Critical Commentary of “Book Ends” by Tony Harrison

Published: 2021-06-16 00:30:03
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Book Ends by Tony Harrison is a poem about the death of the writer’s mother, and the effect this has on the complicated relationship between father and son, who are unable to relate to each other or communicate emotionally. The tone of the poem is melancholic, reflecting on the theme of death and the breakup of family, with a bitter edge in the description of the unbridgeable rift between father and son which widens following the mother’s death. The poem is separated into two parts, each with sixteen lines, and is loosely based on an iambic pentameter metre. The rhyme scheme is ABAB throughout the poem, with the noticeable exception of the last four lines of part II, in which it changes to ABBA, reflecting a time shift in the poem’s narration. The first ten lines are made up of couplets, but the general structure is flexible and there is no strict format or line grouping to the poem – this is perhaps representative of the emotions and disjointed thought processes felt by the writer following his mother’s death.
The two parts of the poem take place at different points in time. Narrated by the son from a first person perspective, part I describes his and his father’s reactions immediately after the death of the mother and introduces their problematic relationship. The first line is a sudden and mildly unsettling beginning to the poem, and juxtaposes the homely, familiar image of a homemade apple with the stark reality of death in a reminder that devastation can strike at even the most ordinary of moments. The father and son slowly chew over both the pie and the actuality of the mother’s death as they begin to come to terms with their loss. The father, ‘shocked into sleeplessness’, seems to feel the absence of his wife most profoundly, and his son accuses him of being ‘scared of bed’ and unable to face his loneliness. He reflects that the two of them have always had difficulty communicating, but now in the time when they need each other’s support most they don’t even try and share their grief. This is the first hint of the awkward relationship existing between the father and son, which becomes a central theme later on in the poem.
The next two lines are spoken by the mother, who compares her husband and son to book ends. This concept, which the reader first encounters in the title, is an extended simile within the first part of the poem, and characterises the similarities and differences between the father and son. Just like book ends, which look identical but face opposite directions, they are much the same in terms of appearance and habitudes, but as we find out in the next couplet these resemblances only go so far and do not translate into a close relationship. Here we are told that while the father is ‘worn out on poor pay’ and comes from a working class background, the son is a ‘scholar’, who has had a university education.
The use of inverted commas here suggests the writer is being sarcastic and somewhat tongue-in-cheek about his educational prowess, which adds a sense of irony to their dissimilarity. This contrast of circumstances means that despite their physical resemblances and close blood relations, they have very little in common – indeed, as the writer says, they are linked solely by their uncommunicativeness: ‘only our silence made us a pair’. In the next couplet, the writer tells us that blue gas fires are ‘not as good for staring in’, perhaps in comparison to a wood fire in the grate the mother described the father and son as hogging earlier on in the poem. This is evidence that time has passed and things, including technology, have moved on from the days which the mother is referring to. It is also a link to Tony Harrison’s poem Long Distance II, in which he tells us that his father kept his mother’s slippers warming by the gas even after her death, a habit so ingrained into his everyday life that he can’t help himself from continuing it even when the wearer of the slippers is long gone.
The writer makes a point of comparing the two types of flame: this could indicate that he has a lot of time on his hands, and, without any idea of how to fill it, spends long hours staring into the fire, perhaps in his father’s silent company. He describes the blue gas flame as being ‘too regular each bud, each yellow spike’, and this criticism is perhaps evidence of his inner turmoil and a need for a chaotic emotional outlet. The next couple of lines portray the idea that it is only through the mother that the father and son are united. In life, her presence and assurances that they are alike linked them, and once she is gone, there is little to bring them together except their shared grief, which as they are so emotionally divided they find impossible to communicate.
Up until this point, the narrator of the poem has clearly been the son, but it is unclear who is speaking in the line ‘Your life’s all shattered to smithereens’, or indeed whose life is being referred to in this highly effective image of broken glass, smashed into tiny shards. It could be the son talking to the father or vice versa, or the mother talking to either one of them, but equally the shattered life in question could be the mother’s, in that her life, which once combined her husband, her son and herself in one family, is now fragmented into separate pieces following her death as the father and son drift apart. Earlier on in the poem we are told that the son and father come from very different cultural backgrounds, but it is only in the last three lines of the part I that we realise that the son’s education is not merely a dividing factor but a considerable bone of contention between him and his father. In an attempt to bond with each other, they turn to drink to forget their grief, but it is to no avail as they revert to their perpetual silence and inability to relate to one another, communicating solely by ‘sullen looks’. Separated by the son’s academia and learning, it is not age which poses the problem, but a university degree and ‘books, books, books’.
This repetition is effective in emphasising the gap between them, and concludes the extended metaphor of part I: the books, representing knowledge and education, do not only alienate the father and son, but also separate the book ends to which the two men are compared earlier in the poem, in a highly effective double metaphor. The second part jumps forward in time, to a point a while after the mother’s death when the father and son, divided in all other fields but united once more by the mother, are deciding what to have cut on her gravestone. As they come from a modest financial background, the stone is far from grand and there is little room for flowery words or description, so the wording must be concise and to the point. In the next couplet, the father expresses his anger and exasperation: he was certain that with his son’s learning and knowledge of words he would effortlessly produce something touching and eloquent for the headstone, but the son, devastated by his mother’s death, is unable to find the words needed to commemorate her in his grief.
The father is incredulous, and tells him dismissively that ‘it’s not as if we’re wanting verse’, implying that it must be easier to find the words to write on his one’s mother’s gravestone than to write a poem. The next few lines of the poem are further evidence of the father and son’s lack of common relations, as they are united once more by alcohol in their attempt to deal with their suffering. Under the influence of whisky, perhaps the only way he can express himself without inhibitions, the father says he had always been ‘clumsy talker’, and admits that he can’t come up with anything better for the headstone that ‘beloved wife’, which he seems to consider inelegant and unworthy of the emotion he would express if he had the words to do so. There is a certain bitterness in the writer’s tone when he reflects that while his father is open about his own lack of eloquence, which itself reveals his working class origins, his words are not so unpolished to be incapable of making a caustic remark.
The phrase ‘still can’t cut’ has a double meaning, as it refers to both this and the action of cutting the words into the gravestone. The father’s anger is manifest at his son’s inability to produce an inscription for the grave, and he tells his son that he is ‘supposed to be the bright boy at description’, in an obvious jibe about his university education. The use of an exclamation mark and the word ‘fuck’ in his comment are evidence of his considerable anger and frustration, and are also evidence of a dysfunctional family situation. The line ‘I’ve got to find the right words on my own’ is another ambiguous line, as it is not clear who is speaking. The reader gets the idea that the father could be saying the words after he realises his son is incapable of producing anything better, in a kind of exasperation. However the line could also be spoken by the writer, either as a response to the father’s insistence that he come up with something beautiful and touching for the inscription, or some time afterwards, when his father has passed away and he is left truly alone to choose the words for their shared headstone.
This double narrative emphasises the solitude of the two men in the face of death, and their isolation from one another. In the last three lines, the writer tells us he has found the envelope on which his father had been scribbling ideas for his wife’s headstone. He describes the words as ‘mis-spelt, mawkish’ and ‘stylistically appalling’, but admits that he cannot find a way to better express the loss he has experienced, or in other words is unable to ‘squeeze more love into their stone’. The use of the word ‘their’ in this metaphor subtly explains that the gravestone is shared, and that the father has passed away and is now buried alongside the writer’s mother. It is in this final concluding line that the writer freely admits that despite his education and writing ability, he cannot seem to manage to write anything more honest or pure than his father’s unsophisticated words.
The poem has a personal register, with intimate emotional description. The majority of the lines use informal language and syntax, such as the father’s exclamation ‘Come on, it’s not as if we’re wanting verse’, which is very much an expression of the vernacular. By avoiding overly flamboyant phrases, the poem does not lose its authenticity, and the raw emotion comes across effortlessly. Simple and unaffected, the writer’s voice relates with painfully truthful accuracy the consequences the death of a loved one can have on an already strained family situation. Tony Harrison is open and honest, and his poem uses a remarkable lack of the melodramatic imagery and ideas expressed in many poems which deal with death. In this way Book Ends shares certain likenesses with his poem Long Distance II, which is similarly written in a conversational tone and contains few grandiloquent metaphors. A major theme in Book Ends is one of pairs.
Aside from the book ends of the title, the father and son are made to ‘seem a pair’ in their habits and appearances, and it is this comparison which is at an uncomfortable odds with the rest of the themes discussed, primarily the conflict between the two of them. Furthermore, the poem is structured into two parts, again reflecting the idea of pairs. The poem Book Ends is a reflection on the inadequacy of words, and that the feeling behind them is often more important than the way the idea is expressed. Tony Harrison considers what it is to be a poet, and what purpose it serves to be able to manipulate words into shapes and images if, even as a learned man with a greater degree of education than his working class father can ever hope to have, he is unable to produce a fitting tribute to his departed parents.

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