Robert M. Gray, Jr.
'Listen, cunt!' I said, 'before you start your jeering,
the reason why I want this in a book
's to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing!'
A book, yer stupid cunt, 's not worth a fuck!
'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! (v. 10)
One of Tony Harrison's chief, stated tasks as a poet is to give a voice to the inarticulate, oppressed masses, and the above passage from his poem, v., appears to be a straightforward exclamation of that task, but it is also an exclamation of the difficulties and ultimate failure of such a task. That is why the above passage is so important. The poem's own pointing out of the futility of such aspirations completely undermines the poet's stated intention, which leads him to ponder the "higher meaning" that is suggested in the passage. This higher meaning is difficult to sort out in the poem, but it rests primarily in the poem's attempt to find the place of poetry amid the countless antagonisms of modern capitalist society. Harrison is well aware of these antagonisms, and the power of his poetry rests in his unique way of consciously incorporating them into his poetry. His method attempts the dialectical reconciliation of several opposites, which he explicitly attempts in v. He tells us that "V." means versus, "all the versuses of life" (5), and the poem is an honest but largely futile attempt to reconcile those versuses wherever possible.
v. is set in a graveyard. Harrison is making his annual visit to his parents' grave, and the conglomeration of emotions at this site, created by the blending sentiments of family, class, and mortality, is juxtaposed with the dissension and aggression of shockingly obscene graffiti sprayed on the tombstones by angry skinheads. This leads him into a meditation that begins with a central theme in all of Harrison’s poetry, his alienation from his family and class that was brought on through education and his subsequent social mobility. He was able to transcend class boundaries, and as a poet he hopes somehow to achieve reconciliation by giving a voice to those inarticulate masses he has left behind. He attempts to reconnect with his roots in the first few lines and feignedly brings two long dead, but aptly named, laborers into the picture to break down his self-imposed class barriers, as well as the culturally imposed barriers between the working classes and poetry.
With Byron three graves on I'll not go short
of company, and Wordsworth's opposite.
That's two peers already, of a sort,
* * *
Wordsworth built church organs, Byron tanned
luggage cowhide in the age of steam (3).
These names (I don't know whether this is fortunate circumstance or clever fictionalization) make his occupation seem less out of place amid the butchers, publicans, and bakers when he considers his own gravestone erected beside his family's. As a poet and successful playwright, a member of the cultured, educated, and privileged middle class, he has betrayed his roots. This betrayal saddles him with guilt, but he refuses to go back because it is only as a poet that he can hope to achieve his task.
v. is an elegy. It is based on Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," but where Gray primarily mourns for the "mute inglorious" left forgotten in the churchyard, Harrison extends his mourning to a much wider scale. He is mourning the silence of the millions of English working-class people who have throughout history lived anonymously in "unremitting toil." He is one of the precious few able to escape a future of silence and is able to find some comfort that he will achieve a sort of immortality, an escape from anonymity through his poetic voice. He begins much like Gray in that he mourns the people in the graveyard, but that mourning is colored by his guilt and internal separation, as well as his external material separation from those dead, particularly his parents. His mourning then moves to society, especially the strike-torn industrial areas like his hometown Leeds (the poem was written during the 1984 miners' strike). The primary elegiac function of the poem, however, occurs in a heated argument that the poet has with a graffiti spraying skinhead, who later turns out to be his alter ego. The argument concerns the role of poetry and questions its usefulness in social reality, a concern that runs allegorically throughout the poem. Harrison is mourning for poetry and its diminishing importance and power in advanced monopoly capitalism, but in the process, he presents a powerful picture of class conflict, especially the class conflict within his poetic form and within himself.
Harrison was born into an uneducated, working-class home in northern industrial England and became estranged from his family and class through the opportunity of higher education. The British educational system granted the brightest working-class children access to selective grammar schools in what Ken Warpole calls "one of the most effective pre-emptive attacks on the possibility of a popular working-class socialist politics in this century" (63), and the strategy has apparently worked. Harrison and the vast majority of the others escaped their proletariat "chains" and separated themselves from their families and hometowns. This division is very important to Harrison's poetry. His earlier sonnet sequence, The School of Eloquence, gains much of its power from his deep regret for the separation that books created between his parents and himself, a separation that can never be reconciled because of his parents' death, and that most likely would have never been reconciled anyway. This separation is demonstrated further in v., but there is a certain distance from his parents in this later poem. He has begun to come to terms with that separation, but their death has separated him even more from Leeds and his class origins.
The fundamental opposition in the poem comes out of these deep internal separations. It is, as in virtually all lyric poetry, self v. other, but in Harrison, a great deal of the other is himself. He has betrayed his humble beginnings in order to become, essentially, one of the enemy, a member of the middle-class, and this has a vital impact on his form as well as his content. His ability to incorporate traditional "high" verse forms with a contemporary world view and "low" diction transforms the individual conflict of his poetic subject into a historical and universal symptom of society.
All of these separations are central to his form. Much of his language is simple because he admits he'd "like to be the poet [his] father reads," but it is not that simple. The School of Eloquence, where he makes that statement, is full of difficult allusions and vocabulary that make it truly a privileged discourse. And although he regrets that he can no longer speak his "mam's" language, this regret is strangely qualified in his poetry. Harrison's sense of betrayal toward his rejected class is evident throughout v., but this pales in comparison to his sense of loyalty to his acquired one. He demonstrates this by concluding a seemingly innocent and somewhat linguistically simple meditation, in which he ponders the nature of the crude language sprayed on the tombstones and wonders if it is "just a cri-de-coeur because man dies" (9). The phrase, cri-de-coeur, is certainly a simple enough term for elevated poetry, but it is hardly the language of the Leeds working class. This is a conscious betrayal of his roots, as well as of his purpose of giving voice to the masses, and suggests that his separation is truly deep indeed. What follows in the poem is a dialogue with the skinhead that reinforces that separation and even calls attention to it by pointing out the ignorance of the skinhead by having him mistake the French for Greek.
cri-de-coeur, cunt? Can't yer speak
So what's a
the language that yer mam spoke? Think of 'er!
Can yer only get yer tongue round fucking Greek?
Go and fuck yourself with cri-de-coeur!
'She didn't talk like you do for a start!'
I shouted, turning where I thought the voice had been.
She didn't understand yer fucking art!
She thought yer fucking poetry obscene! (9)
Despite his regret for the separation, he boldly betrays any consideration of his parents or his forsaken class in regard to his poetry and certainly doesn't mind widening his separation from his roots by making his poetry inaccessible, for the most part, to the uneducated for whom he is allegedly speaking.
v. doesn't include as much of what Bruce Woodcock calls Harrison's "cryptic word play" as some of his other work, primarily because it deals expressly with the role of poetry as a voice for the oppressed and is, therefore, more overtly political in its intent, more explicit about social divisions. But all of his poetry is very learned and to a certain extent is just plain difficult. All of this erudition is juxtaposed with the Leeds working-class dialect of his parents and childhood, and this conflict of language and codes alone makes all of his poetry political. Unfortunately, most of the resulting power is lost except to the well-trained reader. Woodcock quotes a "well-read friend" as saying, "Harrison's got too much Latin for me" (56). If this is the voice of the silent masses, it is an articulation that none of them would have expected or especially wanted. Harrison is clearly aware of this problem, as is the skinhead.
Don't talk to me of fucking representing
the class yer were born into anymore.
Yer going to get 'urt and start resenting
it's not poetry we need in this class war.
Yer've given yerself toffee, cunt. Who needs
yer fucking poufy words. Ah write mi own.
Ah've got mi work on show all over Leeds
Like this UNITED 'ere on some sod's stone. (12)
Not only does the skinhead demonstrate the futility of poetry as a social liberator, he also suggests the shocking possibility that it is essentially no different than his own graffiti, a mere form of self-expression and release. Indeed, the skinhead might even have a bigger audience.
This severely compromises Harrison's intended role for poetry, and the role of the poet already seems uncomfortable for him. The class divisions and the realization of the futility in his giving a voice to the inarticulate are only part of the problem. Not only do the working classes know that poetry will not bring emancipation, they simply aren't fond of poets. The job of the poet is not seen as a particularly useful or revered occupation.
This lot worked at one job all life through.
Byron, 'Tanner,' Lieth 'ere interred!
They'll chisel fucking poet when they do you
and that, yer cunt, 's a crude four-letter word.
It is also not seen as particularly masculine. This causes an uneasiness that runs through much of Harrison's poetry. In his poem "The Act" (in V. and Other Poems), he worries about the serviceman beside him on a plane discovering that he is a poet and branding him a "freak" or "queer."
This illuminates one of the most intriguing aspects of v., the poet's defensive reaction when called a "cunt" simply for being a poet. The sophisticated, middle-class poet has to this point spoken in a traditionally dignified voice and has only read aloud the "repertoire of blunt four-letter curses" to demonstrate the offensiveness of the graffiti in such a solemn setting. He is truly offended by the desecration, but when the skinhead questions his masculinity because of his "occupation," the poet immediately answers "Listen cunt!" (10). His manhood has been challenged, and he responds by giving that greatest demonstration of manhood, shouting an endless string of obscenities that seeks not only to prove his own manhood but to undercut his accuser's. But more than his manhood, his class identity is challenged. There is a deep sublimated guilt that is revealed in his burst of anger. He is not out only to prove that he is not a sissy; he wants to prove he is one of the rebels. But a middle-class poet cannot truly be a working-class rebel, so in his boldest move in the poem, he tries to overcome this difficulty by revealing that the skinhead is actually his alter ego.
'If you're so proud of it then sign your name
when next you're full of HARP and armed with spray,
next time you take this shortcut from the game.'
He took the can, contemptuous, unhurried
and cleared the nozzle and prepared to sign
the UNITED sprayed where Mam and Dad were buried.
He aerosoled his name, and it was mine. (13)
The poet is now the vandal, and his class position allows his voice to be heard outside the graveyard. He can't give them a voice, so he disguises his own. Harrison is reading their poetry on the gravestones. He gives them a voice by reading it aloud.
Lukács argued that "the truly social element in literature is the form," and Harrison's traditional versification demonstrates the deep social divisions in his poetry. First of all, his use of Gray's traditional rhyme and meter seems to make his poetry available to more people as poetry, especially to those who do not read much poetry, but at the same time it tends to initially turn off modern critics who reject such outworn conventions. It attempts to be "poetry" in the sense of what his non-verbal constituents, to whom he proposes to give voice, consider poetry. "Their" poetry, in order to be theirs, must be what they would clearly recognize as poetry, short stanzas with regular rhyme and meter, but although he wants this poetry to be theirs, he knows that it can't, for if it were it would have no political moment. To give them a voice that is heard, it must be the poetry of, or at least for, the bourgeois.
Harrison's regular meter and rhyme call attention to themselves as something different, something simultaneously regressive and ambitious, outdated and strangely refreshing. Furthermore, according to Theodor Adorno, art's opposition to the real world is its form. By making his poetry so regularly structured, Harrison is able to demonstrate the fracture and opposition in the real world simply by setting it against his ordered structure. The tension created by juxtaposing his lower-class vernacular with his middle-class learning and attitudes, and then placing all of this into iambic pentameter only reinforces this further. When this is combined with the complicated play between opposites that make up the content, Harrison is able to achieve a starkly accurate representation of the social tensions in England during the miners' strike.
Harrison's form can easily be read as what Raymond Williams calls a "crisis of technique." He is encountering a crisis in the relationship of art and society and brilliantly reflects this in his versification that paradoxically merges the residual with the emergent. It simultaneously adheres to convention and explodes it. He borrows a traditional form and creates a new one. Combining lower-class diction and profanity with traditional verse, he is able to create a profound shock that is sustained through his artistry. His poetic genius demands his canonicity, but he remains subversive, right on the margins of bourgeois culture. v. is regularly sold in commercial bookstores and has even been read on the BBC, but not without considerable conservative resistance.
Furthermore, that v. is a poem raises many questions about class. Poetry, at least "serious" poetry, of which v. certainly is, is very much a privileged discourse and is limited almost exclusively to a bourgeois audience. Working class poetry, at least to most of the literary establishment, is essentially an oxymoron. There are, of course, folk songs and the like, which are certainly a type of poetry, but they are not generally considered to be "serious" or "literary," except perhaps by Marxist or other "leftist" critics. In any case, whether or not there is a distinction (which is heavily under debate in the academy), Harrison's intended bourgeois audience certainly would believe there to be one, and that is a major means by which v. strives for incorporation.
Another class factor suggested by v.’s being a poem is the excessive use of profanity. It is quite evident that such language is terribly shocking in a poem, but interestingly, much of the shock is due to the fact that it is in a poem. Such language is hardly noticed in a popular motion picture or even a novel. The language is shocking in poetry because it is in poetry, a form of discourse too dignified for such base exhortations. The extreme formality of the verse intensifies the effect. Despite the profanity, there is little that could be considered obscene in the poem, only the repetition of a few socially unacceptable words that happen to be staples of working-class speech and are rarely used in their literal sense.
The first crucial moment in the poem is when Harrison initially sets out many of the senseless battlegrounds that divide humanity, when he defines the meaning of the Vs.
These Vs are all the versuses of life
from LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White
and (as I've known to my cost) man v. wife,
Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right,
class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the N.U.M.,
Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought out on 's Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past never found. (5)
Of course this list comes from the heightened sensibility and consciousness of the poet, not from that of the oppressed masses who are trapped under and blinded by the hegemony of the ruling class. The Vs in the graveyard sprayed by skinheads are merely "a repertoire of blunt four-letter curses / on the team or race that makes the sprayer vexed" (5). This displacement of anger is due to a lack of class consciousness, and as Lukács points out in History and Class Consciousness,
if from the vantage point of a particular class the totality of existing society is not visible, . . . then such a class is doomed to play only a subordinate role . . . . Such classes are normally condemned to passivity, . . . and if perchance they do erupt then such explosions are purely elemental and aimless. (52)
This passage gets remarkably to the heart of v. The skinheads clearly see their conditions, understand that they are in a class war and are willing to fight, but rather than seeing that their oppressors are those above them who control and ultimately extinguish the amount of work through greed and bad management, they fail to strike at the heart of the totality and blame their misfortune on the minority groups who have "stolen" their jobs. Of course these groups have come to England in the first place because the bourgeois imperialists have abolished their chance of livelihood in their homeland. Thus in failing to see the totality, the skinheads are reduced to frustrated passivity, their eruptions and explosions reduced to essentially harmless graffiti, nothing more than a temporary release of steam.
This "unconsciousness" creates much of the tension in the poem. The skinheads, with their neo-fascist notions of ethnic superiority, are blinded by this false consciousness, and because of their privileging of ethnic consciousness over class consciousness, they are pushed blindly beneath the minority groups, into opposition with those whom they most need to be aligned, by their fellow "WASPs," the bourgeoisie. Yet ironically, they blame the minorities for their plight. Harrison, of course, recognizes this.
The prospects of the present aren't too grand
when a swastika with NF (National Front) 's
sprayed on a grave, to which another hand
has added, in a reddish colour, CUNTS.
Which is, I grant, the word that springs to mind
when, going to clear the weeds and rubbish thrown
on the family grave by football fans, I find
UNITED graffitied on my parents' stone. (6)
It is his retreat from the unpleasant realities of the present prospects that leads him into the poem's central reflection. He seeks hope for a solution in the word "UNITED," a fortunate pun in that it is the name of the Leeds soccer team, but before he gets too far into this reflection, he considers the motivations behind the graffiti and quickly notices the parallels to capitalist advertising.
Some, where kids use aerosols, use giant signs
to let the people know who's forged their fetters
* * *
The big blue star for booze, tobacco ads,
the magnate's monogram, the royal crest,
insignia in neon dwarf the lads
who spray a few odd FUCKS when they're depressed.
Letters of transparent tubes and gas
in Dusseldorf are blue and flash out KRUPP.
Arms are hoisted for the British ruling class
and clandestine, genteel aggro keeps them up. (8)
Harrison then carries the parallel to his own name being up in Broadway lights and his poetry being in books, connecting the skinheads' art to his own as attempts at notoriety and self-expression, but unfortunately the essence of the motivations lies in the last line quoted above. The graffiti is a parallel to the "clandestine, genteel aggro" of the bourgeois ideological hegemony that perpetuates the skinheads' oppression. It is a misplaced attempt to rebel against the hegemony that ironically serves to support it.
The primary conflict in the poem, however, is within Harrison himself. It is his internal conflict of class identity and his overwhelming feelings of separation that lead him into the meditation of the poem. He returns to the word "UNITED" graffitied on his parent's stone.
I look at this word graffitied by some drunk
and I'm in half a mind to let it stay.
* * *
I know this world's so torn but want no other
except for Dad who'd hoped from 'the Beyond'
a better life than this one with my mother.
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 means '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. (7)
It is to this scrawl that he wants to give "higher meaning." Through this one word, "UNITED," he nurtures a hope that we can somehow rid ourselves of "all these Vs: against! against! against!" (9). This hope is severely compromised, however, when he realizes that the skinhead is his alter ego, and therefore that his poetry is essentially nothing more than an act of desecration, a temporary release of steam. "UNITED" is just a word "on some sod's stone." His optimism fades as he makes his way to his train, and his journey through his old hometown, made familiar to us in The School of Eloquence, convinces him that the versuses of society and modern life are simply too much to overcome. This lack of hope for any meaningful reconciliation on a social level is what ultimately leads him to alienation and a retreat into his own individualism. This retreat leads him to a desperate formulation of attempted reconciliation.
Home, home to my woman, home to bed
where opposites are sometimes unified. (15)
This qualified utopianism of sexual unity is a considerable step down from what he had hoped, but it is all he has left. There is a redemptive aspect to this intimacy, but he doesn't find it very comforting. The oppositions are what dominate his thoughts as his wife comes to bed, and there is no evidence that she becomes anything more than a distraction.
I hear like ghosts from all Leeds matches humming
with one concerted voice the bride, the bride
I feel united to, my bride is coming
into the bedroom, naked, to my side.
The ones we choose to love become our anchor
when the hawser of the blood tie 's hacked or frays.
But a voice that scorns chorales is yelling: Wanker!
It's the aerosoling skin I met today's.
My alter ego wouldn't want to know it,
his aerosol vocab would balk at LOVE,
the skin's UNITED underwrites the poet,
the measures carved below the ones above. (17-8)
This passage presents some rather difficult questions about love as a solution. If the act of union occurs in this first stanza, it does so with little fanfare, and the next stanza appropriates it merely as a necessary replacement for family. Also, the class for which he is writing, the scrawl for those whom he intends to make audible, will not buy his solution of LOVE, so his poetic mission is again compromised. Love may be a solution for him in his comfortable home with his comfortable income, but not for the oppressed masses, not for his parents.
All of this essentially accomplishes what Adorno says art is supposed to accomplish:
while firmly rejecting the appearance of reconciliation, art none the less holds fast to the idea of reconciliation in an antagonistic world . . . without a perspective on peace art would be untrue, just as untrue as it is when it anticipates a state of reconciliation. (Aesthetic Theory 48 and 366, quoted in Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic 354)
Even though Harrison cannot honestly expect significant reconciliation, he must continue to hope; that is why his marriage bed is utopian. The poem clearly cannot be called a utopian poem in the traditional sense, but because of its largely Marxist political motivation, it must have a degree of utopianism. This is not to say that Harrison is naively seeking a "green and pleasant land" of idyllic social paradise, but he is not without hope either. This is demonstrated, however subtly, as we shall see, by the poem's conclusion.
In The English Utopia, A. L. Morton argues, correctly I believe, that positive literary utopias are no longer relevant. A pastoral News from Nowhere-land would be terribly inappropriate for Harrison's purposes, but all utopianism isn't positive. The most powerful utopias, Swift's Gulliver's Travels for instance, are negative utopias that are drawn from historical, material reality, not from ahistorical, abstract notions of Truth or harmony, and Harrison's presentation of contemporary, Thatcher England is a negative utopia of the first order. Every aspect of the poem's form, content, and meaning is a biting social criticism, a vivid illustration of everything the world should not be.
This is not to say that Harrison expects that this or any poem will play a significant part in righting some of the wrongs in England or anywhere else, but his cynicism and anger are not yet, or likely to become, despair. But if his poetry cannot make a difference in the world and if his honorable intentions of giving voice to the voiceless are by his own admission "not worth a fuck!," then why is there so much bother on his or our parts? If it is the nature of poetry that it is a privileged discourse and that, no matter how it strives to be otherwise, virtually only takes place in academic circles, then the only people who will hear its call to tear down all of these boundaries and oppositions are those who have already heard the call elsewhere and have most likely done some of the calling themselves. Unfortunately, Auden was right; "poetry makes nothing happen," at least on wide social and political levels, and this causes Harrison's poetic retreat into his marriage bed. It is the best he can do, a postmodern version of the egotistical sublime.
This compromised sublime raises several problems for Harrison and his poem. In v., this sublime is not reached in his bed; it is only implied through poetry. The poet retreats from these versuses into his verses. The only thing left to do is retreat, and the only place left to go is into poetry itself.
This move also might not be entirely sufficient. It is certainly not a solution to any of the problems set out in the poem. Terry Eagleton, in his review of v., seems to want the poem to offer solutions. He criticizes the poem for not being angry enough, or even Marxist enough, and for merely seeking an end to division and not for an end to oppression through a radical call for revolution. That, however, is not the aim of the poem, nor would it be an especially appropriate one, even for a Marxist. As Engels points out in his letter to Minna Kautsky (November 26, 1885),
the author is not obliged to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes.
Engels is discussing novels, but these guidelines would certainly apply to Harrison's poetry. Poetry, as a form, is at the present time more privileged and bourgeois than the novel, and because of this, Engels' next comments in the letter relate directly to v. Indeed, he seems to be talking directly about it when he says that a literary work
fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real relations it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning these relations, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instills doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists.
v. truly accomplishes the mission of the socialist problem novel, but we must remember that it is also a poem, in the truest sense. It is an artistic self-expression of its author, and therefore, indirectly, of its society, but it does not in any sense aspire to be a piece of propaganda. It may have political significance, but it doesn't have a political agenda.
Perhaps the most powerful social commentary, however, is the conspicuous absence of work in the poem. It is not that Harrison ignores work, but rather that there is no work to be had. He makes this even more conspicuous by referring to the dead by their occupations. The most obvious demonstration of the lack of work is the skinhead's speech on being unemployed. He harbors deep resentment toward the dead because they are defined by their occupations, by their labor, and he has nothing to look forward to or to be remembered by but a life of unemployment, a life on the dole.
Ah'll tell yer what really riles a bloke.
It's reading on their graves the jobs they did—
butcher, publican, and baker. Me, I'll croak
doing t' same nowt ah do now as a kid.
* * *
If mi mam's up there, don't want to meet 'er
listening to me list mi dirty deeds
and 'ave to pipe up to St. fucking Peter
ah've been on t' dole all mi life in fucking Leeds.
Then t' Alleluias stick in t' angels' gobs.
When dole-wallahs fuck off to the void
what'll t' mason carve up for their jobs?
The cunts who lieth 'ere wor unemployed? (9-10)
Of course, that Harrison's father is remembered as a baker, and even that Harrison himself will be remembered as a poet, is a kind of tragedy, the division of labor having reduced them to a reified label of an activity that left them only partially human. Yet, for the "dole-wallahs," the tragedy is considerably greater. Their entire lack of labor has not only thwarted their social growth, it has rendered them devoid of any sort of humanity. It has denied them of the "privilege" of being even partially human.
The most artistic and powerful example of the lack of work in the poem, however, is the convenient use of the worked-out coal mine beneath the graveyard. Not only does this continually suggest that the lifeblood of Leeds has dried up and that there will be no more work, it also suggests that capitalism has stripped away Leeds' foundation and left only emptiness. Harrison brilliantly works the fact that the obelisks in the graveyard are beginning to tilt into a metaphor of the metaphysical underpinnings of capitalist society and of their constant subsidence. The system has worked itself out, at least in Leeds, and he emphasizes this by repeatedly looking ahead to when it all caves in.
Though I've a train to catch my step is slow.
I walk on the grass and graves with wary tread
over the subsidences, these shifts below
the life of Leeds supported by the dead.
Further underneath 's that cavernous hollow
that makes the gravestones lean towards the town.
A matter of mere time and it will swallow
this place of rest and all the resters down. (13-4)
Another powerful artistic move in the poem moves us to the poem's ultimate subject; it is a theme borrowed from Wordsworth and concerns the object of poetry, but Harrison must update that object. Wordsworth's role for poetry, as set out in the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," however desirable, is simply inadequate to cope with the modern world, but much of it remains quite relevant, and Harrison makes good use of it.
The principle object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature. (emphasis added 446)
This is essentially Harrison's principal object. The circumstances and the "incidents and situations from common life," however, have changed considerably. Nevertheless, Wordsworth's retreat to the country and the common people is essentially similar to Harrison's attempt to bring attention to the oppressed, working people of the industrialized cities and to spread class consciousness.
Another theme Harrison borrows from Wordsworth concerns the metaphorical significance of flowers, or more specifically, daffodils, but once again he must transform that theme, and in this case, v. acts as that transformation. It may seem a bit far-fetched to draw a direct comparison between v. and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," and even more to suggest that Harrison is drawing directly from it, but for Wordsworth, daffodils are the perfect metaphor for poetry, and Harrison borrows and retires that metaphor. In Wordsworth, the daffodils are words dancing in "never-ending line," and this celebration of the beauty of nature and the individual sublime through the allegorical representation of poetry is an appropriate response by the imagination as a reaction against the vast social changes taking place around 1800. The daffodils are essentially what Adorno describes as "a protest against a social situation that every individual experiences as hostile, alien, cold, oppressive, and this situation is imprinted in reverse on the poetic work" ("On Lyric Poetry and Society" 39). But if poetry is to have a significant role in the modern world, daffodils are no longer an appropriate metaphor for that poetry or its role, and one of the major tasks of v. is to point this out and present a new metaphor. There are several references to daffodils in the poem. Harrison's father had long put out daffodils to dignify the family plot, but now they are withered and dead. The poet is horrified to find "instead of flowers cans of beer / and more than one grave sprayed with some skin's name" (6). The dignity they once brought has been replaced by the obscene graffiti on the tombstones.
The language of the graveyard has in a sense become the new poetry, and more importantly, the graveyard becomes the setting of poetry. Harrison makes it clear that the graffiti is the voice of the oppressed and that poetry is not adequate as their voice. In fact, his poetry gives voice to the repressed working class within himself much more than it gives voice to the oppressed masses. Poetry becomes for Harrison, much like for Wordsworth, something very individual. That is why the poem moves from a social discourse to the conversation with the skinhead to his marriage bed and ultimately to his own grave. The poem's movement is from the broadly social to the intensely private, and this retreat is from the forces of society. Each movement, however, is predicated on the failure of poetry. The skinhead teaches him that "it's not poetry we need in this class war" (12), and that their scribblings are essentially the same. He moves from this to a powerful recollection of Leeds that wonderfully echoes The School of Eloquence, and then he moves to his only source of comfort, love. But in terms of his poetic intention, this too fails, and he returns to the graveyard, looking forward to his own marker. The flowers are gone. His poetry is all he has left to lend dignity to his grave. Furthermore, it is all of him that will remain. The last stanza of the poem is his intended epitaph.
(beat you to it!) SHIT
Beneath your feet's a poet, then a pit.
Poetry supporter, if you're here to find
how poems can grow from
find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind.
Poetry is there among the necessities of life. He is finally able to return to his roots, to rejoin his class forever, but this only matters because of his poetry. It is his afterlife. The empty coal pit beneath the graveyard has become the material foundation under industrial capitalism and the metaphysical foundation under postmodernism. v. is an attempt to fill the "black empty space" with meaning, with poetry. Where there once were daffodils, there now are only weeds and empty beer cans. But there are also gravestones.
Adorno, Theodor W. "On Lyric Poetry and Society." Notes to Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 37-54.
Eagleton, Terry. "Antagonisms." Poetry Review 76.1-2 (1986): 20-2.
---. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Harrison, Tony. The School of Eloquence. Selected Poems. New York: Random House, 1987. 112-78.
---. V. and Other Poems. New York: The Noonday Press, 1991.
Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness. Trans. by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1971.
Morton, A. L. The English Utopia. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Woodcock, Bruce. "Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrison's Invective." Critical Quarterly 32.2 (1990): 50-65.
Wordsworth, William. "Preface to Lyrical Ballads." Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 445-64.
Warpole, Ken. "Scholarship Boy: The Poetry of Tony Harrison." New Left Review 153.Sept/Oct (1985): 157-63.