The first recipient of the Pen/Pinter Prize, in honor of Harold Pinter, and dedicated to writers who, as Pinter put it in his Nobel address, "define the real truth of our lives and our societies," is Tony Harrison, author most notably of the long poem titled V. We'll take a look at some of V (1985) in a moment.
The real truth. Why not just the truth? Wouldn't that do? Did Pinter mean real simply as a sort of intensifier? Or did he mean to suggest that the world presents us with almost impossibly competing truths, each powerful in its own way, but at odds with other perspectives?
I don't think he meant the latter. Pinter was insanely confident of the rightness of his moral and political views. I think it must be that he wanted at once to suggest the difficulty of arriving at both a global truth that isn't packaged for us by a world of political operatives and public relations firms, and a personal truth that we don't in a similar way package in order to make ourselves and other people more palatable than we really are.
"Poetry is not a popular art," Harrison says in a recent interview. "It doesn't change anything. But it reminds us there are ways of contemplating destructive forces in a secular, meditative way which it's important to keep alive. That's what keeps me going." The calm, ceremonial, rhythmic and rhymed sensibility of Harrison's poems hits in a very alive way against their often violent and dreadful content; and out of this collision emerges something that certainly feels to me like real truth. Not to mention real beauty.
Consider the black tar stream of consciousness which is V. The poem's absolutely autobiographical: The poet, who has left his working class roots in the city of Leeds distantly behind him as he's forged a rather glamorous high-culture life of international travel for his various artistic projects, returns for a rare, brief trip to visit his parents' graves. The cemetery lies near a football stadium (soccer to you); it also sits on top of a now-disused mine.
The poem begins like this:
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.
Marvelous meaty words. They're addressed to posterity -- not in the elevated way of the typical elegy, but in the casual discourse of grimy urban modernity. Words like bard and distinguished dead feel comic, ironic, self-deflating, in this context.
The poet notes the proximity of
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.
It's strange, isn't it? The steady ritualistic movement of the verse form he's chosen, and the jittery anarchic nature of the scene the verse describes... The language persists in a kind of balanced restraint throughout this very long poem, even as the world it evokes splits apart, rots, disintegrates, dissipates.
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!
The linguistic control persists, as do recognizable, established forms of poetic beauty. Neologism, alliteration, assonance, careful meter -- all can be found in brief chisellable bits from the good book. Yet the nihilistic obscenity of the desecrating language pushes itself more and more to the center of the poem.
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?
... 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?
... 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.
It seems a mental conversation between the poet and an imagined skinhead; yet it's really the poet talking to himself. Harrison says, in the same interview, that he wants to "take on my own instinct to vandalise my own art. There's always that voice - 'what's the point, who the hell wants a poem?' I have to outstrip that dark, negative force to write anything." But he doesn't so much outstrip it here as versify it, and thereby -- oddly -- ennoble it, this self-vandalizing, annihilating tendency that's scrawled all over the graves.
He ends by once again addressing an imagined visitor to the cemetery ages from now.
If love of art, or love, gives you affront
that the grave I'm in 's graffitied then, maybe,
erase the more 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 to get the soul.
Will earth run out of her 'diurnal courses'
before repeating her creation of black coal?
If, having come this far, somebody reads
these verses, and he/she wants to understand,
face this grave on Beeston Hill, your back to Leeds,
and read the chiselled epitaph I've planned:
Beneath your feet's a poet, then a pit.
Poetry supporter, if you're here to find
How poems can grow from (beat you to it!) SHIT
find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind.