In his 1978 poem ‘Long Distance’ Tony Harrison describes his father’s difficulties in coming to terms with his wife’s death and the emotions Harrison himself experiences upon the death his father. To arrive at this interpretation after reading the poem is, by all means, a valid insight. It would, however, be a pity to be contented with this alone. For such a reading does probably not allow for the rhetoric means to be fully appreciated to which Harrison reverted to communicate his poem successfully. Furthermore, the way in which the reader experiences the poem, as well as how it affects the reader would not find consideration. In short – the poem’s texture would not be accounted for. The following analysis, based on my own natural reading, attempts to describe and explain the texture of Harrison’s poem.
As is to be expected, the first stanza of the poem has a distinct effect on the reader. For one, this is because the level of concentration is still high. More importantly, however, the first stanza of the poem presents the reader with an appealing text world. Foremost, the agent of the sentence is human, namely the narrator’s father. A human agent, in a way, provides the reader with the possibility to interact mentally with or develop sentiments towards him. Stockwell (2009: 25) illustrates this with his empathetic recognisability scale on which human agents rank highest. Besides this, the line initial positioning and, somewhat obvious, capitalization of the word ‘Dad’ (l. 2) attract the reader’s attention. Furthermore, the actions described are all in the active voice and literally convey motion, which will appear more intense to a reader which Stockwell (2009: 25) terms activeness. Lastly, the objects described in the first stanza, ‘slippers’, ‘bottles’, and ‘transport pass’ (ll. 2, 3, 4 respectively), all form good attractors as they are concrete, very ordinary objects to which every reader ought to be able to relate easily. Together, these three factors ensure that the first stanza remains fairly prominent in the reader’s mind throughout the reading of the poem.
In the course of the second stanza, the reader’s focus remains on the father. The proper noun ‘Dad’ from the first stanza is pronominalised in ‘He’(l. 6) and ‘his’(l. 7), thereby finding itself positively revivified (Stockwell 2009: 20). Thus, the two pronouns in line 5 are more or less disregarded since their generic use renders them too unspecific to the reader to be in any way meaningful. Thereafter, the reader’s awareness is drawn towards the word ‘love’ in line 8, despite it being fairly
abstract. It is elaborately pre-modified by a three-word noun phrase, namely ‘his still raw’(l. 8), which, as Stockwell (2009: 25) notes, functions as an effective textual attractor. Additionally it might be argued that ‘love’ is simply an appealing concept to humans, as is it universal.
In contrast to the first two stanzas, the third stanza as a whole appears somewhat less literarily intense. Conceivably, some of the denoted nouns such as ‘disbelief’, ‘grief’ and indirectly ‘knowledge (ll. 9, 10, 12, respectively) are too abstract to form strong attractors. The description of the key scraping in the lock, however, might be found to have a more enduring effect. Stockwell (2009: 25) explains this with the principle of noisiness, which ‘denote[s] phenomena which are audibly voluminous’. Accordingly, the description of the key turning in the lock may be mentally processed into sound, thereby creating greater intensity and perseverance.
So far, the poem has probably had a calming or soothing effect on the reader. Firstly, this might be explained structurally with the poem’s symmetry. The stanzas consist of four lines each, which, in turn, are made up of either ten or eleven syllables, arranged to form an alternate rhyme scheme. As the assonant words are, thus, only separated by a few syllables, the reader’s anticipation of the subsequent rhyme is rewarded quickly. Though the clauses mostly continue over more than one line, they are syntactically end-stopped. Owing to this structure, the reader is provided with a fairly steady reading rhythm, to which he soon becomes accustomed. Secondly, the vantage point adopted by the reader is somewhat removed from the characters since the descriptions by the narrator are in the third person. Lastly, the discourse situation has been advanced plainly enough by the narrator, so that every reader is aware of the death of the mother, the father’s reluctance to cope with his loss, and the narrator’s sympathetic view on this. Understanding the consequences of these two contrasting belief worlds has demanded some emotional investment of the reader, thereby certainly arousing sympathy for the father. Yet, reasons to invest more emotional and intellectual depth of effort to appreciate the poem have so far not arisen.
The incentive effectuating this, however, is given at the beginning of the fourth stanza. The confrontation with the first-person narrator ‘I’ (l. 13), located prominently at the beginning of the line, forces itself into the reader’s attention to two effects. On the one hand, the reader is drawn into feeling much closer to the action, supported by the change to the present tense. On the other hand, the lyrical-I constitutes the foremost agent for the reader to interact with, so that developing sentiments towards him is possible from now on. As a consequence, the first three stanzas, in which the agent was a third-person and the action was not only purely descriptive, but also in the past tense, fade into the literary background, giving way to the fourth stanza. The first line sustains its intensity further as the reader is briefly attracted by the word ‘death’. (l. 13). As Stockwell (2009: 25) notes, aesthetic distance from the norm will make a good attractor, which may serve as an explanation for this. Thereafter, the reader approaches the section of the poem which will reward him for his emotional investment – the ‘moment of payoff’, as Stockwell (2009: 98) writes. He observes, ‘the final three lines release […] the grief in one single onward flow’ (Stockwell 2009: 98), which may explain a reader’s possible initial confusion. The use of ‘You haven’t both’ at the beginning of line 14 forces the reader to consider who the addressees of the plural pronoun are since they are obviously not applied generically as in line 5. The reader is, nevertheless, given hardly any time to spend much thought on this as his rhythm of reading is interrupted slightly for the first time in the poem in the middle of line 14. As a consequence, his attention and concentration are re-focused on the following line. Here again, Stockwell’s principle of largeness can be applied to give an explanation as the noun ‘phone book’ (l. 15) is preceded by five modifiers. Thus, attention is drawn away from the deictic pronouns ‘you’ and ‘both’ from the previous line and focused on understanding the new noun phrase. Upon reading the last line, the reader may be confused by the seemingly incongruous connection of the out-of-date ‘disconnected number’ (l. 16) which the narrator ‘still call[s]’ (l. 16) and the obviously new ‘phone book’ (l. 15). In virtually the same instant, the reader’s memory rushes back two lines to ‘You haven’t both gone shopping’ (l. 14), connects it to the scene of the third stanza, and arrives at the revelation that the narrator’s father has also died.