Tony Harrison Poems
Division, Unity and Identity in Tony Harrison’s “V”
“V” is a poem in which Tony Harrison illustrates the working class hostility towards the political establishment and Margret Thatcher’s government during the 1984 miner’s strike. However, it also focuses on the unity between himself and his “woman” and well as his parents. It is also clear that this poem centres on a confrontation with himself. “Tony Harrison took inequality, deprivation and division and gave them a physical existence”. The title of this poem, “V” stands for versus and instantaneously indicates to the reader that it focuses on division in British society: “Class v. class as bitter as before, the unending violence of US and THEM, personified in 1984”. Harrison has used this quote to refer back to the miners strike in 1984, which was a turning point in British society. A divide through the nation was created depending on which side you supported and tore many families apart. Furthermore, Harrison refers to one of his other poems: “Them and UZ”; whereby he highlighted to the reader how the upper class judged the working class based on their pronunciation of the English language. Though his poem is notable forts bitter, angry, and potentially divisive tone, this work also represents an attempt to place Harrison himself in a meaningful gender and historical context.
Harrison includes specific dates and place names such as “1984” and “Leeds United” for two main reasons: firstly, to give the reader something to relate to effectively, especially those from a working class background. The act of matching his words with context makes his poems more available to the people of his culture by giving it a sense of reality and encourages the sense of conflict within the poem and the “tug of war through Tony himself” (Simon Armitage). Secondly, Harrison places “1984” on a shorter line than the others, where it cannot be missed; to allow the irony of Orwell’s novel to speak for itself. Whereby the totalitarian oppression is demonstrated in the brutality of the police towards the labouring classes. When the poem “V”, was first published it cause outrage and the Daily Mail described Harrison as a “potty mouthed poet”. This is due to the initial confrontation between Harrison and his alter ego, the skinhead. “But why inscribe these graves with CUNT and SHIT?” “ This pitman’s of last century daubed PAKIGIT, this grocer Broadbent’s aeroslled with NIGGER?”. Harrison used such language not to “arouse the dead from their deep peace”, but to shock the living. They are used deliberately to illustrate to the reader how the ‘public have an unflinching examination of the divided society that we live in”. When it was first set to broadcast on channel 4, Mary Whitehouse and other mainly conservative MPs attempted to stop the poem from being broadcasted purely on the basis of the language used. This is ironic because the poem focuses on the core fundamental issued in our modern society, yet what shocked people was the language used and not the division that clearly exists between “US and THEM”. Furthermore, many feminist readers have protested against the word “cunt” being used due it inappropriate reference to a woman’s body.
However, it could be argued that Harrison does not use these ‘taboo’ words in an insulting manner, at least where Harrison the man is concerned, but just as a part if the skinhead’s dialect. These are the “words of the people” and critics have argued that if Harrison had tamed this poem he would have been dishonest to himself, his readers and most importantly his roots. It also suggests that he could have been that skin but was distanced from his alter ego because of his grammar school education. “So what’s a cri-de-Coeur, cunt? Can’t you speak the language that your mam spoke. Think of ‘er! Can you only get yer tongue round fucking Greek”;” She didn’t talk like you for a starts! I shouted where I thought the voice had been”. The irony in this stanza is the fact that the skinhead assumed “cri-de-Coeur” to be a word of the Greek language, when in fact it is a French expression indicating a passionate appeal or protest. Furthermore, Harrison articulates his divided self and the divided British society during the 1984 strike by employing two voices throughout the poem; the foul-mouthed skin in a confrontational dialogue with an educated poetic voice. Harrison and his alter ego illustrate that the “language in Tony Harrison is the site of class struggle”. Furthermore, the two voices used are distinguished by printing the skinhead’s voice in italics; which is ironic because Harrison enhances the already existing division as the character of the skinhead can be regarded as a stereotype. By splitting himself into two voices, Harrison is empowered to express the anger and distress of the working class skinhead and bring his voice into dramatic confrontation with his own educated voice. The contrast created between the two characters allows him to stress to the reader that there is anger inside all of use; however it is “education that gives us the definitive control as to how we display that anger and our emotions”. The cemetery in which Harrison’s parent are buried and where he hopes to be buried is the connecting point between Leeds Grammar school and the football stadium, where Leeds united play and “disappoint their fans week after week”. “If buried ashes saw then I’d survey the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek, and left, the ground where Leeds united play” These two locations are used as juxtaposition to each other due to, ironically being connected by the graveyard. They also act as a metaphor of the working class and the middle class worlds that Harrison is torn between; he is the binding factor between these two classes, yet is also divided by each of them.
After visiting his parent’s grave, Harrison returns home and focalises the poem on the theme of unity. “Home, home, home, to my woman as the red darkens from a flesh blood to a dried. Home, home, to my woman, home to bed where opposites seem sometimes unified”. The word “home” is repeated, consecutively in this stanza and acts as a parallel to the word “against”, which was also repeated earlier on. This final episode in the poem brings him back to his partner and to the warmth of th coal fire. “Home, home to my woman, where the fire’s lit…and perished vegetation from the pit”. Ironically his home is not in Leeds, but elsewhere. However, it is clear that he has managed to escape some of that division that tormented him because he feels united with his working class roots through the mention of “vegetation from the pit”; a reference back to he mines. Moreover, this part of the poem offers the reader a degree of hope and optimism, yet its force is lessened through the use of the phrase: “seem sometimes unified”. Harrison admits that a perfectly integrated society is unrealistic. However, he hopes that the barriers between “Black/White, man v wife and class v class” are transcended. This is evident because he later on states: “I know what the word UNITED that the skin sprayed has to mean”. The word “has” been italicised to indicate the there is one obvious meaning to the vandalism on the grave. It represents a plead of the “tongueless” working class for the conflict to end and peace to embrace both societies. Near the ending of the poem, Harrison turns and speaks directly to the reader. “Will erode the UNITED binding us together. And now it’s your decision: does it stay?… If love of art, or love, gives you affront that the grave I’m in’s graffitied then, maybe erase the move offensive FUCK and CUNT but leave, with the worn UNITED, one small v. victory? For vast, slow, coal-creating forces that hew the body’s seams”. This stanza empowers Harrison to fully connect with his roots. He brings the reader to the graveyard, where he wishes to be buried and evokes the idea that the reader will be paying a visit to Harrison’s own grave; and just as he attempted to clean his parent’s grave, it is now the turn of the reader to clean Harrison’s.
Tony Harrison tells the reader when to come and visit his grave: “But chose a day like I chose in mid-may”. He wants the reader to visit Beeston Hill, when “5 kids still play at making blossoms fall and humming as they do here comes the bride”. The idea of the celebration of marriage pinpoints unity as the theme of the poem. The phrase “does it stay?” indicates that it is now the reader’s choice as to whether to leave it on his grave or erase it. However this depends on whether there is still demand for unity or has it already been achieved. It becomes clear to the reader that the second northern voice of the skinhead is Tony Harrison’s alter ego. “He aeroslled his name. And it was mine”. This quote explores how throughout the entirety of the poem, Harrison has been enduring self-conflict. In this stanza he reveals that he too could have been a skinhead, who used strong colloquial language effectively. However, due to his middle class education which he received, he is able to control his anger in the form of the alternating rhyme scheme ABAB and uses his form in verse because “it can hold the great power and pressure of his emotions” (Richard Hoggart). When Harrison visits his parent’s grave, he finds that the cemetery is built over an abandoned mine. “I walk on the grass and graves with wary tread over these subsidences, these shifts below the life of Leeds supported by the dead”. The land is collapsing, the graves and obelisks tilt and there are shifts below the surface. The imagery created of depth; instability and coal represent the instability of life during the miner’s strike and the conflict in Northern Ireland with regards to the IRA. It can also be inferred that Tony Harrison is stressing to the reader the shift in time scale. “A matter of mere time and it will swallow this place of rest and all the resters down”. Harrison is panning out eternity to illustrate how insignificant ones life can be. Moreover, what can also be understood from this imagery of shifting and instability is the questioning of Harrison’s identity.
Harrison does not fear the grave, but the “great worked-out black hollow under mine”. This makes him question his identity as it connects the poetic voice of the scholar with the skinhead (sharing the same skin). This question of identity carries guilt because Harrison realises that he cannot be one of these characters, but both. Even though he feels distanced from his working class roots, there is still evidence of the fundamental connectedness with his alter ego: “the skin’s UNITED underwrites the poet”.
Harrison’s “National Trust” and the Corruption of the Upper Classes
Published in The School of Eloquence in 1978, Tony Harrison’s “National Trust” is the embodiment of his frustrations at the British social-class system. Through this poem, he divulges how, after receiving a post-War opportunity for education, he was dislocated from his family. “National Trust” exposes his opinions regarding this vexed transformation, including his subjective comments on the celebration of the past. Harrison wrote “The School of Eloquence” as a weapon, illustrating the oppression of the undereducated and critiquing the upper classes. He demonstrates the quintessence of a conflicted society in the late 20th century and focuses on the class struggles of the past; after all, “National Trust” was composed as a corrupted, 16-lined, Meredithian sonnet, mirroring the corruption in the upper class.
Harrison shows his resentment at the upper class by critiquing it unambiguously in “The School of Eloquence.” This approach is demonstrated by how he depicts the founders of the National Trust; the ironically described “stout upholders of law and order” “borrowed a convict,” objectifying an entire social class and subverting ideas about personal dignity through commodification. Harrison is demonstrating the infinite greed of the upper class, further revealed through the enjambment in the first stanza, which also shows the opening words “bottomless pits” to be indicative of aristocratic indulgence. “National Trust” accentuates the corruption of the upper class through this class’s ignorance of suffering in the working classes. Symbolic of this, the line “and stout upholders of our law and order” has eleven syllables, breaking the iambic pentameter of the poem and hinting at discord beneath the aristocratic façade. Similarly, Harrison critiques the elite through the oxymoron “good flogging”, which is indicative of ruling-class ignorance, particularly its glorification of suffering.
Harrison embodies his frustrations by trivialising the aristocratic vernacular, with ironic language such as “hush-hush” and “one day” mocking the elite idiolect and also hinting at the elite’s inadequacy to rule. In particular, ideas of corruption are shown by the sibilance of “hush-hush”, suggesting the deliberate silencing of the highest social class and emphasising how the “silence of scholars is a very different thing from the tonguelessness of the miners” (Spencer, 1994). Harrison here asserts “his role as spokesman for the inarticulate” (Young, 2000, 136) by attributing negative ideals to the upper class. This tactic demonstrates his anger, born from upper class corruption and “the class system which had made his parents and people like them feel inadequate” (Burton, 2001, 18). However, Harrison uses linguistic othering to distinguish himself from the working class and “the language that they swore it in”, clearly differentiating between himself and the working class at large with the pronoun “they”. This word choice represents his need to assert himself as an individual, originating from his dislocation from the social class system. It also implies his resentment at the working class for their passivity in allowing their own oppression. Harrison, apparently, regards the working class as inferior in resolve, with a “tongue that weighed like lead” (Harrison, 1978).
Nonetheless, Harrison defends the working class in “National Trust”. He centers the sonnet on the symbolism of the “convict” that was “winched…down” the mine at “Castleton” to settle a wager on “its depth”, exposing how the aristocrats stripped the working class of a voice in society, and manipulated them to be “flayed, grey, mad, dumb”. This monosyllabic “dumb” is figurative of the oppression of the working class, emphasised by the position on a separate line at the end of the stanza. The homonym is repeated, which represents its dual meaning and indicates Harrison’s need to defend the working class, juxtaposed to his anguish at their allowing of their own suppression. Furthermore, its harsh, plosive qualities suggest that the author is accusing the upper class, thus reflecting on the contrast between “dumb” and the onomatopoeic sibilance of “hush-hush”. Such a feature highlights how the suffering of the working class was surreptitious, significant in “National Trust”, as Harrison further questions modern history. By opening the sonnet with “Bottomless pits”, he links to how he opens his poem, “Book Ends 1”, with the plosive “Baked”. Since “Book Ends” focuses on Harrison’s relationship with his parents, and his exclusion from the social-classes, this link shows how his emotions infiltrate his writing, explaining his resentment towards the class system displayed throughout The School of Eloquence.
Harrison further emphasises the oppression of the working class in “Castletown”. Here, the polysyllabic “castle” is indicative of aristocratic power and the juxtaposed, monosyllabic “ton” is phonetically silenced with a shortened vowel sound, also revealing the northern vernacular. This subtle usage symbolises how the working class was oppressed by the upper class; Harrison fights to emphasise this theme throughout the The School of Eloquence. He draws on the plosive “B” and “P” sounds of “Bottomless Pits”; by juxtaposing these with the contrasting sibilance of “Bottomless”, Harrison enforces his views of how the working class voice was silenced by society. He also uses contrasting language, such as the harsh, plosive “booming” and the onomatopoeic “silenced”; this further juxtaposition shows further comparison between the two classes and demonstrates the oppression of working classes through ruling-class power. Similarly, in “Book Ends 1”, he juxtaposes “shattered” and “silences”, proving that Harrison sought to use “School of Eloquence” as a weapon and illustrating how languages such as Cornish were suppressed from history. Furthermore, the idea that “the dumb go down in history and disappear” represents the working-class position in the social hierarchy, and the corresponding loss of language and culture. The “convict” that the aristocrats sent “down” the mine could be a metaphor for this oppression, also linking to Harrison’s ideas in “Working”; how the working class is “lost in this sonnet” reflects his need to preserve them through The School of Eloquence.
Harrison also demonstrates the suffering of the working class in other, yet firmly related, manners. The title “National Trust” is polysemic, and represents both the name of the company that seeks to preserve history, and how the Nation has an obligation to remember the hardships of the working class. The use of this title highlights suffering and causes readers to question the celebration of the past, particularly how “Cornish tin-miners were robbed of their labour, their native language and the chance to organise themselves into a prototype trade union” (Spencer, 1994). Suffering is also suggested by the disrupted rhythm at the end of the first stanza. The caesura preceding the series of monosyllabic lexis interrupts the iambic rhythm, reflecting the corruption of the upper class and emphasizing working-class destitution. The caesura further represents a change of class views, comparing the complex language of the upper class to the restricted idiolect of the working class and, thus, emphasising the working class’s lack of power. This pitiful image for the working class presents futile imagery for Harrison’s poetry, and connotes to “the whole fatuity of the belief that writing poetry will DO anything” (Harrison, 1982).
The School of Eloquence emphasises Harrison’s experiences in the social class system, exploring the suffering of the working class and the contemptible success and power of the upper classes. It could be said that Harrison’s “picture of the scholarship boy as a heroic fighter against the odds is sentimental and anachronistic” (Morrison, 1982); however, he allows his language to portray his own memories and experiences, summarising his horror at the oppression of the working class through the theme of inarticulacy. He therefore explores the link that combines social class, power, and articulacy, and how this affected him throughout his life.
Burton, Rosemary, Journeys of the Great Explorers, 2001, Automobile Association.
Harrison, Tony, School of Eloquence, Book Ends I, 1978, Bellew Publishing Co Ltd.
Harrison, Tony, School of Eloquence, On Not Being Milton, 1978, Bellew Publishing Co Ltd.
Harrison, Tony, School of Eloquence, Working, 1978, Bellew Publishing Co Ltd.
Harrison, Tony, Spoken Interview, 1982. Morrison, Blake, Labouring, 1982, Vol. 4 No. 6, London Review of Books.
Rylance, Rick, Tony Harrison Languages, 1991, Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Spencer, Luke, The Poetry of Tony Harrison, 1994, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Young, Alan, Caverns of Night: Coal Mines in Art, Literature and Film, 2000, University of South Carolina, Columbia.