Tony Harrison 1937-
(Has also written as T. W. Harrison) English poet, translator, dramatist, and librettist.
The following entry provides an overview of Harrison's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 43.
Tony Harrison is considered a master of theatrical poetry and has been credited with keeping verse drama alive in the contemporary theater. He writes traditionally structured poetry in which he combines vernacular with classical language to explore the conflict between his working-class upbringing and his formal education and literary career. A central theme in Harrison's poetry is his alienation from his family, community, and social class, a consequence of his education and his abandonment of the less eloquent language of his ancestors. Yet Harrison is also concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes.
Harrison was born in Leeds in 1937 to a baker and his wife. He obtained a scholarship for his schooling at the prestigious Leeds Grammar School. Harrison then received a bachelor's degree in classics and a postgraduate degree in linguistics from Leeds University. The tension between his working-class home life and his middle-class education would later become a subject of his poetry. After completing his education, Harrison spent four years teaching in Nigeria and then a year in Prague. He has also spent considerable time in America, and his travel contributed to his focus on linguistics and culture in his poetry.
Harrison's collection, The Loiners (1970), uses rhymed verse and includes such diverse topics as his memories of growing up in Leeds and the wedding night of Ferdinand and Isabella. In From “The School of Eloquence” (1978) and Continuous (1981), Harrison employs a 16-line sonnet based on the form developed by George Meredith. Harrison usurps the tools of classical poetry but uses his own dialect, language, and subjects. The themes of these sonnets are human failure and injustice, but on a more specific level, they explore Harrison's personal anger about the suffering of his own family and class. Many of the sonnets deal with the conflict of the upper class trying to obliterate the language of the lower classes. In “Them & (uz)” Harrison recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English. Harrison views himself as the spokesman of the working class and the uneducated. Many of his poems address the conflict inherent in the separation from the very class of people he is trying to represent caused by his education and his use of the medium of poetry. “V.” (1990) is a long poem of rhyming quatrains which is modeled on Thomas Grey's “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” The poem is set during the miners' strike of 1984 and addresses the “versus” present in contemporary English society, including oppositions involving language and class, race and gender, and religion and politics. The Blasphemer's Banquet (1989) is written in support of Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, and is a critical commentary on Muslim bigotry specifically and fundamentalism in general. The poems in Harrison's Permanently Bard (1996) continue with the theme of the use of language in the struggle between the classes. It includes his “Wordlists” which contains a list of languages Harrison learned in school, losing his own language in the process.
Many reviewers point out Harrison's bleak vision and his anger at the dark side of human nature, including intolerance, duplicity, and cruelty. Most critics praise Harrison as one of the most gifted poets of the theater, but a few have asserted that his dramatic poetry is meant for performance and loses something in publication. Oswyn Murray stated, “Harrison's poetry has always been public poetry, immediately accessible and directed at an audience rather than at the solitary reader. His chief weakness as a poet, that he lacks the ability to speak in a private voice, is in the theatre his greatest strength. …” Many reviewers of Harrison's poetry laud its fusion of traditional forms with a contemporary political thrust. Carol Chillington Rutter summed up Harrison's faithfulness to classical drama, stating, “To keep faith with the theatre of Phrynichos and his heirs, and to make sure that that theatre survives into the next millennium, we must locate an ideological correlative that honours the political spirit of the ancient theatre.” Reviewers also discuss the tension present in Harrison's poetry between his working-class background and his use of classical forms. Bruce Woodcock asserts, “In his poetic invective, it's as if Harrison feels the need to give as good as he gets, to show himself both a proven poet and still one of the lads. It is from this kind of tension that the edge of his work often derives.”