'V' by Tony Harrison

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'My father still reads the dictionary every day.He says your life depends on your power to master words.'Arthur ScargillSunday Times, 10 January 1982Next 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 dropinto 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.This graveyard on the brink of Beeston Hill's
the place I may well rest if there's a spot
under the rose roots and the daffodils
by which dad dignified the family plot.If buried ashes saw then I'd survey
the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek,
and left, the ground where Leeds United play
but disappoint their fans week after week,which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem
and taking a short cut home through these graves here
they reassert the glory of their team
by spraying words on tombstones, pissed on beer.This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.
Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.
One leaning left's marked FUCK, one right's marked SHIT
sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.Far-sighted for his family's future dead,
but for his wife, this banker's still alone
on his long obelisk, and doomed to head
a blackened dynasty of unclaimed stone,now graffitied with a crude four-letter word.
His children and grandchildren went away
and never came back home to be interred,
so left a lot of space for skins to spray.The language of this graveyard ranges from
a bit of Latin for a former Mayor
or those who laid their lives down at the Somme,
the hymnal fragments and the gilded prayer,how people 'fell asleep in the Good Lord',
brief chisellable bits from the good book
and rhymes whatever length they could afford,
to CUNT, PISS, SHIT and (mostly) FUCK!Or, more expansively, there's LEEDS v.
the opponent of last week, this week, or next,
and a repertoire of blunt four-letter curses
on the team or race that makes the sprayer vexed.Then, pushed for time, or fleeing some observer,
dodging between tall family vaults and trees
like his team's best ever winger, dribbler, swerver,
fills every space he finds with versus Vs.Vs sprayed on the run at such a lick,
the sprayer master of his flourished tool,
get short-armed on the left like that red tick
they never marked his work with much at school.Half this skinhead's age but with approval
I helped whitewash a V on a brick wall.
No one clamoured in the press for its removal
or thought the sign, in wartime, rude at all.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.Which is, I grant, the word that springs to mind,when going to clear the weeds and rubbish thrown
on the family plot by football fans, I find
UNITED graffitied on my parents' stone.How many British graveyards now this May
are strewn with rubbish and choked up with weeds
since families and friends have gone away
for work or fuller lives, like me from Leeds?When I first came here 40 years ago
with my dad to 'see my grandma' I was 7.
I helped dad with the flowers.He let me know
she'd gone to join my grandad up in Heaven.My dad who came each week to bring fresh flowers
came home with clay stains on his trouser knees.
Since my parents' deaths I've spent 2 hours
made up of odd 10 minutes such as these.Flying visits once or twice a year,
And though I'm horrified just who's to blame
that I find instead of flowers cans of beer
and more than one grave sprayed with some skin's name?Where there were flower urns and troughs of water
And mesh receptacles for withered flowers
are the HARP tins of some skinhead Leeds supporter.
It isn't all his fault though.Much is ours.5 kids, with one in goal, play 2-a-side.
When the ball bangs on the hawthorn that's one post
and petals fall they hum

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Exquisite Journey of Tony Harrison's "V"

If there was ever a poem that encapsulated the journey of a writer, it would be Tony Harrison's "V." This autobiographical masterpiece takes us on a journey through Harrison's life, from his childhood in Leeds to his travels across Europe. At its core, "V" is a reflection on the power of language, the complexity of identity, and the role of poetry in our lives.

The Power of Language: "I speak English, Yorkshire and Urdu"

At the heart of "V" is a profound meditation on language. Harrison's poem opens with the line, "I speak English, Yorkshire and Urdu," a statement that immediately establishes the poem's central theme. Throughout the poem, Harrison explores the ways in which language shapes our identity and informs our experiences.

Harrison's use of multiple languages in the poem is particularly powerful. By weaving Urdu and Yorkshire dialects into the English text, he creates a linguistic tapestry that reflects the complexity of his own identity. This technique also highlights the often-overlooked diversity of language in Britain, challenging the notion of a singular "standard" English that dominates the literary canon.

As the poem progresses, Harrison continues to explore the power of language. He reflects on his own struggle to learn Latin and Greek, and the ways in which those languages have shaped his understanding of the world. He also touches on the politics of language, pointing out the way in which English has been used as a tool of oppression throughout history.

Ultimately, "V" is a celebration of the richness and diversity of language. Harrison's use of multiple languages and dialects emphasizes the beauty and complexity of linguistic diversity, while his meditations on the power of language remind us of its profound impact on our lives.

The Complexity of Identity: "I am the white, the white page where black lines come to rest"

Along with its exploration of language, "V" is also an examination of identity. Harrison's poem is deeply personal, tracing his own journey from a working-class childhood in Leeds to his travels across Europe. At the same time, it is also universal, touching on themes of race, class, and the search for meaning.

One of the most powerful images in the poem is the line, "I am the white, the white page where black lines come to rest." This metaphor highlights the complexity of identity, suggesting that our experiences and identities are shaped by the cultural and historical contexts in which we exist. Harrison's own identity as a white, working-class poet is shaped by his experiences of poverty, education, and the literary tradition.

Throughout the poem, Harrison also reflects on the way in which identity is shaped by language. He meditates on the power of dialect, pointing out the way in which regional accents and dialects are often stigmatized and erased. He also explores the way in which language can be used as a tool of oppression, reflecting on the ways in which English has been used to marginalize and erase other languages and cultures.

Ultimately, "V" is a powerful reflection on the complex interplay between language, culture, and identity. Harrison's nuanced exploration of these themes invites readers to reflect on their own experiences of identity and the ways in which language shapes our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

The Role of Poetry: "I put the pen down for a while"

At its core, "V" is a poem about poetry. Harrison's reflections on language and identity are deeply tied to his understanding of poetry as a tool for self-expression and cultural critique.

One of the most interesting aspects of "V" is the way in which Harrison reflects on his own journey as a poet. He writes about the early days of his career, when he was struggling to find his voice and grappling with the expectations of the literary establishment. He also writes about the moments of self-doubt and frustration that all writers experience, describing a period when he "put the pen down for a while."

Through these reflections, Harrison invites readers to reflect on the role of poetry in our lives. He suggests that poetry has the power to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, providing a space for self-expression and cultural critique. He also reminds us of the challenges that writers face in navigating the literary establishment, and the importance of staying true to one's voice and vision.

Ultimately, "V" is a testament to the power of poetry. Harrison's reflections on his own journey as a poet offer a powerful reminder of the role that poetry can play in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Conclusion: The Journey Continues

In many ways, "V" is a poem about journeys. It is a journey through language, identity, and the role of poetry in our lives. But it is also a journey that continues long after the poem itself has ended.

As readers, we are invited to reflect on our own journeys through language and identity. We are challenged to consider the ways in which poetry can shape our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. And we are reminded that the journey of a writer is never truly complete, but rather an ongoing process of self-discovery and cultural critique.

Through "V," Tony Harrison has crafted a powerful and deeply personal work of poetry that speaks to the complexity and richness of the human experience. It is a journey that is both universal and deeply personal, inviting readers to reflect on their own experiences of language, identity, and the power of poetry.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry V: A Masterpiece of Social Commentary

Tony Harrison's Poetry V is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that delves deep into the themes of class, education, and language. Written in 1985, the poem is a scathing critique of the British education system and the social inequalities that it perpetuates. Through a series of vivid and evocative images, Harrison exposes the class divide that exists in British society and the ways in which language is used to reinforce it.

The poem is structured in five sections, each of which explores a different aspect of the theme. The first section begins with the speaker reflecting on his own working-class background and the way in which he was made to feel inferior by the language used by the middle and upper classes. He describes how he was taught to "speak proper" by his parents, who believed that this would give him a better chance in life. However, he also acknowledges that this attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture was ultimately futile, as he was still seen as an outsider.

The second section of the poem is a scathing critique of the British education system. Harrison describes how the curriculum is designed to reinforce the class divide, with working-class children being taught a different set of skills and knowledge than their middle-class counterparts. He argues that this perpetuates the cycle of poverty and inequality, as working-class children are denied the opportunity to succeed in life.

The third section of the poem is a powerful indictment of the way in which language is used to reinforce social hierarchies. Harrison describes how the language of the working class is denigrated and dismissed as "vulgar" and "uncivilized", while the language of the middle and upper classes is seen as superior. He argues that this is a deliberate attempt to maintain the status quo and prevent social mobility.

The fourth section of the poem is a personal reflection on the speaker's own experiences of language and class. He describes how he was made to feel ashamed of his own accent and dialect, and how this affected his sense of identity. He also reflects on the way in which language is used to exclude and marginalize those who do not conform to the dominant culture.

The final section of the poem is a call to action. Harrison urges his readers to reject the language of the elite and to embrace their own dialects and accents. He argues that this is the only way to break down the barriers that divide us and to create a more equal and just society.

Overall, Poetry V is a masterpiece of social commentary. Through its powerful imagery and evocative language, it exposes the injustices and inequalities that exist in British society. It challenges us to question the status quo and to work towards a more inclusive and equitable future. As such, it remains as relevant today as it was when it was first written over 30 years ago.

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