‘built church organs’, ‘Byron’, who ‘tanned/luggage cowhide in the age of steam’ (1989, p.7). Of course, Harrison makes effective ironic use of these names, playing with our recognition of them as the names of central figures in the canon of English poetry, whilst simultaneously pulling the rug from beneath the feet of our expectations. As Helmut Haberkam points out, Harrison’s description of himself as ‘bard’ in the opening stanza of the poem suggests ‘the romantic idea of the vates’ (1994, p.92), or prophetic poet, which was popularised by the likes of Thomas Gray in the 18th century (Gray even wrote a poem of that name). However, Harrison immediately undermines this (quite literally) in the following stanza by revealing that the graveyard sits above the galleries of an old coal mine which one day in the future will cause his grave and those of ‘the distinguished dead to drop/into the rabblement of bone and rot’ (1989, p.7). So, rather than being set apart as a figure with a specially privileged vision, Harrison implies that he in fact will end up where he began, amongst the ‘rabblement’ of ‘butcher, publican, and baker’ (1989, p.7), thus, according to Haberkam, validating the idea of the poet ‘as a socially responsive and responsible contemporary’ (1994, p.92).
However, the scenario developed in the poem by Harrison from this point on radically puts into question his entitlement to represent poetically the community and culture to which he used to belong. We learn that whilst his father would come home ‘with clay stains on his trouser knees’ every week after having tended his mother’s grave, Harrison’s visits to their graves have been more sporadic and of shorter duration (‘odd ten minutes such as these’ (1989, p.12)). What seems to be implied is that the work of remembrance is precisely that – a matter of the hard graft of ritual and routine, of tending graves in practice but also, by so doing, maintaining links with the past and the dead by making them part of our lives in the present. Although Harrison is ‘horrified’ by the obscene and racist graffiti he finds sprayed on the graves, he is forced to ask the question ‘who’s to blame’, the drunken Leeds Utd fans who rampage through the graveyard, or people like himself, who left Leeds ‘for work or fuller lives’ (1989, p.12), people whose relationship with their origins might be said to be, at least, ambivalent.
In order to convey this ambivalence towards his origins and his sense of loss, Harrison – whose first successes, it should be remembered, were as a dramatic poet – employs dialogue and character. The sight of the racist and obscene graffiti causes the anguished Harrison earnestly to question their meaning and their cause:
But why inscribe these graves with CUNT and SHIT?
Why choose neglected tombstones to disfigure?
What is it that these crude words are revealing?
What is it that this aggro act implies?
Giving the dead their xenophobic feeling
or just a cri-de-coeur that man dies? (1989, pp.16-17)
However, at this point another voice – that of an unemployed skinhead – interjects violently: ‘So, what’s a cri-de-coeur, Cunt? Can’t you speak/the language that yer mam spoke ‘(1989, p.17). From this point in the poem onwards, Harrison is engaged in an increasingly desperate dialogue with the skinhead (his ‘alter ego’ (1989, p.31)), who taunts the poet for his claim to ‘represent’ people such as himself: ‘Don’t talk to me of fucking representing/the class yer were born into any more…/Who needs/yer fucking poufy words. Ah write me own.’ (1989, p.22).
For a poet who throughout his writing life has documented his struggle to give voice to the experience and culture of the community in which he was brought up (in the well-known poem ‘Them and [Uz]’, for example (Harrison, 2003 (3rd ed.) pp.102-3), the skinhead’s question is a crucial one, and one for which the only answer Harrison has seems to be to re-enact that struggle dramatically and poetically. Michael Thurston writes that whereas Thomas Gray can peacefully contemplate his elegiac resources in the quiet context of graveyards, Harrison is called on to defend both poetry and his own poetic practice against claims lodged by a spokesman for history’s victims (2009, p.148).
By this reckoning, the traditional compensations made available by the elegy form – the assurance offered by the poet that the subject of the elegy will achieve a permanence and a transcendence in the shape of the elegy itself – are dependent upon a tacit agreement that the poet may legitimately represent the absent subject. This assurance, however, is denied to Harrison, for whom ‘all the versuses of life’ (1989, p.11) – the political conflicts that divided Thatcherite Britain, ‘class v. class as bitter as before,/the unending violence of US and THEM,/personified in 1984/by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM’ (1989, p,11) – these conflicts extend into the graveyard itself and into the poetry and the language employed by Harrison. According to Terry Eagleton, ‘Harrison is a natural Bakhtinian’, for whom language itself ‘is a terrain of struggle where opposing accents intersect’ (1991, p.349).
The skinhead with whom Harrison engages in the poem may well be alienated from the community which spawned him (from both its past and its present) but, unemployed and xenophobic as he is, he may also be more representative of that community than the poet could ever hope to be. Moreover, the skinhead sees Harrison himself as the class enemy, as one of those who speaks down to him, treats him like he is ‘dumb’ (1989, p.19). He has his own words and way of expressing them, which in the end may be just as valid as those ‘brief chisellable bits from the good book’ (1989, p.10) engraved on the gravestones which the graffiti obscure, or those of Harrison himself. However, although the conflict enacted by Harrison in the poem would seem to put into doubt his right to commemorate and to speak for the community which the skinhead’s very presence would appear to mark as having past, this in itself is rendered ambiguous by the revelation that the ‘foul-mouthed’ disaffected skinhead and the polyglot cultured poet are one and the same (‘He aerosolled his name. And it was mine.’ (1989, p.22)). The words that the skinhead has spoken throughout the poem have been Harrison’s, and the skinhead himself, as Harrison has made clear, is what he may have become if he had not benefited from the 1944 Education Act which enabled him to go to Leeds Grammar School (BBC, 2011).
So, in the end, the skinhead is revealed as the ghost of the life that Harrison did not lead – one where he stayed in Leeds, found himself subject to social and economic forces beyond his control or understanding, and was ultimately dumped on the slag heap. The poem has been, by this account, an elegy for that lost life.
BBC (2011) The John Tusa Interviews: Tony Harrison. [Online]. Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nc89r [Accessed 30th October 2015]
EAGLETON, T. (1991) Antagonisms. In ASTLEY, N. (1991) Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies: 1: Tony Harrison. Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books (pp.348-50).
GRAY, T. (1751) ‘Elegy written in a Country Churchyard’. In PRICE, M. (1973) The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press (pp.661-5).
HABERKAM, H. (1994) These Vs. are all the Versuses of Life. In BARFOOT, C. (ed.) In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry. Amsterdam: Rodopi Press (pp.79-94).
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RAMAZANI, J. (1994) Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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