Some people have a problem with what we used to call industrial language (back in the days when we had industries to swear by).
I have some sympathy with those people. Effing and jeffing (watch out, more euphemisms ahead) can be a symptom of a poverty of language, an almost Tourette's-like tic of verbal emphasis or a callow notion of grown-upness. In each case such words are not only unpleasant, they're also boring.
Now and again, though, I think they may have their place. On Monday night Radio 4 broadcast the poet Tony Harrison reading his poem V. When it was announced in January that the programme was to be broadcast, one of the tabloids kindly enumerated the number of F-words (25) and C-words (17) contained therein. That said, the reaction this time around has been slightly more muted than when it was turned into a film for Channel 4 in 1985. Then, both poet and television station were lambasted for this "torrent of filth" (© The Daily Mail), and attacked by now long-forgotten Tory MPs and Mary Whitehouse, none of whom gave any impression of having actually read the poem. (Clearly, given the ludicrous reaction by MPs including the Prime Minister to Hilary Mantel's essay about Kate Middleton last week, nothing has changed.)
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There's no question the language in V is shocking. But of course that is the point. Harrison the poet is appalled by the language he appropriates – especially when he finds it written on his parents' grave – and furious enough to use it himself. It's an angry poem, a flinty, muscular yet deeply moving piece about death and grief and how we leave our marks on this world. It's also a lament for the skinhead football yob who, Harrison imagines, has been desecrating graves in the Leeds cemetery where Harrison's mother and father are buried. It's a howl of rage about a lost generation who had no industry in which to deploy their industrial language. It's worth remembering that the poem was written at the height of the Miners' Strike. This is political poetry.
For anyone on the wrong side of the Thatcher revolution, Harrison's words rang true. And the scary thing is how appropriate they seem now. We're in the midst of a shrinking economy that is seeing opportunities and provisions wither away. If anything, the social divides are even more glaring and obvious now than they were in the mid-1980s. That divide was always the true obscenity in V. Not the 42 (and counting) swear words.
Poets and novelists are only beginning to get to grips with what Harrison tackled back then. In years to come we'll see many post-crash novels and plays, I imagine. If we're lucky, some of the contemporary literary responses will be as eloquent as Harrison's was nearly 30 years ago. (While we're at it, some enterprising publisher should look into getting the rights for the bravura opening chapter of Malcolm Bradbury's 1987 novella Cuts, which feels all too relevant again.)
Presumably the controversy didn't hurt Harrison's readership. Controversies rarely do. But in the end it was a distraction – and a misreading of the poem. That in itself, you might say, is an argument against using swear words. But it also raises questions about what we expect from poetry.
It's been hugely encouraging in the past couple of years to see the thrilled response to poems written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Last Post, marking the deaths of First World War veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, caused a real stir. And rightly so. It's a great poem. And while her Valentine poem the other week wasn't quite in the same ballpark, she's playing her part in rewriting poetry into the public realm.
The problem with that, though, is what that realm allows poetry to be. Love and elegies are all very well – they get to appear on the front pages of newspapers. But what about anger? Or is it just good for "controversial" headlines? Harrison's poem is still one of the most elegant, elegiac, bullish responses to the politics of the 1980s. We need more of the same now. I'd even swear to that.
Rosemary Goring is away.