‘Long Distance’ by Tony Harrison and ‘The Sick Equation’ by Brian Patten both present negative family relationships. In ‘Long Distance’ Harrison talks about the relationship between father and son after their mother dies. It is a simple reflection on grief. In ‘The Sick Equation’ Patten explains to us how he felt about his unstable childhood.
In ‘Long Distance’ the overriding atmosphere is morose and melancholy which fits in with the themes of the poem. The atmosphere is portrayed by the language Tony Harrison uses, fro example ‘raw love’ and ‘crime’. The poem has a steady rhythm as it offers a steady outlook on death. You also feel pathos for the father. “Though my mother was already two years dead Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas.” The father is finding it hard to come to terms with the death of his wife even though it has been a long time since she died.
In ‘The Sick Equation’ the prevailing feeling is remorse, lack of understanding and sadness. You can empathize with the son due to the amount of imagery Patten uses. The poem has a miserable atmosphere as his emotionally painful childhood has affected his adulthood.
The themes that recur in ‘Long Distance’ and ‘The Sick Equation’ include pathos, loss, death, sadness and family relationship. ‘Long Distance’s’ themes are loneliness, love and routine which is portrayed when the father carries on doing the same things that he did when his wife was alive. The themes in ‘The Sick Equation’ are suffering and fear of being hurt. This is shown when the son grew up and learned that he should not love.
In the opening stanza of ‘Long Distance’ Harrison makes this poem personal by saying ‘my mother’ this makes you feel that you can empathize with the characters more than if it was in second or third person. Also in the first stanza of ‘Long Distance’ Harrison says ‘went to renew her transport pass.’ This suggests the father is not restricting his behavior to his private life.
In the opening stanza of ‘The Sick Equation’ Patten tells us how he couldn’t understand the relationship of his parents ‘In school I learnt that one and one made two… But at home, sweet home, that sum was open to dispute.’ This emphasizes the emotion of the lack of understanding by the young Patten. There is an oppressive atmosphere in ‘The Sick Equation’ ‘In that raw cocoon of parental hate…’ This quote tells us that Patten felt claustrophobic in his emotions toward his parents and feels he could not express these emotions a child would normally express. Both poems start with a depressing mood, however ‘Long Distance’ starts in a more formal tone than ‘The Sick Equation’.
In Stanza 2 and 3 of ‘Long Distance’ Harrison’s father knows that he is doing something wrong ‘He’d put you off an hour to give him time to clear away her things and look alone…’ This makes him feel worse and embarrassed. Even the son is too scared to talk about it because he knows if he does his father may get upset. Also in ‘Long Distance’ Harrison uses language like ‘raw love were such a crime.’ This is not meant literally, the raw love is like an open wound and it takes time to heal but the father takes longer to heal than others.
In Stanza 2, 3 and 4 of ‘The Sick Equation’ Patten is coming to terms with the fact that it is alright to love. ‘I never let love stay long enough to take root,’ This is describing his early adulthood and how he never got too close to a person in case he fell in love. It also links back to Stanza 1 where he says ‘raw cocoon’ this is another reference to nature. Patten’s feelings come in the way of growing up. ‘I grew – or did not grow – ‘He is describing how he grew physically but not emotionally and how his feelings of despair prevented him from growing up to be a well-rounded adult. There is an example of an extended metaphor in ‘The Sick Equation’ and it is to do with flying. ‘Because to the flightless the dream of flight’s an anguish.’
Patten enjoyed the relationship but started to worry if it was too good. Later on in the poem he also uses ‘The shadow of that albatross…’Patten uses the image of an albatross to describe divorce. The albatross comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ where the mariner kills the albatross and, as a consequence, is made to carry it around his neck. It was a punishment and that is how Patten sees divorce, the punishment for getting married.
In ‘The Sick Equation’s’ final stanza Patten realizes he was wrong all his life and he blames his parents for his unhappy adulthood. ‘The lesson that our parents taught, and in their sick equation not stay caught.’ He feels that his parents were twisted and it was disgusting how his parent let him think in that way. There is another extended metaphor in ‘The Sick Equation’ and it is to do with school and maths. ‘The Sick Equation’ refers to a mathematical word and ‘Stung more than any teacher’s cane’ also is a teaching expression.
I think ‘Long Distance’ has been very cleverly written. Just when you think you know what Harrison is trying to tell you, just when you think you can sympathize with him about his love for his father and his torment at watching his father’s extreme grief, the poem jolts you. The last stanza tells you that the poem was never just about the father. It’s about Harrison and his won struggle to accept the finality of his parent’s death and his own refusal to see them as ‘disconnected’ from his life. It has a metaphor at the end of the poem ‘You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same, in my new black leather phone book there’s your name and the disconnected number I still call.’ The father and son are not miles, but emotionally, distant.
In conclusion, I think both poems convey their ideas well and although the presentation, structure and idea’s were different they both had most of the same themes and deal with bad family relationships.