Monday, April 16, 2007

Sport in Poetry: Tony Harrison's "v."

"v." is one of the more complex and nuanced poems I've ever read. A full interpretation would require a great deal of time and energy. I'll focus on the soccer hooligans and the poet's attempt to make meaning, in a way that (I hope) illustrates what this blog is sometimes all about.

In "v.", the poet is visiting his family's plot in a graveyard. This graveyard is located near a soccer stadium "where Leeds United play," and so a lot of soccer hooligans cut through the graveyard after the matches. But Leeds United

"disappoint their fans week after week,

which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem
and taking a short cut home thorugh these graves here
they reassert the glory of their team
by spraying words on tombstones, pissed on beer."

The poet finds that one soccer fan,

"dodging between tall family vaults and trees
like his team's best ever winger, dribbler, swerver,
fills every space he finds with versus Vs."

These "versus Vs" lead the poet to muse on all sorts of external and internal oppositions and conflicts (indeed, later the poem shifts into an internal dialogue between two aspects of the poet's self).

But he finds something else when he goes "to clear the weeds and rubbish thrown/on the family plot by football fans." He finds "UNITED graffitied on my parents' stone."

Again, this UNITED leads him to think of bigger issues. He finds in the word

"an accident of meaning to redeem
an act intended as mere desecration
and make the thoughtless spraying of his team
apply to higher things, and to the nation."

And yet, the poet previously admitted that while he might want to believe there is higher meaning in the soccer fan's graffiti, he really might be reaching:

"the feelings that I had as I stood gazing
and the significance I saw could be a sham,
mere excuses for not patiently erasing
the word sprayed on the grave of dad and mam.)"

The poem goes on in increasingly complex ways. The poet continues to try make meaning, and an internal voice mocks him for it. The meaning of work, class, death, human connection, and poetry itself is explored in ways that it would be cheap to try and transcribe into prose.

But the initial point is this: the poet sees something random and rather meaningless, but he attempts to give it meaning. He uses the inspiration of graffiti "v." and "UNITED" to muse on much bigger issues than soccer hooligans.

And in some ways, that is what we try to do at this blog. My favorite posts occur when something in the sporting world inspires a philosophical reflection (for example, this and this). You've heard that sports is a microcosm of society, and I don't disagree. But just as graffiti on a headstone isn't an inherent inspiration to muse on conflict and union, the sporting world doesn't always offer us clear, obvious parellels to our world. We interpret them. We make meaning of them. Even when we admit that the significance we see "may be a sham."

Games have always been a significant part of culture; think of how many little contests, games, and puzzles you encounter in your everyday lives. But if the world of professional sports is to have meaning beyond our mere entertainment, perhaps we should use it to inspire us to deeper reflection on our lives. Even if it the catalyst to this reflection is forced or artificial, it is the reflection itself which ultimately matters.


  1. Anonymous1:02 PM

    thanks for this ... came up first in Google when I was searching for ~stuff~ about this poem

  2. well it is so strange to see sport in poetry, but this one I like, thanks for sharing it with us my dear friend!