‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ by Tim Turnbull is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of ten lines. The lines conform to a rhyming pattern of ABABCDEDCE, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Turnbull also chose to make use of a very traditional rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter. This means that each line is separated into five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
This is the same form used by Keats in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn.’ His poem follows the same rhyme scheme and is also written in iambic pentameter. Both poems, as stated in the title, are “odes.” An ode is a kind of lyric poetry that is sometimes meant to be sung. It is generally addressed to a natural subject and formatted in a specific kind of meter.
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Another technique that is seen throughout ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Alliteration is also present within the text. It can be seen throughout the stanzas but a few examples include lines eight and nine of the fourth stanza. These two lines contain four words beginning with “p” and the “parents” “plead” for “peace.” Onomatopoeia is combined with alliteration in the second stanza with the phrase “throaty turbo roar.”
Title and Context
It is important to note before beginning this piece that there are two very clear references in the title. The first is to Keats’ poem, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ a poem that is about the way that an urn depicts the classical world. It speaks on the lives of those depicted on the vase as stuck in time.
By titling the poem as he did, Turnbull uses satire in order to make his own version of the famous text. Rather than referencing the “Grecian Urn” though, he is going to speak on a “Grayson Perry Urn.” Grayson Perry is a contemporary painter and ceramicist. His work initially appears quite different from what Keats’ was interested in. But, that is not entirely true. The vases that Perry makes depict the world as we know it today. The lives of normal people, if embellished, are included in the pottery.
Summary of Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn
‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ by Tim Turnbull is an in-depth description of the emotions a viewer feels upon seeing one of Perry’s ceramic works.
‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ begins with the speaker exclaiming over the sight of an urn. This is a kind of vase that mimics a style used in Classical Greece. The poem itself parodies Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and there are references to the Keats piece throughout. On the urn, the speaker sees young people in a car. They are recklessly driving from village to city to town in England. They are putting their lives on the line, but don’t realize it due to their young age. At first, the speaker seems judgemental of the kids, but that soon changes.
In the second stanza, it turns out that he loves the sight of these young people. They are experiencing the freedom that no one is able to really have. Due to the fact that they are painted on a piece of ceramic pottery, the state they are in at that particular moment is never going to change. They are going to be free, happy, young, and without responsibilities. The speaker also celebrates the fact that they are sexually open, and unable to be harmed by STIs or STDs.
The scene grows larger when the speaker describes the other young people on the side of the road. They are drinking beer and cheering on the kids in the car. They urge them to drive faster and make donuts in the tarmac. Across from this happy, joyful scene, there are the disapproving parents and pensioners who are at the windows. They are calling the police, trying to find a way to calm the situation and get their quiet back. It is clear that the speaker is on the side of the kids, as he admires their lack of control.
In the final stanza, the speaker pulls back, as Keats did, to look at the vase from an outsider’s perspective. He imagines that in the future others will look at the same piece of art and sees something similar to what he is observing now. He hopes that they will understand the freedom the kids had and think that they were happy.
Analysis of Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn
Hello! What’s all this here? A kitschy vase
some Shirley Temple manqué has knocked out
conjure the scene without inducing fright,
as would a Daily Express exposé,
In the first stanza of ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ the speaker begins with an exclamation. This seems quite out of place considering the references to Keats, and is certainly meant to capture the reader’s attention. There is something the speaker has seen, and he’s not quite sure how to describe it. It is a “kitschy vase” that has painted on its depictions of English life.
It appears at first to not be very valuable or of any great aesthetic quality, but anyone with knowledge of Perry’s work will see the connection. But, he speaks first on a “manqué” Shirley Temple. A version of the actress that is not quite right. The speaker is referring to the artist himself, Grayson Perry, and his passion for cross-dressing, specifically as a young girl.
The “Shirley Temple manqué has knocked out,” or created, images of kids from “crap estates” and and “louts” wearing “Burberry.” These kids are reckless and rebellious and it seems like the speaker is looking down on them, and in turn the artist for depicting them. They are seen to be racing through the “smoky night” across the country creating “bedlam on the Queen’s highway.
The speaker’s understanding of the vase evolves in the next lines and he compares it favourably against the Daily Express. It is less liable to induce a fight than the tabloid newspaper might. It is still “gaudy” but more tasteful than other depictions might be.
can bring to mind the throaty turbo roar
of hatchbacks tuned almost to breaking point,
will not lose traction, skid and flip, no harm
befall these children. They will stay out late
In the next lines the speaker describes how from the vase he is able to take in the lives of the young people. They are driving “hatchback” cars which are “tuned almost to breaking point.” The images call to mind the “roar” of these cars and “UK garage” music. They are to the speaker a “joyful throb.”
The sights and the emotions they produce actually make the speaker feel calm and peaceful. This is contrasted with the images themselves which include the “screech of tires and the nervous squeals / of girls.” Clearly the young people are reckless, taking no care for their own lives. In fact, the speaker states that they are too young to even realize “the peril they are in.”
As Keats used the vase to speak on people frozen in time, so too does Turnbull. He knows that the kids are going to be alright. “No harm” is going to befall them.
forever, pumped on youth and ecstasy,
on alloy, bass and arrogance, and speed
never to be deflated, given head
in crude games of chlamydia roulette.
The kids have a freedom that the speaker is able to pick up and appreciate. They can “stay out late” and remain pumped up on their own “youth” forever. These lines speak to a feeling of movement, but in the background there is always the fact that the kids are never going to move from the spot they are in. They are stuck in time.
To the speaker this is not a bad thing. There are never going to have to worry about getting back home “for work next day, to bed.”
Everyone on the vase is in good shape as well. The girls are “buff” and each guy, referred to here as a “geezer,” is “toned and strong.” They are in the prime of their life and able to enjoy it forever. They are also filled with sexual need. All the young people, whether they are wearing “Calvin’s” or “thongs” are “never” going to “be deflated.” Additionally, they don’t ever have to worry about “chlamydia roulette.” This shows the speaker’s care for these young people. STDs or STIs will never hurt them.
Now see who comes to line the sparse grass verge,
to toast them in Buckfast and Diamond White:
the cops to plead for quiet, sue for peace –
tranquility, though, is for the rich.
The neighborhood expands in stanza four of ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn.’ There are people outside on the streets watching this progression of young people. They too are young, and described as “rat-boys” and “corn-rowed cheerleaders.” They wear their hair in braids and are drinking “Buckfast and Diamond White.” These are two different kinds of beer that one might associate with lower and middle-class lifestyles.
Just as the speaker seems to be, the neighbors are cheering the kids in the car on. They are urging them to do more donuts or write their signatures on the pavement. With their encouragement, the kids press harder, pushing the boundaries of what is safe. Another moment where the speaker is clearly enthralled by the adventure of the kids is in line six of this stanza.
He refers to the “tarmac” as belonging to “dead suburban streets”. There is something exciting and joyful about the adventure the kids are on, and therefore, one can assume, about the vase itself. This is an apt description of Grayson Perry’s work. His pieces are often considered to be pushing back against the art establishment, testing the boundaries of what can be considered fine art on the market.
In amongst all this fun, there are the older neighbors in the background. They are looking out of their curtains in disapproval. The “curtains twitch” as the “pensioners and parents” call the police.
And so, millennia hence, you garish crock,
when all context is lost, galleries razed
who knew the truth was all negotiable
and beauty in the gift of the beholder.
In the final stanza the speaker looks into the future and imagines what others will see when they look upon Grayson Perry’s vases. In this future, there are no museums or galleries, and all the context one needs to understand the piece would be lost. The speaker is clearly critical of the future observers of the vase, but hopes for the best.
He turns to the vase itself, as Keats did, and wonders if the “poets” of the future will look at “you” and think on the lives of children. Maybe, the will be able to see that young people could live “so free and bountiful”. They were “happy then” because they knew that the truth “was all negotiable” and that “beauty in the gift of the beholder.”
These last lines are also connected to Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ Turnbull parodies the phrase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.