Division, Unity and Identity in Tony Harrison’s “V”

August 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

“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”.

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