Tony Harrison

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2754

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.

The Loiners

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.

“Bringing Up”

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 of Eloquence” series that much of his best work has been done, and indeed may continue to appear, since the concept is open-ended. Appropriating a prosodic oddity that had previously been employed by George Meredith in his Modern Love (1862), a sonnet consisting of sixteen rhyming pentameter lines, Harrison has provided himself with a flexible form (with which he often deliberately tampers, committing “errors” to achieve spontaneity and tonal densities), and which serves as an ideal vehicle for his worldly-wise comments on modern society. Most important, the form provides him with a supple shape in which he can explore the dilemma of his worldly success with considerable range of feeling. Caught between his working-class background (which is still a potent force in British society), for which he has considerable affection, and his enviable position as an educated traveling man with reputation and connections in the glamorous world of the arts and the theater, he believes that he has, albeit innocently, betrayed his family. Educated out of his “clothed-capped” background and possessing artistic gifts far beyond the ambitions that his parents had for him, he uses these sonnets to try to make sense of what happened, as in “Breaking the Chain”:

The mams, pig-sick of oilstains in their wash,wished for their sons a better class of gear, wear their own clothes into work ’but not go posh,go up a rung or two but settle near.

The poems come together, a few at a time, and develop into a small autobiographical novel, ranging from memories of childhood to rueful anecdotes about his fragile relationship with his parents before their deaths. Sometimes the poems deal with the difficult times of the parents’ last illnesses, attempting to discover why so much love was so ineptly expressed. Despite his determination to write simply and to use working-class and regional dialect when appropriate, the poems are not simplistic. The last verse of “Breaking the Chain” deals with the expensive draftsman’s instruments that his father bought for him, hoping that he might end up close at hand: “This meant the ’drawing office’ to the dads,/ same place of work, but not blue-collar, white.” It ends in a way that ought to remind the reader of Harrison’s metaphysical bent, and perhaps of Donne’s use of the compass image in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Harrison uses the idea with the lightest touch so that the smartness will not breach the plangent feeling:

Looking at it now still breaks my heart!The gap his gift acknowledged then ’s wide aseternity, but I still can’t bear to partwith these never passed on, never used, dividers.

There is some danger in this fusion of metaphysical imagery and deep feeling, the former threatening to fall into “cuteness,” as it does occasionally (disastrously so in “Guava Libre,” From “The School of Eloquence,” and Other Poems), and the latter always a possible danger in the sonnets dealing with his family. Usually Harrison knows how far to go, and his good taste allows him to decide what the mix of high intelligence, clever allusions, deliberately awkward usages, and native dialect ought to be and how far he can dare take them. The danger is most apparent when the poems get into the area of private feeling, where he chooses to divest himself of sophistication for simple tale-telling, where the flatness of the language and the lines teeters on the edge of sentimental excess as in “Continuous”:

James Cagney was the one up both our streetsHis was the only art we ever shared.A gangster film and choc ice were the treatsthat showed about as much love as he dared.

That “choc ice” may be a bit too cunning, a bit too much total recall of the language of the cinema house of his childhood. However, a poem such as “Marked with D” gets much of its power from the way in which he strides into danger, taking his father’s past job as a baker and indecorously describing his father’s cremation in metaphysical images and puns baldly related to the baking of a loaf of bread:

The baker’s man that no-one will see riseand England made to feel like some dull oafis smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyesand ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.

In context, this kind of impropriety works not so much because it is so outrageously smart, but because, in a peculiar way, it enforces the simplicity of this working-class life, a world in which only the sparseness, the paucity of aspiration, exists in the crudest metaphor: The poetry comes out of its unpoetic rejection of appropriately sonorous language.

The family poems allow Harrison to enter into the continuing problems of the British working classes, the continuing limitations and disappointments of stunted lives, seemingly destined to be similarly confined in the future as the country goes on its inexorably threadbare way. The intrusion of the black and brown Commonwealth refugees into the working-class neighborhoods, already run-down and overcrowded, is the subject of a series of poems in which the wariness, the sense of the despair and helplessness of the lower class, seeing themselves as the victims of other people’s problems, at and on the edge of racial prejudice that they hardly understand, is expressed through the eyes of his father. In these poems, Harrison can be most clearly identified as a working-class poet.

Pastoral poems

Harrison is, however, always more than one kind of poet, and he often uses the sonnet form to explore his continuing fascination with language and how it can be used, misused, and sometimes betray, not simply within a community but also on the wider scale of political chicanery and indifference. He is a poet of considerable range; the open-ended nature of “The School of Eloquence” series, both thematically and tonally, allows for personal intimacies, political comment, scholarly puzzles, and arcane jokes about high and louche lowlife. Harrison is a cosmopolitan poet in the very best and widest sense of that word: intelligent, lettered, witty, skeptical, and, sometimes, cheerfully rude. It is also interesting to see Harrison reacting to America, not only in his obviously satiric poems about urban excess but also in his pastoral mode, which was not strongly represented in his work until the early 1980’s. Harrison has two lovely long poems, set in the rural fastness of central Florida, “The Fire-Gap: A Poem with Two Tails” and “Cypress and Cedar,” which extend his range into thoughtful apprehension of humanity’s relation to the natural world in ways that are reminiscent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s conversation poems on one hand and haunting reminders of Robert Frost on the other.

V., and Other Poems

In 1987, Harrison was shocked into writing a major poem, V. (included in V., and Other Poems), by his discovery that his parents’ gravestones as well as those of many others in the cemetery on Beeston Hill in Leeds, Yorkshire, had been desecrated, not simply by being knocked about but also by the addition of obscene graffiti. The letter v appeared with some regularity in the sign-painting, indicating to Harrison that at least one of the vandals had an enthusiasm for football contests in which v., standing for versus, signified team competition: Leeds v. Derby or, more seriously, black v. white, man v. wife, class v. class, or any of the other polarized conflicts that make life uncivilized. It is a disturbing poem, looking with considerable pessimism on the way in which young urban men in particular have descended to animalistic behavior, gratuitous violence, and aimless destruction. Given the nature of the usual market for poetry, the poem might well have been anthologized and forgotten, except for the fact that an English television program allowed Harrison to read the poem on prime-time television. The dismay expressed in the poem was understood, but Harrison had not restrained himself in the use of the language of the streets in the poem, and the flow of four-letter words caused considerable criticism of the television company and of the poet. It was, however, an interesting exception to the usual fate of poetry, since it not only articulated a public concern in art of considerable quality but also provoked the usually indifferent public, for perhaps the wrong reasons, into paying attention to an art form that it rarely, if ever, chooses to contemplate.

“Laureate’s Block”

In the 1990’s, Harrison merged a number of his talents to produce works that blended poetry with drama, film, and world news. His three filmed poems, The Gaze of the Gorgon, The Shadow of Hiroshima, and Other Film/Poems, and Prometheus attempted to explain the atrocities of the twentieth century: Nazism, nuclear war, imperialism, the unevenness of capitalism. However, the poet also made an obvious turn from his stand-by themes of politics and issues of class to his personal life. His work seemed to center on settling old scores with figures in the literary establishment, as well as an apparent obsession to convey a message—whether personal or political—to the public at large. In a very public quarrel and debate, played out in his poem titled “Laureate’s Block” (in his 2000 collection of the same name), Harrison openly defended his staunch refusal to be appointed Britain’s poet laureate while publicly quarreling with British poet Andrew Motion: “I’d sooner be a free man. Free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,” he wrote in the poem, and specifically attacked “toadies like Di-deifying Motion”—a reference to an elegy, “Mythology,” that Motion had written on Princess Diana’s death.

In addition to his literary feuds, Harrison seemed to relish trumpeting details of his domestic life. Again in“Laureate’s Block,” he ends the poem with this quatrain:

A poet’s death fills other poets with dread,a king’s death kings,but under my duvet is Queen Elizabeth,and off our bed slide these quatrains and all of Thomas Gray.

Harrison alludes to his bedding of the Queen, both literally and metaphorically, while also making reference to the status of his marriage: the lover in the poem is not his wife, Stratas, but the actress Sian Thomas. Here, Harrison’s messy personal life is held out for public display, a remarkable event given that Harrison is a notoriously private man.

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Harrison, Tony