Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’

I have been thinking about the role of metre in poetry in preparation for 3 evening sessions I have been asked to teach for the Poetry School in London. The sessions are part of a wide-ranging course on some of the basics of poetry (other parts of it will be taught by Tim Dooley, Judy Brown, Claire Crowther and Matthew Caley). Also, last Saturday I attended the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in Red Lion Square, London. There – apart from spending too much money on poetry books and chatting with people who had come from all over the country – I listened to a discussion about the role of poetry in relation to politics. Fiona Moore chaired a discussion involving Choman Hardi, Bill Herbert, Sophie Mayer and R A Villanueva. Ideas put forward included the delicate issue of ‘using’ the experience of others in political poetry as well as the need to work polyvalently or collaboratively to combat the influence of unquestioned language and form. Herbert quoted W S Graham’s line: “What is the language using us for?” At the confluence of these two biographical moments I found myself thinking of Tony Harrison’s solutions to the poetry/politics issue – in part through his use of formal metre. The following discussion of Harrison’s Iraq War poem, ‘A Cold Coming’, originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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Harrison has declared his commitment to metrical verse because “it’s associated with the heart beat, with the sexual instinct, with all those physical rhythms which go on despite the moments when you feel suicidal”. In conversation with Richard Hoggart, he explains that without the rhythmical formality of poetry he would be less able to confront, without losing hope, his favoured themes of death, time and social injustice. “That rhythmical thing is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side”.

There are few of Harrison’s poems that go closer to the fire than the second of his Gulf War poems, ‘A Cold Coming’. Its initial stimulus, reproduced on the cover of the original Bloodaxe pamphlet, was a photograph by Kenneth Jarecke in The Observer. The picture graphically showed the charred head of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burned-out truck which had been hit by Allied Forces in the infamous ‘turkey-shoot’ as Saddam’s forces retreated from Kuwait City. In the poem, Harrison makes the Iraqi himself speak both with a brutal self-recognition (“a skull half roast, half bone”) as well as a scornful envy of three American soldiers who were reported to have banked their sperm for posterity before the war began (hence, with a scatological nod to Eliot, the title of the poem). There are undoubtedly echoes in the Iraqi’s speech of the hooligan alter ego in the poemV’, yet Harrison worries little over any narrow authenticity of voice in this case, and he does triumphantly pull off the balancing act between the reader’s emotional engagement with this fierce personal voice and a more universalising portrayal of  a victim of modern warfare. Furthermore, it is Harrison’s establishment and then variation of the poem’s metrical “life-support system” that enables him to achieve this balance, to complete a poem which weighs in against Adorno’s view that lyric poetry has become an impossibility in the shadow of this century’s brutality.

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The poem’s form – rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets – seems in itself chosen with restraint in mind, as if the photographic evidence of the horror lying in front of him led Harrison to opt for a particularly firm rhythmical base “to carry [him] to the other side”. Indeed, the opening five stanzas are remarkable in their regularity with only a brief reversed foot in the fourth line foreshadowing the more erratic energies soon to be released by the Iraqi soldier’s speech:

 

I saw the charred Iraqi lean

towards me from bomb-blasted screen,

 

his windscreen wiper like a pen

ready to write down thoughts for men.

 

The instant the Iraqi’s voice breaks in, the metre is under threat. Each of his first four stanzas opens with trochaic imperatives or questions and at one point he asks if the “gadget” Harrison has (apparently a tape-recorder but a transparent image of poetry itself) has the power to record “words from such scorched vocal chords”. Apart from the drumming of stresses in lines such as this, Harrison deploys sibilance, the alliteration of g’s and d’s, followed by an horrific mumbling of m’s to suggest the charred figure’s effortful speech in the first moments of the encounter. Regularity is re-established the moment the tape-recorder’s mike is held “closer to the crumbling bone” and there is a strong sense of release from the dead man’s initial aggressive button-holing as his voice (and the verse) now speeds away:

 

I read the news of three wise men

who left their sperm in nitrogen,

 

three foes of ours, three wise Marines,

with sample flasks and magazines . . .

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In the stanzas that follow the dead man’s angry, envious sarcasm is controlled within the bounds of the form and it is rather Harrison’s rhymes which provide much of the kick: God/wad, Kuwait/procreate, fate/ejaculate, high tech’s/sex. It is only when the man demands that Harrison/the reader imagines him in a sexual embrace with his wife back home in Baghdad that the metrical propulsion again begins to fail. It is in moments such as this that the difficult emotional work in the poem is to be done. This is our identification with these ghastly remains, with the enemy, and it is as if the difficulty of it brings the verse juddering and gasping to an incomplete line with “the image of me beside my wife / closely clasped creating life . . .”

The difficulty of this moment is further attested to by the way the whole poem turns its back upon it. Harrison inserts a parenthetical section, preoccupied not with the empathic effort the dead Iraqi has asked for but with chilly, ironic deliberations on “the sperm in one ejaculation”. Yet all is not well, since this section stumbles and hesitates metrically as if Harrison himself (or rather the persona he has adopted in the poem) is half-conscious of retreating into safe, calculative and ratiocinative processes. Eventually, a conclusion yields itself up, but it is once again the metrical change of gear into smooth regularity (my italics below) that suggests this is a false, defensive even cynical avoidance of the difficult issues raised by the charred body in the photograph:

 

Whichever way Death seems outflanked

by one tube of cold bloblings banked.

 

Poor bloblings, maybe you’ve been blessed

with, of all fates possible, the best

 

according to Sophocles i.e.

‘the best of fates is not to be’

 

a philosophy that’s maybe bleak

for any but an ancient Greek . . .

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That this is the way to read this passage is confirmed by the renewed aggression of the Iraqi soldier who hears these thoughts and stops the recorder with a thundering of alliterative stresses: “I never thought life futile, fool! // Though all Hell began to drop / I never wanted life to stop”. What follows is the Iraqi soldier’s longest and most impassioned speech, by turns a plea for attention and a sarcastic commentary on the collusion of the media whose behaviour will not “help peace in future ages”. Particular mention is given to the “true to bold-type-setting Sun” and, as can be seen from such a phrase, Harrison once more allows particular moments of anger and high emotion to burst through the fluid metrical surface like jagged rocks. There is also a sudden increase in feminine rhyme endings in this section which serves to give a barely-caged impression, as if the voice is trembling on the verge of bursting its metrical limits and racing across the page. This impression is further reinforced in the series of imperatives – again in the form of snapping trochees at the opening of several stanzas – that form the climax to this section of the poem:

 

Lie that you saw me and I smiled

to see the soldier hug his child.

 

Lie and pretend that I excuse

my bombing by B52s.

 

The final ten stanzas culminate in a fine example of the way in which Harrison manipulates metrical form to good effect. In a kind of atheistic religious insight, the “cold spunk” so carefully preserved becomes a promise, or perhaps an eternal teasing reminder, of the moment when “the World renounces War”. However, emphasis falls far more heavily on the seemingly insatiable hunger of the present for destruction because of the way Harrison rhythmically clogs the penultimate stanza, bringing it almost to a complete halt. The frozen semen is “a bottled Bethlehem of this come- /curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium”. Yet, as we have seen, Harrison understands the need to come through “to the other side” of such horrors and the final stanza does shakily re-establish the form (though the final line opens with two weak stresses and does not close). However, any naive understanding of the poet’s comments about coming through the fire can be firmly dismissed. This is not the place for any sentimental or rational synthetic solution. Simply, we are returned to the charred face whose painful, personal testament this poem has managed to encompass and movingly dramatise but without losing its form, thus ensuring a simultaneous sense of the universality of its art and message:

 

I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY

and I heard the charred man say:

 

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