Swearing, Stanzas and Shock Value

I’ve never been one of those people who balked at obscenity. I mean, I was hopelessly innocent when I started secondary school, but within about a year I went from being shocked at the occasional “shit” to effing and blinding with the best of them. The golden rule is to think about your audience- don’t present them with things that will offend them. That’s why I’d never swear in front of my granddad.

When it comes to art, of course, that principle can’t stand. Be it language, sexual or violent content or whatever, the creator loses control over reception and interpretation as soon as a piece is offered to the world, so there’s no way they or anyone else can determine who will come across it. HBO can’t help it if an elderly woman knocks the remote and ends up horrified at a Game of Thrones sex scene. The responsibility has to lie with the consumer. If you’re going to be offended, don’t engage with the art. Change the channel, don’t go to the gallery, don’t buy the album. But absolutely respect the right of the artist and other consumers to appreciate that which is not to your own taste.

There are some dramatic moments in the history of censorship and obscenity that I wish I’d been alive to see – Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the fights of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to get plays past the Master of the Revels – but one of them is the Early Day Motion brought in Parliament against the broadcast of the 1987 filmed version of ‘V‘, Tony Harrison’s 30-minute long poem which features 17 uses of the word “cunt” and 25 of “fuck”.

‘V’ is probably Harrison’s most famous work. Written about a visit to his parents’ graves in Holbeck Cemetery in Leeds, it describes the realisation that drunken football fans on their way back from yet another dire Leeds United performance (it’s not new) had been venting their frustrations by spraying expletives on the headstones. The worked-out coal pit beneath the cemetery means the stones are subsiding anyway, so you’ve got the perfect starting point for reflections on class, social change and the role of the poet dramatised in the most arresting way possible. Much of the poem is a brutally sweary confrontation between the narrator and – well, is he the imagined skinhead who desecrated the graves, the voice of what the narrator could have become without his grammar school education and Greek, or both?

And for the first time in over 25 years, somebody has the balls to broadcast it. It’s going out on Radio 4 on February 18th, preceded by a documentary on its reception, introduced by Blake Morrison, and read by Harrison himself.

But this time, there have been no debates in Westminster, no calls for resignations, and certainly no protests. The Daily Mail hasn’t even covered it, although The Mirror’s admittedly brief and unhysterical article is headlined ‘Radio 4 to broadcast poem featuring c-word 17 times and f-word 25 times’. Some of the more leftie press have said that the BBC is ‘courting controversy’, but it just isn’t.

After all, ‘V’ is taught in schools now. It’s been around for long enough to be processed and institutionalised to the point where it’s now one of those subversive things that authorities rather like because, you know, if you openly disapprove of it, you look authoritarian. That’s got it to the point where it can now be broadcast, albeit after 11pm with lots of warnings to appease the Mary Whitehouses among Radio 4 listeners.

(Of whom, it has to be said, there seems to be quite a lot. Let’s not forget that when Jay-Z headlined Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend last year, they issued lots of desperate warnings beforehand and then broadcast his entire set starting at 9pm, in which nearly every song contained more “niggers” and “fucks” than the whole of ‘V’. Interestingly, most of his audience were about the right age to have studied the poem in school, and there’s probably a standard point in there to be made about generational shifts in attitudes.)

But again – why is it left to one of the most middle-class stations in that most middle class of institutions, the BBC? You can talk about social change all you want, but I bet you a tenner there still aren’t many Radio 4 listeners in Beeston.

There aren’t many people who want to broadcast poetry these days because there aren’t many people who want to hear it. And that’s even sadder with a poem like ‘V’, which is just as uncomfortably prescient today as it was in the 1980s. Perhaps more so, since it deals with the growing pains of multiculturalism and deep divisions in the area of Leeds where one of the 7/7 bombers lived.

That’s partly why, after so many years of gradual acceptance, it hasn’t lost much of its power. I’m not a huge fan of Harrison, but he deals directly with what good poetry can possibly do in a world of deprivation, frustration and alienation. As he claims that he’s trying to give a voice to the disenchanted souls who spray swear words on graves, the voice that responds says “it’s not poetry we need in this class war”.

It’s wrong. The Byron in the narrator’s life was a tanner, his Wordsworth built church organs, and ‘V’ is an exploration of how art is shaped by and then interacts with human experience. Granted, art won’t get an unemployed skinhead a job, but what it can do is examine the attitudes that built and maintain a state of affairs in which they can’t find work. It can’t directly alter miserable circumstances, but it can help us make sense of them. Don’t tell me that doesn’t help. The narrator’s imagined epitaph says it all.

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.


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