to find my slab behind the family dead,
butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard
adding poetry to their beef, beer, and bread."
Tony Harrison's "v." contains 112 four line stanzas. When I come back to the poem, I'm struck by how succinctly the first stanza reveals the major subjects of the rest of the long poem.
One of the elements of the poem is the pit underneath the cemetery, a "rabblement of bone and rot,/ shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop." This pit is a part of the discussion of the process of nature making "coal, that began, with no man here at all,/as 300 million-year-old plant debris." It is in the creation of this coal that the "v." represents victory "For vast, slow, coal-creating forces that hew the body's seams to get the soul." The useless dead bodies, through hundreds of millions of years, are turned into something useful (in fact, coal is warming the poet's home at the end of the poem). It is a long process, requiring time. And the first line of the poem subtly puts us into the the mindset of long periods of times with the reference to "millennium."
The poem is partly about the poet's relationship with his family, which is also about his relationship to class. And so his "slab behind the family dead" puts us into that context. The poet will share memories of his father, and wrestle internally with his class and the relationship of poetry to class.
The sounds in the next two lines are harsh but alliterative; they share similar sounds, but they share harsh beginnings and endings that require distinct pronunciations. The key words in the third line are the job titles (and job titles, we find, are listed on the gravestones in the cemetery): butcher, publican, baker, bard. the fourth line features nouns that are produced by those workers described in line three: poetry, beef, beer, and bread. It's also worth noting the simple words beef, beer, and bread also seem to connote the food for working class people: simple, hearty, affordable. Beer has class associations, and beef and bread are food provided for us by a "butcher" or a "baker."
And it's hard not to see the strong contrast between "poetry" and "beef, beer, and bread." The sounds themselves are different: three single-syllable words, beginning with "b" and also ending with a consonant, against "poetry." The different sounds remind us in the major difference: beef, beer, and bread are tangible and useful. They provide something for people. We can consume them. What's poetry to that? Hollow and empty. "Poetry" can sound grand, but when you set poetry next to "beef, beer, and bread," it becomes nothingness both of sound and content.
And Harrison seems to recognize that; after all, later the skinhead voice tells him "it's not poetry we need in this class war." Poetry is ultimately ineffectual. The poem is partly about class and material conditions, about poverty and social place. The beef, beer, and bread can provide something concrete and useful; poetry is air. So in the first stanza, "now me, bard/adding poetry" to those useful consumables, comes off as sort of silly, frivolous. But "poet" will be the label on Harrison's gravestone.
Perhaps we as readers don't see the deprecation there. After all, would a poet minimize the use of poetry within a poem? And would we as readers, obviously seeing some value in poetry since we are reading it, perhaps consider poetry loftier, nobler, more meaningful than the rougher, more common "beef, beer, and bread"? Maybe. But the material conditions of poetry are emphasized in the poem's final line, where Harrison's epitaph tells viewer that if they want to seek where poetry comes from, they should "find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind." This last stanza again reminds us of the pit under the graveyard (evoking the process of turning decay into something useful), and then tells us the poetry comes from those tangible products, those useful edibles, food and drink.
It is, then, lines three and four of the poem that really bring us our subject. Harrison names job titles (mostly working class job titles, put into the context of time and death), and then identifies the tangible material "stuff" produced by those doing the jobs (the nouns are, in my opinion, critical, as they require us to focus on the material "stuff"). But most importantly, he immediately places the role of poetry into this discussion. The poem explores the relationship of language and class (the skinhead's shouting would not be the same without the cursing), but more specifically the relationship of poetry to class, to social change, to our real lives. Harrison tells the skinhead voice that he writes poetry to give the lower class "a hearing," to "give some higher meaning to your scrawl." The skinhead not only points out that such an effort really gives nothing to those people, but is not even in the language of those people ("Can't you speak/the language that yer mam spoke"). They talk about the cursing, Harrison telling the voice his mother didn't talk like him, and the voice responding "She didn't understand yer fucking 'art'!/She thought yer fucking poetry obscene!"
The poem is about other things: the versus, the united, and all that. But central is poetry, language, class. Harrison doesn't suggest there is a simply relationship here, but he is, at any rate, exploring that relationship, and he shows us this from the first stanza.