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Tony Harrison
Author statement
"Poetry is all I write, whether for books, or readings, or for the National Theatre, or for the opera house and concert hall, or even for TV. All these activities are part of the same quest for a public poetry, through in that word 'public' I would never want to exclude inwardness. I think how Milton's sonnets range from the directly outward to the tenderly inward, and how the public address of the one makes a clearing for the shared privacy of the other. In the same way I sometimes think that my dramatic poetry has made a clearing for my other poems. I sometimes work with ancient originals written at times when poetry had the range and ambition to net everything, but if I go to them for courage to take on the breadth and complexity of the world, my upbringing among so-called 'inarticulate' people has given me a passion for language that communicates directly and immediately. I prefer the idea of men speaking to men to a man speaking to God, or even worse to Oxford's anointed. And books are only a part of what I see as poetry. It seems to me no accident that some of the best poetry in the world is in some of its drama from the Greek onwards. In it I find a reaffirmation of the power of the word, eroded by other media and by some of the speechless events of our worst century. Sometimes, despite the fact that the range of poetry has been diminished by the apparently effortless way that the mass media seem to depict reality, I believe that, maybe, poetry, the word at its most eloquent, is one medium which could concentrate our attention on our worst experiences without leaving us with the feeling, as other media can, that life in this century has had its affirmative spirit burnt out."
Tony Harrison
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Critical Perspective
Harrison has forged a singular career as a poet, dramatist, film-maker - and these all in verse. He was a working class scholarship boy and his obsession with class and his passion for classical literature remain the two driving forces of his work. His early poems, collected in The Loiners (1970) (Loiners are residents of Leeds), were muscular and anguished about sex, class, family and the struggle to acquire culture. The characteristic poem was perhaps 'Thomas Campey and the Copernican System', the poem that opens the book. Thomas Campey was a poor second-hand bookseller who sold books off a handcart. Harrison is a buyer of second-hand books and the ironic distance between the culture Campey purveys and his own pathetic circumstances is at the heart of Harrison's art. He insists on both high art and the consequences for the class he came from of the stratification of society that high art entails.
Harrison travelled very widely in his early years as a poet, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe. The African poems convey a teeming panorama of self-disgust and degradation 'I murmur over and over; / buttocks...buttocks...BUTOX, / marketable essence of beef - / negritude - dilute to taste!' from 'The Zeg-Zeg Postcards'.
In his early years Harrison didn't publish conventional self-contained volumes, but worked on series of poems, From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems (1978) and Art & Extinction which were added to over a long period. This hindered an appreciation of his work and his poetry only reached a wide audience with the publication of the Penguin Selected Poems in1984.
From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems contains his best-known poems, sonnets about his parents and extended family, class, and poetry. The title is a good one because all these poems are about 'utterances' of various kinds. He reflects on the inarticulacy of his family, his Uncle Joe who stammered and could 'handset type much faster than he spoke', his English teacher telling him 'Poetry's the speech of kings. You're one of those / Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!' There is an obsessive zeal about these tightly interlocked poems. Themes echo in many poems: fire and destruction, with special reference to the VJ celebrations in 1946 (which he remembers as a boy of 9) and Hiroshima, the extinction of species, the power that articulacy brings, the painful self-limitation of the working class ('too posh for me! He said (though he dressed well) / If you weren't wi' me ah'd nivver dare!').
Harrison spent some time in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the poems that emerged were longer, more relaxed and discursive. He said 'I don't read America with the same spikey class instincts as I read England'. Poems like 'Cypress and Cedar', 'The Red Lights of Plenty', 'The Lords of Life', are wide-ranging meditations on nature, homesteading, the American way.
In poetic terms Harrison returned to England with a vengeance with the publication of his most famous poem, v. (1985). A long poem in rhyming quatrains deliberately echoing Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, v.. captures a moment in English life when the collapse of traditional industries like mining undermined a whole way of life. Harrison puts the resultant nihilism into the mouth of a lager-swilling yobbo and admits, for all his berating of the youth, that there's something of the vandal in him too: he remembers as a teenager letting off a fire extinguisher at a singer and orchestra. The justification he gives for this is revealing:
What I hated in those high soprano ranges
Was uplift beyond all reason and control
And in a world where you say nothing changes
It seemed a sort of pricktease of the soul.
Harrison's next full collection The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992), although a normal miscellany volume, did have some unity. Harrison's poems about the Gulf War, 'Initial Illumination' and 'A Cold Coming', began a new phase for him, appearing in the Guardian newspaper rather than a literary magazine (v. had first appeared in the London Review of Books). Harrison believes that poetry should address the great issues of the day and that it should strive for a mass audience.
This tendency became even more pronounced during the Bosnian conflict of 1992-4. The Guardian sent Harrison to the region as poetic war correspondent. Thanks to poems like these and his television films Harrison had a very high profile during the 1990s. Inevitably his name was mentioned as a contender for Poet Laureate when Ted Hughes died. But Harrison is a fierce republican and he published another poem in the Guardian, 'A Celebratory Ode on the Abdication of King Charles III', which effectively ruled himself out. This and other new poems were published as Laureate's Block by Penguin in 2000. Some critics have felt that in such recent poems the ferocity of his polemic has been detrimental to his verse, which can seem clumsy when compared to the early sonnets.
Peter Forbes
For an in-depth critical review see Tony Harrison by Joe Kelleher (Northcote House, 1996: Writers and their Work Series).
Critical Perspective
Confrontational, celebratory, tender, brilliant – Tony Harrison’s work has been wide-ranging, and has had a wide impact. Commonly acknowledged as one of the most significant British poets of the late 20th century, he has built an impressive oeuvre which encompasses poetry for books and newspapers, for theatre and opera, and for film and television.
Many of Harrison’s poetic preoccupations can be traced from his background, and in particular his journey from working class life towards articulacy and culture. Mocked by his English teacher for his thick Yorkshire accent (‘Them & [uz]’ relates how he’s told ‘You’re one of those / Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’), Harrison was a scholarship boy who slaved at Latin and Greek. But the education he acquired came at a price: a growing separation from his family explored in many of the poems in an ongoing sequence called ‘The School of Eloquence’. The poem ‘Book Ends’ perhaps best sums up the irony of how gaining expressiveness in languages and poetry made him lose the ability to communicate with his parents. Sitting with his father on the night of his mother’s death, each unable to talk to the other, the poet reflects:
'Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.'
In the work of the Greeks, and in Greek tragedy in particular, Harrison found a method of confronting the troubles of 20th-century life which has sustained him throughout his career. Tragedy’s refusal to turn away from bloodshed and horror, and the shared experience of its performances in full daylight, provided metaphor, method and thematic starting point for approaching the darkest aspects of the modern world open-eyed. ‘It was one of the human resources that was an incredible invention for grappling with, coming to terms, sometimes even celebrating, the darker parts of experience; and it seems to me that the darker parts of experience are the ones we need most help with’, he has said. This enduring fascination led to celebrated versions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy (The Oresteia, 1981); Racine’s Phédre (Phaedra Britannica, 1975); and Hecuba (2004), among others.
Harrison’s early run-in with the teacher who chastised him for reading poetry in his Leeds accent also shaped his insistence on dragging some of the great works of literature back from the received pronunciation they’d been ‘dubbed’ into. Harrison’s 1985 version of the York mystery plays, in which all the actors – rather than just those playing the comic parts – spoke in natural northern accents, was tremendously successful. This and his subsequent work with the actor Barrie Rutter inspired the latter to form Northern Broadsides, the company which reclaimed Shakespeare and other classics for regional voices.
The sense of what Harrison calls ‘retrospective aggro’ about a cultural ‘privilege of participation’ has fuelled much of his work. His hugely influential long poem v, first published in 1985, is a multi-layered treatment of many of these class-related issues. Prompted by discovering that his parents’ grave had been graffitied with obscenities by passing football supporters, the poem also takes in the impact of the miners’ strike, mass unemployment and changing social demographics of 1980s Britain, as well as the poet’s own mortality and, again, the distance between his educated life and those of his family and Leeds contemporaries. v uses the quatrains of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ to unpick and unflinchingly examine the public and private confrontations implicit in its title – ‘These Vs are all the versuses of life’. Harrison imagines an altercation with one of the football fans who use the graveyard as a short cut to Leeds United:
'Don’t talk to me of fucking representing
The class yer were born into any more.
Yer going to get ’urt and start resenting
it’s not poetry we need in this class war.
Yer’ve given yerself toffee, cunt. Who needs
yer fucking poufy words? Ah write mi own.
Ah’ve got mi work on show all ovver Leeds
like this UNITED ’ere on some sod’s stone.'
In 1987 the poem was turned into a film for Channel Four, and shot Harrison to fame when the Daily Mail’s headline ‘Four Letter TV Poem Fury’ unleashed a torrent of both ill-informed outrage and staunch defence.
v was the first in a series of film/poems on which Harrison collaborated. His work with director Peter Symes in particular saw the development of a truly organic technique of creating words and images alongside each other, rather than merely setting words to pre-determined pictures, or vice versa. Often starting without a script and involving much writing to order and tireless reworking, it was a method flexible enough to take in chance discoveries or changing situations. Harrison’s film/poems The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989), prompted by the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after publication of The Satanic Verses, and Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), exploring Alzheimer’s disease, were two particularly successful results. One of the trademarks of this method was the way in which Harrison’s choice of poetic metre was intrinsically linked to the subject of the film. Thus The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) takes its form from the couplets of Heinrich Heine, whose statue is a central image in the film; The Blasphemers’ Banquet uses the quatrains from Fitzgerald’s translation of fellow ‘blasphemer’ Omar Khayyam; and Black Daisies uses the patterns of songs central to the lives of the Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Harrison’s is a defiantly public poetry – though he has made clear that ‘in that word “public” I would never want to exclude inwardness’. His work in theatre and film attempts a wider, shared communication beyond the more traditional one-to-one of poet and solitary reader. So when he was invited by The Guardian to go first to Iraq, and later to Bosnia, and file war poems, his only stipulation was that they be published not in the arts or books pages, but alongside the news. Resulting poems like ‘A Cold Coming’ showed how powerful poetry could be as a means of revealing, and attempting to make sense of, human atrocity.
Harrison’s influence has been considerable, discernible in the work of poets as different as Simon Armitage, Sean O’Brien and Paul Farley. His reappropriation of regional voices in the palaces of high culture, and his efforts to interpret that culture accessibly for a wide audience, using it to enlighten, enrich and make sense of modern life, has been of lasting significance. Both in his confrontational public poetry, and the ‘shared privacy’ of his tender personal verse, his work has proved deeply humane, moving, and memorable.
Susan Tranter
For an in-depth critical review see Tony Harrison by Joe Kelleher (Northcote House, 1996: Writers and their Work Series).
Tony Harrison è nato a Leeds, città industriale dello Yorkshire occidentale nel 1937. Diplomatosi in linguistica con una tesi di dottorato sulle traduzioni in versi dell’Eneide intraprese l’insegnamento dell’inglese dapprima presso l’Università di Zaria, in Nigeria e successivamente a Praga dove maturò il suo interesse per il teatro e la traduzione libera dei classici. Rientrato in Inghilterra nel 1967, Harrison decise di dedicarsi a tempo pieno alla poesia. Ottenne una Nortthern...