From the beginning, Tony Harrison has had a distinctive voice and sense of place. He flaunts his working-class Yorkshire birthplace, Leeds, and the other northern city which has become his home, Newcastle. He wants readers to experience these regional places, particularly by encountering the distinctive Yorkshire speech which his parents never lost, but which Harrison has lost through the effective pressures of the British educational system, especially its elocution requirement that all students speak “properly.” An excellent language student, as his adaptations from Greek and French will testify, Harrison cannot speak his own parents’ dialect as he acknowledges in “Wordlists”: “but not the tongue that once I used to know/ but can’t bone up on now, and that’s mi mam’s.”
In his 1987 speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, poet Joseph Brodsky asserted the artist’s need for independence from the various social institutions which threaten such independence. Tony Harrison is similarly committed to artistic independence. He feels pressures to conform from many quarters and tries, often rather fiercely, to maintain his individuality. As a young poet, these pressures came from his quite conventional family and from the schools he attended. His first volume, The Loiners (1970), which deals very explicitly with male adolescent sexuality, shocked his family. (The word “loiners” is a slang term for people from Leeds, but it obviously has sexual connotations as well.) In “Bringing Up,” Harrison encounters his dead father, who was shamed by his son’s frankness: “You weren’t brought up to write such mucky books!” Harrison has abandoned the Christian faith, but his parents remained devout Christians. “Bringing Up” imagines the dead father’s difficulties, if Harrison had been able to slip a copy of The Loiners into his father’s stiff hand. “You’d’ve been embarrassed though to meet your God/ clutching those poems of mine that you’d like banned.” There is much affectionate deviltry in the son’s final moments with his father’s departing ghost.
Contrast and conflict are central pressures in Harrison’s poetry. Sometimes the opposing forces seem able to be integrated, and then one finds the pleasure of paradox. In other poems, however, these forces remain depressingly unresolved. The final poem in Selected Poems, “Cypress and Cedar,” deals with the distinctive fragrances of these two trees: “one fragrant as a perfume, and one rank/ and malodorous from its swampland ooze.” Things made of cedar smell good, those made from cypress smell bad. The poem alludes to an Indian mystic’s belief that creation began with God making one tree. Humankind has subsequently lost contact with this primal tree. The best alternative is to accept the distinctive aspects of cedar and cypress:
I’ll have my coffin made of cedar woodto balance the smell like cypress from insideand hope the smell of both blends in the sky,as both scents from our porch chairs do tonight.’Tvashti,’ says this Indian Rig Veda,’hewed the world out of one tree,’ but doesn’t tell,since for durability both do as well,if the world he made was cypress wood; or cedarthe smell coming off my pencil as I write.
Harrison’s most significant work to date has been a volume of sixteen-line sonnets, The School of Eloquence (1978), which contains unresolved conflicts about what constitutes proper speech, about his working-class origins, his family, and particularly his mother’s and father’s deaths. The volume’s title refers to the previously mentioned pressures which threaten the poet’s regional identity, the pressures to unlearn his Yorkshire dialect and learn to speak with “eloquence.” The title also refers to the deeply rooted traditions of dialect and family which constitute another sort of “eloquence” that the poet finds sustaining. One finds satiric wit in these poems, but one also finds moments of compassion, love,...
(The entire section is 1,822 words.)