How does Tony Harrison use language, form and structure to present grief in ‘Long Distance II’?

The poem ‘Long Distance II’ tackles the issue of bereavement and the emotions that are connected. In this poem, the speaker seems to be able to cope with the death of his mother and believes in a matter-of-factly fashion that “life ends with death”, however we learn that in reality he still feels grief and “calls the disconnected number” for his mother and father who have both passed away. The poet (Tony Harrison) uses few devices. This avoids an overly constructed and artificial style as Harrison wants to strike a more natural conversational tone.

He uses words such as “he’d” and “can’t” to make the piece more understated and less theatrical. The use of enjambment also reinforces this idea. By running over lines, the poem becomes less methodical and well-planned out and more natural, as if it’s more of private confession rather than a structured poem. However the poet does discretely insert a slight personification when he mention’s his father’s “raw love”. Love is an abstract noun – something you can’t hear, taste, smell, see or touch. However Harrison decides to personify it, making it more human and fleshy.

He makes love seem no longer invincible and robust, but instead makes it seem vulnerable and subject to injury. On the other hand, you could interpret the personified phrase “raw love”, in the way of his father’s heart being torn open by grief, revealing the fleshy wound which is still taking time to heal over. The poet bases his poem on the traditional sonnet. A sonnet is usually about love, and although this doesn’t immediately strike you as being a love poem, the primary message is that love and affection never truly dies.

The writer has chosen to stick to the basic, monotone “abab” rhyme scheme of a sonnet. This shows him as being level-headed and emotionless, as the scheme is very rigid and regular. The use of iambic pentameter furthermore backs this up. Iambic pentameter is very regimental with emphasis on every other syllable. This again demonstrates his ability to remain stable during the grieving period. However, in the final quatrain, instead of ending it with the usual conclusive rhyming couplet, he brings in a completely new rhyme scheme.

This shows him losing control, letting go of expectations and pouring out his raw emotions that he was earlier masking with his practical and detached appearance. This surprises the reader as it invites a completely new dimension and tone to the poem that is very unexpected. The poem is exactly 16 lines long. Although a sonnet is usually 14 lines long, this too reinforces the idea of a sonnet. Initially, the speaker uses blunt language to expose his seemingly practical and pragmatic response to bereavement.

Harrison uses the word “dead” to show the speakers lack of euphemism. Whereas many people would subtly say that someone passed away, the speaker tells us in a straight forward way that his mum is “dead”. This coincides with when he tells us in a no-nonsense way that “life ends with death, and that is all”. However later on in the poem we find out that the speaker does miss his parents and still has their number in his “black leather phone book” which he calls.

Although we may now think that the speaker is over his earlier emotionless self, the use of the words “black” and “leather” connotates coldness and masculinity linking directly back to his previous business-like attitude. Tony Harrison has used language, form and structure very effectively to capture the emotions of those grieving. He used specifically chosen language that showed informality yet decisiveness and structured his poem so that it represented the classic love sonnet but with a modern twist.

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