If, like me, dear reader you were afraid of poetry at school, and even later in life, then I urge you to listen to a programme that is due to go out on BBC Radio 4 next Monday evening (February 18), at 11pm GMT.
BBC Radio is accessible outside the UK via www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/, and the treat in store for you is a reading by Tony Harrison (along with critical assessment by others) of the complete version of his muscular and magnificent work, entitled simply ‘V’.
If your fear of poetry was not being able to understand or decipher it, I can assure you that ‘V’ is so accessible that even I understood (and was moved and enthralled by) it the first time round, when it was originally published in 1985.
The poem has been an occasional source of pleasure and inspiration at regular intervals since then; because as the Peruvian sage Mario Vargas Llosa wrote recently about William Faulkner’s Light in August, “There is only one pleasure greater than reading a masterpiece; and that is re-reading it”.
V’s publication unleashed a tide of controversy in the UK, probably only equalled in British letters in the past 100 years by the obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. Incidentally, I would venture that most literary critics nowadays would favour V over Lady C.
Harrison wrote his poem during the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike, following the discovery that his parents’ gravestones in his home town of Leeds had been daubed with obscene graffiti, some clearly by disaffected supporters of the local football club, whose ground is close by the cemetery.
The V represents ‘versus,’ either for Leeds’ opponents, or for the oppositions thrown up by the religious, cultural and racial divisions in the town, in particular the Beeston area, where the graveyard is sited, and where, incidentally one of the London 7/7 bombers came from. By extension, the poem also presages the murderous debate and fatwa over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
But the widespread criticism of the poem arose from Harrison’s use of the obscenities defiling many of the graves.
The forces of darkness, led inevitably by the Daily Mail, which described the poem as, ‘a torrent of filth,’ were abetted by the right wing of the Conservative Party which actually moved a bill in the UK Parliament denouncing Harrison’s poem itself as ‘obscene’.
While drawing even more attention to the work, the criticism performed the equally invaluable service of exposing the cadre as a bunch of illiterate dimwits.
The poem begins with Harrison’s rumination on his eventual interment beside his parents, and returns later to that theme, speculating that it may be when he is 75, which is, by the by, exactly his current age.
Harrison doesn’t spare himself criticism in the poem, citing an example of his own youthful hooliganism, letting off a fire extinguisher at a political meeting; he also engages in an archetypally English ‘conversation’ with a skinhead who jeers at his intellectual pretensions, like learning ancient Greek (Harrison has also translated for the stage, notably the Orestaia and Lysistrata), and reminding him that his mother was occasionally mortified by the vulgarity of his poems.
Here are a few stanzas from V for you to ruminate on:
Next millennium you’ll have to search quite hard
to find my slab behind the family dead,
butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard
adding poetry to their beef, beer and bread.
With Byron three graves on I’ll not go short
of company, and Wordsworth’s opposite.
That’s two peers already, of a sort,
and we’ll all be thrown together if the pit,
whose galleries once ran beneath this plot,
causes the distinguished dead to drop
into the rabblement of bone and rot,
shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop.
Wordsworth built church organs, Byron tanned
luggage cowhide in the age of steam,
and knew their place of rest before the land
caves in on the lowest worked-out seam.
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 NUM,
Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought on’s Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past never found.
The prospects for 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.
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 because man dies?
So what’s a cri-de-coeur, cunt? Can’t you speak
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!
I wish on this skin’s words deep aspirations,
first the prayer for my parents I can’t make,
then a call to Britain and to all nations
made in the name of love for peace’s sake.
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