It is generally accepted that Tony Harrison is not quite like his contemporaries in English poetry. That is true in more ways than one, although at the same time, seen from another angle, he is clearly aligned with many of the poets of postwar Great Britain. On the obvious level, he can be distinguished because of his use of his poetic gifts in the service of the theater. The role of translator and adapter is difficult to assess and is often unheralded. Indeed, it might be argued that the least obvious intrusion of the translator is the best indication of how successful that act of necessary manipulation of another’s text is, since what is desired is a mirror image (in another language) of the original act of creation. Harrison, however, has not always confined himself to such gentle tumbling of art into another language, and it is of some value, when speaking of him as a writer, to look at a work such as Phaedra Britannica to see just how “creative” he can be in the face of a foreign text, using a flexible, almost unhinged couplet to turn Racine’s Phèdre into a play about the English and their personal and political involvement in India. The result is not Racine, and it would be silly to suggest that it is, but it is an interesting example of how a late twentieth century poet can make verse drama despite its unfashionableness, and make it without ascending to fulsome, pumped-up afflatus, which would be risible, at the least, and pompously inappropriate in an age of deliberately flattened rhetoric.
It is not, however, simply a matter of Harrison’s ability to turn his poetic gifts to the theater that is meant in distinguishing him from other poets. There is, for various reasons, a tendency in British poets to confine themselves, with some considerable success, to a narrow thematic line. This is not always true, and it should not be taken as necessarily debasing the quality of their work. Harrison, on the other hand, perhaps partly because of his travels as an educator, itinerant poet, and theatrical journeyman, has a very wide range of interests in his poems. The Loiners, his first collected volume, is the best example of that breadth and includes poems not only about his native north of England but also about Africa, America, South America, Europe, and the once-called Iron Curtain countries—states that fell under the control of the former Soviet Union. In those poems his liberal-leftist political inclinations are joined to his mischievous enthusiasm for sexual high jinks in poems that set out to smash the linguistic and political barriers with some considerable sophistication and impropriety. The poem “The Bedbug” puts it succinctly:
Comrade, with your finger on the playback switch,Listen carefully to each love-moan,And enter in the file which cry is real, and whichA mere performance for your microphone.
Along the way, in a manner consistent with his education in the classics and linguistics, he plants elegant, teasingly relaxed translations of European poets from the classical period forward; he surprises with the economy with which he intrudes metaphysical tendencies into poems, seemingly without effort. In “The Nuptial Torches,” men burning at the stake are seen thus: “Their souls/ Splut through their pores like porridge holes./ They wear their skins like cast-offs. Their skin grows/ Puckered round the knees like rumpled hose.”
The high-spirited cleverness of such imagery and the wit and sophistication with which Harrison interpolates allusions of intellectual (and technical) complexity into The Loiners bring him closer to American poets than one might expect of a writer who comes from the working class of Yorkshire, and at his deliberately flashy, improper best (see “Flying Down to Rio: A Ballad of Beverly Hills” in From “The School of Eloquence,” and Other Poems), there are touches of James Merrill. Harrison knows that he has this sweet tooth for being naughty, and he sometimes makes poetry out of it.
In Continuous, the poem “Bringing Up” allows him to talk of his mother’s reaction to some of the poetry in The Loiners: He ruefully remembers, at her death, his desire to put a copy of his poems in her hands before her cremation. “You’d’ve been embarrassed though to meet your God/ clutching those poems of mine that you’d like banned.” He retrieves himself for a moment with the wry idea that they could both have their way: “I thought you could hold my Loiners, and both burn!” The poem continues, with Harrison determined to follow the idea with metaphysical doggedness in which he mingles (as he often does) wit with tenderness:
And there together in the well wrought urnwhat’s left of you, the poems of your child,devoured by one flame, unreconciled,like soots on washing, black on bone-ash white.May be you see them in a better light!But I still see you weeping, your hurt looks:You weren’t brought up to write such mucky books!
Traces of metaphysics
Perhaps something ought to be said about this word “metaphysical,” which is usually applied to a group of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century poets including John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and is taken to mean that style of poetry, sometimes of philosophical theme (hence the word “metaphysical”), in which metaphors, images, and ideas, while often deliberately inappropriate, not only are used but also are explored rigorously to wring every association out of them, sometimes to a wildly ridiculous extent. There is a touch of swagger, of showing off, about this kind of poetry, even when it is tonally serious and thematically profound; when it is neither, it can still be aesthetically exciting. Harrison often attaches metaphysical structures to the most innocent metaphors, and his “riding” them with relentless enthusiasm is seen as informally connecting him to the “Martian” group (if it can even be called that), whose most obvious and successful practitioner is the British poet Craig Raine.
“The School of Eloquence” series
Harrison is, however, much more formidable than such improvisatory zest for the startling image might suggest, and it is in his “The School...
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