Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn

Tim Turnbull

Among the several examples of intertextuality in this selection, Turnbull’s adaptation of Keats is the most sustained. Starting from its almost homophonous title, he takes one of the greatest poems of the Romantic period and turns it on its head, skilfully mirroring stanza form, rhythm and rhyme. If you haven’t read Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, you need to, and can do so here. Keats’ poem is a consideration of art, time and beauty as the speaker contemplates a classical Greek vase where youths are caught in time in a pastoral landscape. Tim Turnbull gives us an urban contemporary reworking where Romanticism is obsolete.

Keats’ reverence for his urn is displaced immediately by the disparaging tone of Turnbull’s colloquial response to Perry’s work. It is as if he has just come across it – ‘Hello! What’s all this here?’ It is not initially addressed, but commented on as ‘A kitschy vase’ which ‘some Shirley Temple manqué has knocked out’. When Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003, he was generally described as ‘the transvestite potter’, having an alter-ego called Claire who regularly dressed in blue and white Little Bo-Peep outfits. The tone of Turnbull’s language suggests a scornful dismissal of Perry and his work before the poem moves on to the vase itself. As well as ‘kitschy’, the speaker describes it as ‘gaudy’ and ‘garish’, but those adjectives seems far from appropriate for the subject matter depicted on the urn.

Instead, kids and cars are pictured, and again Turnbull’s lexis is sneeringly superior. These are kids from ‘crap estates’, ‘louts’ who create ‘bedlam’ with ‘their motors’. The three locations mentioned, ‘Manchester’, ‘Motherwell ‘and ‘Slough’, are urban centres in northern England, Scotland and southern England. As the poem acknowledges with the reference to a ‘Daily Express exposé’, this is the stuff of tabloid horror story and the kind of ‘feckless’ behaviour of working class youth once bewailed by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Like Keats, Turnbull considers the paradox of the vase, which itself exudes ‘a sense of peace, of calm’, yet depicts noise and activity – ‘the throaty turbo roar’, ‘the joyful throb’, ‘the screech of tyres’ and ‘nervous squeals’. The auditory vocabulary and onomatopoeia convey the noise juxtaposed with the ‘calm’. Closer to Keats too is the appreciation of the way these depicted moments of apparent energy and movement are in fact caught in static representation, which means that though the squealing girls are painted in ‘peril’, in fact, ‘no harm’ will ‘befall these children.’ That stretching of time is accentuated by the wait for ‘forever’, extending the sentence from the second to the third stanza.

Keats’ third stanza focuses on ‘happy, happy love’, while Turnbull gives a debased 21st century version, couched in the language of youth. He focuses on the young people’s underwear – ‘Calvin’s’ and ‘thong’ – and sexual activities as ‘each geezer toned and strong’ is ‘given head’ by girls who are ‘buff’. The unpleasant realities of such behaviour are also included, with the reference to ‘chlamydia roulette’, the chance possibility of a sexually transmitted infection.

The description of the urn’s ornamentation continues with further accounts of urban youth’s behaviour, as ‘rat-boys and corn-rowed cheerleaders’ drink high alcohol ‘Buckfast and Diamond White’ and are compared with the ‘pensioners and parents’ who ‘twitch’ their curtains. The sympathies of the poem are uncertain, as the derogatory tone is applied to both the younger and the older generation, but the sardonic comment that ‘tranquillity… is for the rich’ seems to align the tone with the less affluent.

The central concerns of Keat’s ode return in Turnbull’s final stanza. Instead of the respect of ‘O Attic shape! Fair attitude!’, the contemptuous tone is retained with ‘you garish crock’. But Turnbull asks whether Grayson Perry’s artwork will have the same effect as the classical vase which inspired Keats – ‘will future poets look on you amazed’? Crucially, he wonders whether those poets, without the context that Turnbull himself has, which has allowed him to interpret and use the lexis of the time, might respond to this work as Keats responded to the Greek urn. Will they (mis)judge the urban youth, purposelessly filling their time, as ‘happy’? Keats comes to firm conclusions about truth, but Turnbull recognises that truth is ‘negotiable’, it depends on context and understanding, and ‘beauty is in the gift of the beholder.’ Turnbull’s own beholding of the Grayson Perry urn has not acknowledged much ‘beauty’ in his satirical verbal depiction. But later poets might. And, he suggests, Keats may have described his vase according to his own prejudices and ideas, which might have been considerably different from the artist’s who made the vase. Art, after all, is as ‘negotiable’ as truth.

Watch a video of the poem made by Tim Turnbull: