Tony Harrison

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Alan Young (essay date Spring-Summer 1984)

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SOURCE: “Weeds and White Roses: The Poetry of Tony Harrison,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, 1984, pp. 157-63.

[In the following essay, Young asserts Harrison's skill as a poetic dramatist, but notes that, “His now established trade as writer for the theatre—including music-theatre—should not allow us to forget that originally he was, and is still, a poet of unique and disturbing character.”]

In 1929 the publishers J. M. Dent & Sons chose Baker and Miller's 1739 English translation of Molière's plays for their popular Everyman series because ‘it is thought to have more of the spirit of the original than would be found in a more modern version’ (Introduction p. xix). Here is part of a speech from Le Misanthrope in this edition. Alcèste, the man-hater of the title, takes his coquettish mistress Célimène to task about another of her many men friends:

But, however, tell me, madam, by what chance your Clitander has the happiness to please you so much? Upon what fund of merit and sublime virtue do you ground the honour of your esteem? Is it by the long nail he has upon his little finger, that he has gained the great esteem with you, which we see him have? Did you surrender, with all the beau-monde, to the shining merit of his fair periwig? Or are they his large pantaloons, that make you in love with him?

And so on. The sparkle and humanity of Molière's comedy is lost entirely in a galumphing translation which manages to turn the quick and sensitive Alcèste into a boorish eighteenth-century English country squire. Until recently, such indifference to the possibility of providing a text of Molière suitable for the English stage was not so untypical. But is it reasonable to expect any English writer to capture the essentially Gallic panache of Molière's comedies?

The National Theatre's 1973 production of The Misanthrope in Tony Harrison's new version showed that an English audience can enjoy Molière's energy and wit. Harrison's Alcèste is brought to life because the verse is such persuasive artifice:

But what I'd like to know's what freak of luck's
helped to put Clitandre in your good books?
What amazing talents does the ‘thing’ possess,
what sublimity of virtue? Let me guess.
I'm at a loss. Now let me see, I know!
It's his little finger like a croissant, so,
crooked at Angelina's where
he sips his tea
among the titled queens of ‘gay’ Paree!
What makes him captivate the social
Second-skin gauchos in crepe-de-chine?
Those golden blow-wave curls (that aren't his own)?
Flamingo trousers or obsequious tone?
Or is it his giggle and his shrill falsett-
O hoity-toity voice makes him your pet?

As in Molière's French original, Harrison's verse for the character of Alcèste performs a complex dramatic function. It is simultaneously an expressive vehicle for a vulnerable and frustrated sensibility and a method of distancing or critically placing that sensibility. Because of the way he rings all the changes of rhyme Harrison's couplets delight us continually with their conscious artifice. He is skilful too in using the verse simply at times to convey, for instance, the astonishment and anguish of idealism betrayed. Here Alcèste wonders most at his own failure to act in harmony with his knowledge:

Just how degrading can a passion get?
Now watch me grovel. You've seen nothing yet.
There's more to come. Just stay and watch the show.
You'll see my weakness reach an all-time low.
Never call men wise. Look how they behave.
There's no perfection this side of the grave.

Harrison's mastery...

(This entire section contains 2563 words.)

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of the rhyming couplet has earned him much well-deserved critical acclaim in the theatre press. EvenLe Monde called his Molière ‘une adaptation brilliante’. This success has encouraged him to take on more work for the National Theatre, including Phaedra Britannica (a version of Racine's Phèdre, again in rhyming couplets), an adaptation of the York Mystery Plays (The Passion), and, most recently and most famously, The Oresteia of Aeschylus. His now established trade as writer for the theatre—including music-theatre—should not allow us to forget that originally he was, and is still, a poet of unique and disturbing character.

Nobody who had read Harrison's first collection—The Loiners (1970)—would have been very surprised by his apparently effortless deployment of dramatic rhymed verse. What was surprising about The Loiners was the almost exclusive use of rhymed forms to convey experiences of raw and often appalling character as well as wild and rollicking ones. It is as if these forms were used by Harrison as non-literary (or even anti-literary) devices, enabling him to avoid ‘literature’ as he created poems of jazz-like spontaneity.

Inevitably there was an unevenness about the poems in The Loiners. Harrison's subject-matter ranged from adolescent memories of his native Leeds (the inhabitants of which city are called ‘Loiners’) to the homosexual exploits of a fifty-year-old professor and poet in Africa; from Isabella and Ferdinand's horrendous wedding-night bonfires of heretics to love-affairs behind the Iron Curtain. The forms vary too, from two-line couplets apparently scribbled on post-cards to long, formal (and rhymed) poems in several sections. The tensions to be perceived in these poems were indicated by the traditional verse which appeared as tag to the book:

There was a young man of Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds.
A pure white rose
Grew out of his nose
And his arse was covered with weeds.

In some of the poems in The Loiners, as in Molière's Alcèste, the ironic surface barely keeps in check a sense of outrage against human intolerance, duplicity, and cruelty. In ‘The nuptial torches’, for instance, Ferdinand's evil sadism absorbs both condemned heretics and his new bride in a single lust:

Young Carlos de Sessa stripped was good
For a girl to look at and he spat like wood
Green from the orchards for the cooking pots.
Flames ravelled up his flesh into dry knots
And he cried at the King: How can you stare
On such agonies and not turn a hair?

Human indifference to or enjoyment of suffering is not much more terrifying than nature's indifference. ‘Newcastle is Peru’ is a poem of the 1960s in which the need to celebrate love is more than balanced by fear:

The fire I laid and lit to draw
you downstairs to the second floor,
flickers and struts upon my bed.
And I'm left gazing at a full-page spread
of aggressively fine bosoms, nude
and tanned almost to négritude,
in the Colour Supplement's Test
Yourself for Cancer of the Breast.

Desperation is also the keynote of the poem ‘Ghosts’ in which Harrison recreates family scenes from the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne:

I will her breaths. Again! Again!
my daughter heaves in oxygen
and lives, each heaved breath
another lurch away from death,
each exhalation like death throes,
a posser squelched down on wet clothes,
and the only sign of life I see
is a spitting tracheotomy.

Harrison's 1974 Preface to his version of seventy poems by the fourth-century A. D. Alexandrian poet Palladus (Palladas: Poems, 1975) suggests that this writer was chosen for translation because he shared Harrison's bleak vision: ‘What is unique and even invigorating about Palladas is that there is no sense at all of ‘gracious’ surrender either to the inevitability of death or to historical change. … He is one of those embarrassing but heroic figures who are not dignified in despair, refusing to be noble on the gallows or to make peace with their maker.’ The first poem in this black-humoured collection is as much in the voice of the furious Loiner as in that of the pagan grammarian and teacher:

Think of your conception, You'll soon forget
what Plato puffs you up with, all that
‘immortality’ and ‘divine life’ stuff.
Man, why dost thou think of Heaven?
consider thine origins in common clay
's one way of putting it but not blunt enough.
Think of your father, sweating, drooling, drunk,
you, his spark of lust, his spurt of spunk.

Palladas's (says Harrison) is ‘not the stylish after-dinner despair of high-table, the sighing gestures of surfeit, but the authentic snarl of a man trapped physically in poverty and persecution, and metaphysically in a deep sense of the futile’. One savage epigram from Palladas perhaps encapsulates much of this:

A lifetime's teaching grammar come to this—
returned as member for Necropolis!

Harrison's pain, like Palladas's, is not usually borne with either stoical resignation or gentlemanly decorum. There is a good deal of deliberate bad taste. His bitterness is directed as much against himself as others. The principal formal vehicle for Harrison's poetry in recent years has been a sixteen-line sonnet, the form developed by George Meredith for his fifty-poem sequence Modern Love (1862). In The School of Eloquence (1978) and Continuous (1981) Harrison explores this extended sonnet form with great inventiveness. At a general level the subject-matter of the sequence—still in progress—is, once again, human failure and injustice, but the core of the early part of the sequence is Harrison's rage and anguish about the sufferings of his own family and class.

He was born in Leeds where he was a ‘scholarship boy’. From Leeds Grammar School he went on to read classics at Leeds University. Much of the self-directed anger of The School of Eloquence comes from his sense of betrayed roots, as when Latin homework frustrated his wish to join in with the evening pursuits of other working-class lads:

He shoves the frosted attic skylight, shouts:
Ah bloody can't ah've gorra
Latin prose.
His bodiless head that's poking out's
like patriarchal Sissy-bleeding-ro's.

(‘Me Tarzan’)

Or when he was told by a master at the grammar school how to speak ‘properly’ in Received Pronunciation:

‘We say \λs] not \uz] T. W.’
That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a's (as in ‘flatcap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!

(‘Them & \uz]’)

He sees his role as spokesman for the inarticulate, for the mass of people who have been exploited throughout history without being able to protest even or to cry out in rage, as in a ‘sonnet for the bourgeoisie’ which remembers a fourteen-year-old girl coal-miner:

Patience Kershaw, bald hurryer, fourteen,
this wordshift and inwit's a load of crap
for dumping on a slagheap, I mean
th'art nobbut summat as wants raking up.


‘National Trust’ is a horrifying poem which ends:

The dumb go down in history and disappear
and not one gentleman's been brought to book:
Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr
(Cornish)—‘the tongueless man gets his land took.’

Most of all, though, he speaks for his family—for ‘two uncles, Joe and Harry— / one was a stammerer, the other dumb’, and particularly for his parents from whom he has been estranged by education.

In ‘Study’ he broods about a room which has seen a good deal of the family's distress. Between each short sentence of the poem there is a full stop of anguished realisation and reflection:

Mi aunty's baby still. The dumbstruck mother.
The mirror, tortoise-shell-like celluloid
held to it, passed from one hand to another.
No babble, blubber, breath. The glass won't cloud.

If the language is often plain and direct this is because he would like to be ‘the poet my father reads’, just as the language he would wish to speak is not to be found in any of the many dictionaries of living and dead tongues which he owns, but is ‘the tongue that once I used to know / but can't bone up on now, and that's mi man's’.

The emotional responses to and colloquial speech of a remembered working-class childhood, taken out of the context of whole poems, might seem to leave Harrison open to being labelled sentimentalist, except that his style never settles into one manner and he recognises his parents’ limitations and weaknesses, as well as his own in relationship to them. In ‘Book ends’ he recalls his mother's words about father and son as they usually sat, silent in front of the fire:

You're like book ends, the pair
of you, she'd say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare …
The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only a silence made us seem a pair.

And now she is dead, but they still cannot find speech:

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.

He sees that human ignorance, prejudice, and clumsiness do not in themselves make us any less capable of love, or deserving of both compassion and love, as when he thinks of his father's efforts to find the right words for his mother's memorial stone:

I've got the envelope that he'd been scrawling,
mis-spelt, mawkish, stylistically appalling
but I can't squeeze more love into their stone.

It is possible to discern recently some diminution of the bitterness in Tony Harrison's poetry, though there is no lessening of his anguish that the world is as it is and that men behave to one another as they do. Personal grief has been collated with a more general lamentation in the sonnet-sequence ‘Art and extinction’ (1981), and there is a more reflective and lyrical threnody in ‘A kumquat for John Keats’, another poem first published in 1981 which has been beautifully reprinted as an illustrated pamphlet (Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; these two poems first appeared in PN Review).

Perhaps time has begun to heal some of the deeper wounds, or perhaps some of the darker human emotions have been channelled into the translations of tragic drama. What is certain is that his poetry and translating work have helped to develop his technical assurance. The rhyming couplets of ‘A kumquat for John Keats’ may take some getting used to in an age which has deliberately avoided such forms, but this meditative love-poem and elegy is a most skilful and moving lyric.

It is moving partly because it is a poem of celebration—a mood which does not come easily to Tony Harrison. It is certainly not a poem of resignation; the kumquat fruit which is both subject and emblem is most bitter (as well as, initially, sweet) to the taste. The poem mourns and celebrates also the poet's reaching middle-age:

For however many kumquats that I eat
I'm not sure if it's flesh or rind that's sweet,
and being a man of doubt at life's mid-way
I'd offer Keats some kumquats and I'd say:
You'll find that one part's sweet
and one part's tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.

But though the dark past still haunts and threatens, there is more of acceptance and mystery, of grudging celebration, here. Tony Harrison will doubtless remain a poet of the minor keys but he has developed a quite distinctive voice:

A strong sun burns away the dawn's grey haze
I pick a kumquat and the branches spray
cold dew in my face to start the day.
The dawn's molasses make the citrus gleam
still in the orchards of the grove of dream.
The limes, like Galway after weeks of rain,
glow with a greenness that is close to pain,
the dew-cooled surfaces of fruit that spent
all last night flaming in the firmament.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Oswyn Murray (review date 6 June 1986)

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SOURCE: “Poetry in Public,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4218, June 6, 1986, pp. 615-16.

[In the following review, Murray argues that Harrison's strength is in the public poetry of the theater and therefore better enjoyed in performance than in the solitary act of reading his Dramatic Verse 1973-1985.]

Every generation or so the rebirth of poetic drama is proclaimed; Tony Harrison (like myself) is just old enough to remember the excitement of the last renaissance, associated with the names of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. The plays of that period are not much revived; even in the case of Eliot they remain a minor part of a major poet's work. They seem to belong to an alien culture, to be the last fling of an even earlier renaissance in the Edwardian age, when verse drama was a major industry, and the verse translations of Gilbert Murray packed the West End theatres.

It is difficult to explain the fascination of such a generation of quiet-voiced poets with the theatre. The oddest thing is that it was Eliot's main aim in preparing for the stage to reduce the poetic element in verse and diction, “to find a rhythm close to contemporary speech, in which the stresses could be made to come wherever we should naturally put them, in uttering the particular phrase on the particular occasion; “it was important that passages should not call “too much attention to themselves as poetry”. But within a few years other dramatists as different as Beckett, Osborne and Pinter, writing in prose, were exploring theatrical styles of rhetoric more obviously poetic than anything in Eliot. Now it looks more as if poetry had lost its way, and handed over to prose the task of exploring a form of discourse which would transcend the limits of ordinary language. For that is surely the reason why we should want poets to write for the theatre, whether they write in poetry or prose.

Tony Harrison is today our leading theatrical poet; and at first sight his work might seem to owe nothing to this earlier period of poetic activity. Yet there is I think a sense of continuity in conscious opposition: Eliot himself began his interest in the theatre with a violent attack on Gilbert Murray's style of translating (“Euripides and Professor Murray”, in 1920); and Harrison shares Eliot's central preoccupations, with poetic diction, with the creation of atmosphere, and with the primacy of classical Greek models.

Much of Harrison's work is of course what we would conventionally call translation, though he himself prefers the term “adaptation”; the most interesting consequence of \Dramatic Verse 1973-1985,] this publication of virtually all his dramatic verse apart from The Mysteries is the way that it shows how Harrison has used the creative potential of this process. In his hands the text takes on something of the flexibility of myth in the hands of the Greek tragedians; and even when the translation is as exact as one could wish, it achieves an independent life of its own which can scarcely be subsumed under the normal conception of translation. Here is that excellent poetic craftsman and disciple of Eliot, Louis MacNeice, rendering a chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon:

But the money-changer War, changer of bodies,
Holding his balance in the battle
Home from Troy refined by fire
Sends back to friends the dust
That is heavy with tears, stowing
A man's worth of ashes
In an easily handled jar.
And they wail speaking well of the men how that one
Was expert in battle, and one fell well in the carnage—
But for another man's wife.
Muffled and muttered words;
And resentful grief creeps up against the sons
Of Atreus and their cause.
               But others there by the wall
               Entombed in Trojan ground
               Lie, handsome of limb,
               Holding and hidden in enemy soil.

And here is Tony Harrison:

Geldshark Ares god of War
broker of men's bodies
usurer of living flesh
corpse-trafficker that god is—
give to WAR your men's fleshgold
and what are your returns?
kilos of cold clinker packed
in army-issue urns
wives mothers sisters each one scans
the dogtags on the amphorae
which grey ashes are my man's?
they sift the jumbled names and cry:
my husband sacrificed his life
my brother's a battle-martyr
aye, for someone else's wife—
Helen, whore of Sparta!
whisper, mutter belly-aching
the people's beef and bile: this war's
been Agamemnon's our clanchief's making,
the sons of Atreus and their “cause”.
Where's my father husband boy?
where do all our loved ones lie?
six feet under near the Troy
they died to occupy. …

Harrison's version is scarcely less accurate, but it is far more direct; more importantly it is poetry for performance, not for reading. It is hard to see the well-mannered version of MacNeice having the stage success that Harrison achieved in the National Theatre production. Harrison's strength is that he is genuinely a poet of the theatre, not a poet attempting to write for the theatre.

He also differs from the previous generation in his concern for the relation between theatre and music. Music is central to his idea of performance, and one feels more than the usual sense of frustration in attempting to evaluate the written word outside this intended context. Presumably tapes, even videotapes, exist in the archives of the National Theatre and the BBC; but when a writer offers for much of his work subtitles like “a music drama”, “a sex-war opera” or “a rhythmic libretto”, and when he works with composers like Harrison Birtwistle, Dominic Muldowney and Jacob Druckman, it seems a pity that the publication of his words cannot be combined with at least a selection of their performance on tape. For performance, not the written word, is the key to Harrison's art.

His dramatic career extends over the whole period of his activity as a poet; indeed, until the publication of his Selected Poems in Penguin in 1984, he was more widely known as a playwright. The earliest play here reprinted is his version of The Misanthrope for the National Theatre in 1973: it must have been the first successful use of rhyming couplets on the stage for well over a century; the pace and wit of the original are marvellously recreated through the way that the conventions of the rhyming couplet build up tensions and expectations. And the formality of the stylistic constraints in turn imposes a formality of representation, and recreates for us precisely that lifestyle of conventions which the hero Alceste so vigorously opposes.

In Phaedra Britannica (1975), a close adaptation, in rhyming iambic couplets, of Racine's play, the action is reset in the British Raj before the Mutiny. By a simple device of change of situation Harrison revives all the tensions present in Racine. The formality of the couplet form offsets the passionate and uncontrollable emotions that are expressed through it, just as the controlled coolness of Racine's language heightened the violence of the original; but it also seems right for its new context, as characters struggle to express thoughts and feelings through the conventions of colonial English life. The new setting is also important for the religious meaning of the play; for it allows us to believe in the influence of the gods of India on the action, from the betrayal of the Memsahib's mother by lust to the final curse of the Governor, which brings forth Siva's monster to stampede his son's polo ponies and drag him to his death. When at the end the Governor and Lilamani are left alone, the weight of Indian religion and the dread of the mixing of races shine through his final words:

Your family, now mine, have borne the cost
of crossing certain bounds best left uncrossed.
Now try to ford, though times force us apart,
those frontiers of blood into my heart.

When it was first produced in 1981, I described The Oresteia as “surely the best acting translation of Aeschylus ever written. It gives the impression of catching every image and every nuance of meaning that is dramatically significant, while recreating Aeschylus' traditional grandeur and sonority” (TLS, December 11, 1981). Rereading the text after the memory of that magnificent theatrical experience has faded a little, it is easy to see how closely Harrison's achievement is related to his technical skills as a writer of poetry. On this occasion he abandons rhyme (except in certain choruses) in order to appeal to a far older tradition of English verse. He uses a variety of strongly stressed and regular metres often based on the dactyl or anapaest, to create a poetry of pace and of menace. The chief characteristic of his line is a heavy caesura at its centre, which recalls the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon verse, or of the Psalms in the Authorized Version. This allusion to the origins of English poetry is reinforced by his very strong emphasis on alliteration and assonance, and by his use of a vocabulary rich in gutturals and labials:

Coerced into keening by Queen Clytemnestra
for King Agamemnon as if for our bloodkin
we carry these ghost-sops out to his gravemound.
Lashed out to lament the lost lord of Argos
we Trojans trench flesh ruts into our faces.
There's no need to coerce us, we cry anyway.

The language too points to our own remote past—of tomb-cairn, clanchief and bloodguilt. Instead of gods and goddesses we have “Hera, high she-god and Zeus, the high he-god”. Where rhyme is used, the effect is powerful, as in the passage quoted above, or:

LEMNOS! Its very name is vile
Clytemnestra should have been
of that murderous and manless isle
the killer queen
Queen of women who wield knives
or slaughtered husband's sword.
The Lemnos husband-killing wives.
LEMNOS—name to be abhorred.

There is in fact something almost Byronic in the speed, rhythmic vigour and fluency of Harrison's verse, and in his delight in it:

This is my mule, a poor long-suffering hack,
               with iambic front legs and trochaic back.
Backwards or forwards, he'll take you home
               both ways together like a palindrome.

(Palladas 34)

Without their music, others of Harrison's works are less easy to judge. For instance, a collaboration with Birtwistle produced Yan Tan Tethera for BBC Television, described as “a mechanical pastoral” with revolving hill and two choruses of black- and white-faced sheep: after various mishaps the opera is finally due for first performance this August on the South Bank and ITV. Seeing (and hearing) may induce believing, but on the printed page it doesn't sound as if it would have appealed to the author's father:

Sorry, dad, you won't get that quatrain
(I'd like to be the poet my father reads!)
It's all from you once saying on the train
how most of England's rhubarb came from Leeds.

So he wrote in his poetic epistle on translating Smetana's Bartered Bride for the New York Met (also included in this volume). But this is just an extreme example of a tension which runs through all of Harrison's work, and marks him out as belonging to a particular generation. Aggressive pride in his working-class origins is combined with a delight in exploring even the most obscure byways of European culture: how many people have heard of Palladas, the Alexandrian schoolteacher in the late Roman empire, whose epigrams Harrison so brilliantly translated?

The most entertaining expression of this conflict is Harrison's homage to his old school, Leeds Grammar School. The Big H, with music by Dominic Muldowney, was first shown on BBC Television on Boxing Day, 1984; three schoolteachers act the part of a modern Herod instilling in their classes the duty of massacring innocents, and the importance of not dropping aitches; as each hero returns from his task, the teacher intones:

The title I hereby award to thee
is Grand Child Eliminator G. C. E.

The dog Latin and the schoolboy jokes come thick and fast, and the puns are truly awful:

In these days of freedom the flogger and flesh-render
can also be a Herod of the feminine gender.
If you think mass-murder is monopolised by men
watch how this King Herod does it, then think again.
HIStory is HERstory, girls, now mark this well
you too might be recruited into Herod's PREL.

(The PREL is Herod's hit squad, named acronymically from the school motto, pro rege et lege.) It must all have been great fun for the schoolkids involved. I find it also an intensely nostalgic piece; for it looks back to the only period when it might be said that England had a shared culture and a shared education; though they still teach Latin at Leeds Grammar School, it no longer takes little Tony Harrisons who drop their aitches, for it is a private school.

Harrison's most ambitious work to date is Medea: a sex-war opera with music by Jacob Druckman; commissioned by the New York Met and finished last year, it does not seem to have been performed yet. But it involves a major step forward in his art. It is a formal opera; there is, for instance, what is clearly a chorus sung by the Argonauts; and there is a (poetically) haunting aria for Butes, reluctant voyager:

O moon, whose bees are stars
send out your swarms tonight
and on this sea that scarcely stirs
ooze your honied light.

The plot derives from the myth, conceived as all its versions; it is framed in Greek and Latin passages from Euripides to Hosidius Geta (second century AD) and the Scottish Renaissance Latinist, Buchanan. The story begins with the Argonauts on Lemnos, and moves to Colchis for the winning of the golden fleece, and the meeting of Jason and Medea. Their wedding at the end of the act is repeated for Jason and Creusa at the start of the next act, which provokes the dreadful revenge of Medea on her rival. The final section explains why this is a sex-war opera. Harrison has already protested at the attitude of opera to women:

Tosca, Carmen, Butterfly
it seems all women do is die
in music drama.
A woman is what men desert;
in opera (as in life!) men hurt
and harm her.

Now he takes up a theme he had explored earlier in the Oresteia, the conflict between the male and female principles:

As the sex-war's still being fought
which sex does a myth support
you should be asking.
What male propaganda lurks
behind most operatic works
that music's masking?

Medea did not kill her children; they were stoned by the men of Corinth. And the opera ends with a father, Hercules, murdering his children.

The libretto is totally professional, and no longer rests on translation or even adaptation: the basis of the act of recreation is no longer the text, but the myth. All the various techniques that he has learned over the last twelve years in the theatre are brought into play. One hopes and expects that the music will live up to this superb libretto.

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: unlike Eliot, his natural habitat is the public arena. That is also why he understands so well the classical tradition in the theatre: it is not just an accident of his education. For the Greeks, poetry was a public act, and therefore belonged in the theatre, where the spoken word fused with religious ritual, dance and music to extend the boundaries of action and speech towards the unknown. In the Oresteia, Tony Harrison and Peter Hall showed their understanding of the place of ritual in the theatre; and Harrison has always seemed close to the ancient tragedians in his acceptance that poetry is part of this ritual context. Like them he belongs to a verbal not a written culture: the word is the spoken word. That is why he finds his natural home in the theatre, and that is why this book is no more than the verbal notation for past and future performances. At the start of his Oresteia he places an author's note: “This text is written to be performed, a rhythmic libretto for masks, music, and an all-male company.” That is no mere antiquarian homage to Aeschylus, but a statement of poetic principle.

Principal Works

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Earthworks (poetry) 1964

Aikin Mata [adapter with James Simmons; from Aristophanes' Lysistrata] (drama) 1965

Newcastle Is Peru (poetry) 1969

The Loiners (poetry) 1970

The Misanthrope [translator and adapter; from Moliere's Le Misanthrope] (drama) 1973

Phaedra Britannica [translator and adapter; from Racine's Phedre] (drama) 1975

The Poems of Palladas [translator] (poetry) 1975

Bow Down (drama) 1977

The Passion (drama) 1977

The Bartered Bride [translator; based on the work by Bedrich Smetana] (libretto) 1978

From “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems (poetry) 1978

Continuous: Fifty Sonnets from “The School of Eloquence” (poetry) 1981

A Kumquat for John Keats (poetry) 1981

The Oresteia [translator and adapter; based on the work by Aeschylus] (drama) 1981

U.S. Martial (poetry) 1981

The Mysteries (drama) 1984

Selected Poems (poetry) 1984

The Blasphemers' Banquet [also rendered as The Blasphemer's Banquet ] (television play) 1989

V. and Other Poems (poetry and drama) 1990

A Cold Coming: Gulf War Poems (poetry) 1991

Permanently Bard (poetry) 1996

Michael Wood (review date 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Parnassus, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1988, pp. 324-39.

[In the following excerpt, Wood argues that several contemporary British translations of Greek classics, including Harrison's Oresteia, “are claims, made through language, that Britain has history again, and that its troubles and divisions can be compared to those of other countries and ages.”]

“What's Hecuba to them?” we might ask, thinking of contemporary British poets translating the Greeks; of Irish and Yorkshire idioms attaching themselves to classical names and places. But the question doesn't have to be dismissive or sure of its answer. Tony Harrison's Oresteia (1981), Tom Paulin's version of Antigone, called The Riot Act (1985), are not simply old plays in modern linguistic dress; they are claims, made through language, that Britain has history again, that its troubles and divisions can be compared to those of other countries and ages.

Haven't we always had history? Of course. But the great conspiracy, running roughly from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until very recently, was that our history was a grand pageant, a decorous success story, something we boasted to Americans about and wheeled out for ceremonies. There was lots of it, but all in the past. It was not the turbulent stuff that other nations continued gracelessly to have. We had no modern revolution, no unhappy proletariat (who were the Chartists again?), consequently no class struggle. No slavery, hence no racial problems. We did have an Empire, but not for profit or power or anything like that, and in any case we gave it away. No one quite believes this stuff now, although I suspect that many people don't know, so to speak, that they don't believe it—don't know how much their current fear and discontent have to do with the secret death of this ludicrous belief. The striking thing is how long the belief held out, and the imprint it leaves.

It is an engaging paradox that the Classics, so long the untended domain of an English elite, should become one of the instruments of a new consciousness. The Greeks and Romans speak to us (and speak our language) because we have ceased to treat them as strangers. They speak not of harmony and measure and chalky classrooms, but of violence and loyalty, of angrily competing allegiances. Tom Paulin thinks of life under the questionable government of Northern Ireland as life “under Creon”: under a Diktat, that is, an arbitrary human invention, heedless of the demands of the gods (Paulin in some moods is sure he knows what the gods want; in most moods sure he knows what they don't want). More subtly and riskily, particularly in view of the fancy rhyme at the end of this stanza, Harrison enrolls both Yeats and Virgil for a Yorkshire grief. The scene is a working class sitting room used only for Christmases and death:

The best clock's only wound for layings out
so the stillness isn't tapped at by its ticks.
The settee's shapeless underneath its shroud.
My mind moves upon silence and Aeneid

(from “Study”)

Harrison's Oresteia depends on a strongly stressed alliterative line, owing something to Middle English, more to Hopkins. The line gets muscle-bound at times, seeming to parody its own burly forcefulness—“Base battle-bronze battered gets blackened and mottled,” “Grudge gangrenes the gut”—but also achieves more delicate effects. The Eumenides say, “We memorise murders”; Menelaus sees “Helen-shaped shadows”; life is “as bright as a ballad.” A lot of the energy in the writing comes from the cheerful eclecticism of the voice, which borrows from Graves (“Goodbye to all that”), Marlowe (“topless towers”), and dozens of others. In the following lines, for example, geezers and bairnhood belong to quite different regions of English, and the old men seem to have hobbled in from Baudelaire:

Argos geezers, back to bairnhood,
ghosts still walking after cockcrow,
old men, dreams abroad in daylight.

How far is Argos? This would be another way of asking Hamlet's question about Hecuba, and the interest of Harrison's Oresteia in relation to his Selected Poems is that it is a practical response to the problem Harrison repeatedly asks the Classics to figure for him. “don't speak Greek,” an angry skinhead says in V (1985, and included in the new English edition of the Selected Poems; it does not appear in the American Random House collection) when the poet drops into fussy or literary French (cri de coeur; Rimbaud's Je est un autre). It is all Greek—the tired phrase becomes a grim and lively joke—to this rabid contemporary, the unemployed lounger Harrison feels he might have been, and would like to talk to and for. Argos is education, reading, knowledge, as close as a good poem, and as far as that poem is likely to be from all but a tiny cultural circle. Many of Harrison's ambivalences hover here; much of the life of his writing; many of his false notes too. The epigraph to Selected Poems is “… son io il poeta / essa la poesia.” Is that a boast or a bit of humble pie, and what would the skinhead make of it? Are poet and poetry being contrasted, or offered as a connection? Like father and son, perhaps. But is that a connection? “I'd like to be the poet my father reads,” Harrison says in a poem called “The Rhubarbarians,” and the title is its own comment on the wish. Yet the wish is moving: Harrison would like to write more accessibly, and would also like his father to have had the schooling he lacked. Several very good poems center on the intimacies of misunderstanding which beset educated children and uneducated parents. “A good read” presents the poet as youngster devouring Ibsen, Marx, and Gide, and getting one of his father's “you-stuck-up-bugger-looks,” with the comment “ah sometimes think you read too many books.” The poet sneers (silently) that his father reads only whiskey labels and football programs, but later acknowledges both the good sense and the deprivation behind his father's hurt suspicion:

I've come round to your position on ‘the Arts’
but put it down in poems, that's the bind.

That's the bind. Poems are articulation for Harrison, a political act, a voicing of what is otherwise unvoiced, a defense of the silent, because “the tongueless man gets his land took.”

How you became a poet's a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry—
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

(from “Heredity”)

But articulation is also betrayal, a crossing over into the privileged world of speech. “Three cheers for mute ingloriousness,” Harrison mockingly cries in “On Not Being Milton,” and all the pain of the situation hangs in the phrase. We can cheer for the mute and the forgotten, but they can't cheer for themselves, and do they want our cheers? The poet writes, but who reads him? What if the mute don't want or don't acknowledge the voice he kindly lends them?

The problem doesn't always arise. All poetry which is not purely confessional is a lending of voice. A song is a small drama, a performance of a plight. In Selected Poems Harrison sings breezily in the person of randy colonials stuck in Africa; sees a waltzing mother-in-law as “Viennese with happiness”; imagines the feelings of the bride of Philip II of Spain during the Inquisition; hums a ballad of death in Beverly Hills:

don't adjust the skew-whiff Manet
You'll touch off the thief device
monitored each nook and cranny
of this closed circuit paradise. …
cold carioca or chill cha-cha
charnelwise to Forest Lawn.

(from section 3, “The Bonebard Ballads”)

Harrison's cleverness is so offhand and prodigal that we cannot possibly wish he had taken in fewer books. He plays the pedant, noting that pay is “patience's first morpheme”; tilts Nerval toward wistful pornography:

Je suis le ténébreux …
le veuf …
always the soixante and never the neuf.

(from section 5, “The White Queen”)

In one sense Harrison almost is the popular poet his father might have read: difficult only in his range of references; easy and traditional in rhyme and meter.

“Randiness, my life's disease,” one of Harrison's colonials says; and Harrison himself has a healthy sense of the body's demands and entanglements. “Love's not something you can hoard / against the geriatric ward.”

                                                  You complain
that the machinery of sudden death,
Fascism, the hot bad breath
of Powers down small countries’ necks
shouldn't interfere with sex.
They are sex, love, we must
all these in love's beatitude.

(from “Durham”)

The body is an answer to bookishness; and a better answer is that body and books belong to the same uncertain but color-filled world.

A remarkable early poem, “Thomas Campey and the Copernican System,” gathers a great deal of this criss-crossing material. A Leeds waste collector with a bad back, “squeezed lungs and damaged heart” drags his heavy handcart round the city, bearing among other things the refuse of much reading: copies of Gibbon, Spengler, Mommsen, a medical textbook, Marie Corelli, Ouida, Patience Strong. The man is a martyr and a treasure, a connoisseur of “familiar last straws,” who dreams of death as a final straightening of his bent back beneath a graveyard slab:

                                                  just one
More sharp turn of the earth, those knees will crack
And he will turn his warped spine on the sun.
Leeds! Offer thanks to that Imperial Host,
Squat on its thrones of Ormus and Ind,
For bringing Thomas from his world of dust
To dust, and leisure of the simplest kind.

The high rhetoric is both mocking and tender, miming the grand send-off Campey ought to have but won't.

But even here the body and the books are ours, or could be, and Harrison's problem returns as soon as we try to take the mute and the unlettered into our talkative company. The question is central to V, which doesn't quite work, I think, but fails for instructive reasons. The poem is an answer and an echo to Gray, from whom those mute inglorious Miltons come, an elegy written in a city churchyard, complete with Gray's stanza and meter—although without Gray's solemnity. Indeed the verse has a wonderfully motley, dishevelled air, and even the rhyme seems insolent rather than tidy.

If buried ashes saw then I'd survey
the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek,
and left, the ground where Leeds United play
and disappoint their fans week after week,
which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem
and taking a short cut home through these graves here
they reassert the glory of their team
by spraying words on tombstones, pissed on beer.

Harrison's parents are buried in this graveyard, which hangs above a disused mine—that is why the tombstones lean and look so higgledy-piggledy—and the poet fears that empty darkness beneath the darkness more than he fears death:

A matter of time and it will swallow
this place of rest and all the resters down.

He has devised an epitaph for himself which includes (in rhyme) the obscenity which will sooner or later deface his stone. For the stones in this place are all sprayed with curses and verbal violence, anathema on blacks and victorious visiting football teams. The V of the title is the versus of sport, but also all the againsts of class antagonisms, confessed at last in England, and unmistakable during the miners' strike of 1984. United is the name of the local team, and the word has been sprayed by a skinhead on Harrison's parents' gravestone. Harrison brilliantly, desperately tries to rescue the word from hate, to make it signify the joining of his parents in death—

an accident of meaning to redeem
an act intended as mere desecration

—but quickly sees a more disturbing double sense in the scrawled letters. He and the skinhead are united, their problems are not separate, they inhabit a single world. This is a decent thought, and far better than disowning the disaffected altogether. But Harrison and the skinhead are no more united than Leeds or Harrison's dead parents, and none of Harrison's energetic articulating of the skinhead's position as against his own—

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

—can really mask this. Harrison is careful to let us see that the speech he lends the skinhead is lent, that he is talking to a figment of his own imagination. But there is still an implied claim of articulation and understanding (son io il poeta), and I think here Harrison says too much. It is possible to rob people of speech by talking for them, by taking up the semantic space they might occupy with all the things we don't know, can't know. Still, the dilemma is real enough. We can hardly leave the mute to speak for themselves. V would be a triumph if it could accommodate all this; as it is, it creates an awkward sense that Harrison believes he is somehow still in touch with the very world he gets such pathos out of having lost. …

Bruce Woodcock (essay date Summer 1990)

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SOURCE: “Classical Vandalism: Tony Harrison's Invective,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 50-65.

[In the following essay, Woodcock discusses the anger found in Harrison's poetry and asserts that its source is Harrison's “own background … and \his] sense of identity in relation to the marginalisation of working-class experience by dominant middle-class culture.”]

Tony Harrison's poetry grows more extraordinary year by year. His output is increasing dramatically, and he is getting angrier. For a practitioner of classically formal restraint, Harrison is very ready to occupy outspoken extremes of expression and opinion, as his recent productions testify. There was his long poem V. set during the miner's strike in 1984 and utilising an uncompromising invective which led Mary Whitehouse to call for it to be banned. There is his play for fifteen women about the Greenham peace camp, Common Chorus, which allows Harrison to re-launch his critique of men and masculinity which figured significantly in his ‘The School of Eloquence’ sequence. But most notably there is the recently broadcast The Blasphemer's Banquet, a courageous advocacy of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and currently in hiding under threat of death. Whereas V. took its model from Gray's ‘Elegy’, The Blasphemer's Banquet adopts the stanza form of Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát, though it does so, as the poem ruefully admits, only ‘as best I can’.

That elegant form should not belie the angry energy of its invective: it presents a scathing attack on all ‘life-denying’ fundamentalism, not just Muslim forms of bigotry, and simultaneously celebrates ‘this fleeting life’ in the fleshly moment. The poem addresses itself to Rushdie as an invitation to take dinner in the wryly chosen Omar Khayyám restaurant in Bradford's Paradise Street with Harrison and four other renegades against bigoted holiness—Molière, Voltaire, Byron and Omar Khayyám himself. But Harrison's connection with all these personages is also that they were writers on and from the margins: Rushdie, with his contradictory Indian-Muslim and English public school background, all of which he has ‘rejected’ in a certain sense, and with his current ‘outlaw’; Byron, with his position as a marginalised aristocrat, which allowed him to exploit the scandalous extremes of experience and opinion, and epitomise the ‘Satanic School’ of his day; Molière, who was buried with no religious rights for refusing to abjure the stage; Voltaire, persecuted for his enlightened godless rationalism; Khayy m, ‘the Voltaire of Persia’ as Harrison calls him, who celebrated ‘this fleeting life’ in defiance of the demands of state religion; and Harrison himself most interestingly as far as his own work goes, because of his relation to the English class system. Rushdie's plight and the attack on his work allows Harrison a link with the continuing issue in his own work of cultural suppression. It is really from his own background, the background of the North of England and Harrison's sense of identity in relation to the marginalisation of working-class experience by dominant middle-class culture, that the anger and invective take their cue. As a preliminary to any assessment of Harrison's recent work, it is worth reminding ourselves of that context.

The bare facts of Harrison's life are well known and significant. He was born in Leeds in 1937, son of a local baker. His home in Tempest Road, Beeston, was in a respectable working-class row of terraced houses, with cobbled street, small front gardens and back yards. He went to Leeds Grammar School on a scholarship, one of only six for the whole West Riding of Yorkshire, and then to Leeds University to read Classics. These localised but dramatic contradictions between working-class home and middle-class education were further heightened by a four-year period teaching in Nigeria, and a year in Prague. What his time in Africa taught him, he has said, was ‘the internal colonialism of British education. I think that seeing it literally in black and white in Africa helped me to understand it very clearly when I came back to England.’ It was this experience which allowed Harrison to ‘put in perspective my own education’ and realise the common link of cultural exclusion and suppression between these different contexts.1 After some long conversations with members of Frelimo, the Mozambique Liberation Army, on the relationship between poetry and politics, Harrison returned to England determined to make a living out of writing verse.

Until more recently Harrison's output as a poet had been comparatively small and, until Penguin published the Selected Poems in 1984, his work was notably difficult to obtain despite being recognised by his peers and contemporaries as that of a remarkable writer. As Ken Worpole has pointed out, his work ‘found it incomparably more difficult to gain access to the metropolitan literary and cultural journals including the New Statesman and Tribune, than the work of such poets as Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, Blake Morrison or Clive James’.2 While conspiracy theories of cultural influence are not always helpful, it is significant that Harrison shares none of the Oxbridge connections of the New Establishment poets of the 1970s and 1980s. His present popularity is based more on his activities as a dramatist, the public theatre-poet Harrison has admitted he always wanted to be. And at the centre of his dramatic ventures, most famously in the dialect versions of the Mystery plays, Harrison signals the intent of his work as dramatist and poet—to reoccupy the space so long dominated by a Southern middle-class cultural hegemony, but to do so in both his own and their terms. He declares this overtly and famously in one of his ‘The School of Eloquence’ sonnets: addressing the upper- and middle-class cultural hegemony, he declares

So right, yer buggers then! We'll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry

Selected Poems, p. 123)

This very project produces a tension in Harrison and his work which accounts both for its remarkable energy and for its problematic qualities.

In this respect, Harrison and his work are products of their time and context—the post-war world of the Welfare State and the 1944 Education Act. It was through this mechanism that Harrison won his scholarship to grammar school and underwent the dislocating experience described shortly afterwards by Richard Hoggart in his classic, The Uses of Literacy (1957). This is a book which Harrison admits ‘helped me understand myself’3 and to which he owes the title of one of his best-known poems, ‘Them and \uz]’. Hoggart's book describes the cultural ‘chafing’ experienced by the working-class boy undergoing a scholarship education, ‘at the friction-point of two cultures … He both wants to go back and yet thinks he has gone beyond his class’.4 Leeds Grammar School, founded in 1552, was a direct-grant school with fee-paying status and aspired to upper-class ideals of the public schools with their belief in preparing boys to lead the country through having the correct accent. Harrison has acknowledged how the displacement of this experience fuelled his later work. He explains his use of dialect in his translations, for example, partly as ‘a long slow-burning revenge on the teacher who taught me English when I was 13 because he would never allow me to read poetry aloud.’5 Equally, the context during the 1960s and early 1970s within which Harrison began writing verse about such experiences was one in which questions of language and class became major political issues, as Ken Worpole has pointed out, a battle over who defines ‘correct’ English which is still being enacted.6

Harrison's poems quite obviously deal with this issue of language and power. While he is quite capable of a postmodernist self-awareness about this, he maintains a seriousness of intent in relation to it which separates him from the game-playing of early Craig Raine, for example. Harrison indicated the centrality to his work of this confrontation with the politics of language and cultural control by the choice of title for his first book, The Loiners (1970). It comes from the local name for the inhabitants of Leeds and indicates Harrison's desire to give voice to the marginalised experience of ‘\uz]’. For Harrison, this is the ‘pronoun of solidarity’,7 of working-class community, family and culture, as opposed to the overweening and suppressive eloquence of ‘them’—the upper classes, professionals, public officials, bosses and bureaucrats. This advocacy of suppressed working-class experience, genuine as it is, can verge on a nostalgic idealisation of virtues in a lost past which is at best questionable and generates its own contradictions in his work.

At the same time he has indicated his chosen tools for the job would be the classical forms of middle-class British literary tradition, particularly rhyme and regular verse forms. He sees this as ‘an aggressive occupation—I was going to usurp classical forms but fit them to what I wanted to say and the kind of language I wanted to use’.8 In one poem he presents himself as a poetic Luddite using the sledgehammer (‘Enoch’) of his voice to demolish establishment power over language:

Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress
clangs a forged music on the frames of Art, 
the looms of owned language smashed apart!

SP, p. 112)

Hence the title of the sequence ‘The School of Eloquence’, taken from a source epigram from E. P. Thompson's classic of historical recovery, The Making of the English Working Class. The name was a cover for the working-class organisation the London Corresponding Society, suppressed in 1799 by an increasingly repressive and paranoid ruling class. It is an aptly chosen emblem for a process still at work in the twentieth century: dissent can be silenced through the control of language and publication; but equally opportunities remain for counterattack by suppressed groups through appropriating language. The experience of black slaves in the British Caribbean points one example: their appropriation of English into forms of creole and patois was, it has been argued, a deliberate strategy to forge a common language which was unavailable to the white overseers on the plantation; and the historical result has been the Caribbean ‘nation language’ celebrated and used by Caribbean writers like Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Jean Binta Breeze. Harrison's aim is similar but his approach is different. Rather than totally transform the tools given by history in terms of language and forms, as some Caribbean ‘dub’ poets have done, Harrison aims to appropriate and use them on their own terms as well as on his, to break the silence imposed by ruling-class history on working-class experience:

Wherever hardship held its tongue the job
's breaking the silence of the worked-out-gob.

SP, p. 124)

‘Gob’ is a dialect word meaning ‘mouth’, of course, but also an old Northern coal-mining word for the space left after the coal has been extracted. Historical reclamation is part of Harrison's work, as is the job of warning the unwary:

The dumb go down in history and disappear
and not one gentleman's been brought to book:
Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr
‘the tongueless man gets his land took.’

SP, p. 121)

Along with this commitment to intervene in history's suppressions, goes an ironic awareness of the limits of the poet's role, summed up in the last verse of the poem ‘On Not Being Milton’, with its marvellous final pun on ‘writing’ and ‘putting things right’:

Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.
In the silence round all poetry we quote
Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:
Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting.

SP, p. 112)

Perhaps it is the contradictions involved between the act of writing and the desire to put things right that have led to the tension we will see in Harrison's work between his eloquence and his invective.

It was his desire to appropriate established culture for his people which led Harrison to insist on giving God and Jesus Yorkshire accents in his versions of the Mystery plays, remarking ‘These are local northern classics that had been taken away from northerners and betrayed, made genteel.’9 At the same time, Harrison sees his commitment to traditional forms as offering more possibilities ‘if you want to reach a wider audience’.10 Thus, rhyming octosyllabic couplets, iambic pentameter quatrains or octets dominate the long poems and the sequences of shorter poems. ‘The School of Eloquence’ uses a 16-line sonnet form derived from George Meredith's sequence Modern Love (1862), chosen for its capacity to offer stronger narrative possibilities, but also because of the dialectic available between two octets.

Harrison clearly believes that regular verse allows for a more memorable and involving reading experience, particularly perhaps for people for whom reading poetry is an irregular activity, whereas for aficionados of poetry the experience will be different. Harrison admits to using his versifying ability ‘to gratify expectations of a literary experience’ but also seeks to ‘remind the person reading the poem that they are enjoying a privilege of literary experience denied to the majority of people’. At the banquet of verse he offers, there are always ‘the ghosts of the inarticulate’, so that the reader has to pay for their cultural gratification: ‘that literary frisson—“hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère”—will cost you so much in social awareness, in the consciousness of social gaps and divisions.’ It is in this exploitation of the literary experience as well as of conflicting language codes that Harrison sees the opportunity to be ‘political’, though he recognises the contradictions involved: ‘the moment I become “poet” in that unpoliticised way I am in collusion with the reader, and part of the struggle is not always to be in collusion … but obviously by being a poet I've moved into another class anyway.’11

The problematic this establishes is double-edged: in part at least, Harrison's use of regular verse forms undoubtedly accounts for the dynamic of his writing—it gives his imagination an edge to work against that seems to drive it to articulate itself with often stunning economy and precision. At the same time there is an inescapable question as to whether Harrison's dynamic isn't also contained and defused by his choice of regular verse forms and whether his appropriation of middle-class culture has not in fact worked in reverse. It is an inescapable dialectic, since without the forms the poetry as such would not exist. The problems arise when the pronounced facility with which Harrison handles formal verse leads him into a prolixity near to doggerel, as in his more recent television work The Blasphemer's Banquet, and when his self-awareness of linguistic registers leads him into an erudition which contradicts his declared aim to ‘colonise the high style’ so as to ‘present it back as a gift to those people you were brought up with’.12

One example might be the poem ‘Them and \uz]’, which graphically records the incident with the teacher who prevented him reciting verse at school. The very title, with its ironic use of phonetic conventions, throws learning back at the powerful. The poem is co-dedicated to Richard Hoggart, academic professor, and to a dialect comedian called ‘Professor’ Leon Cortez, who Harrison remembers on the radio translating Shakespeare into Cockney.13 They are dual emblems of Harrison's allegiances to orthodox and unorthodox learning. Hence the bitingly playful opening:

αi αî, ay, ay! … stutterer Demosthenes
gob full of pebbles outshouting seas

SP, p. 122)

The academically familiar choric cry from Greek tragedy, is juxtaposed with the stand-up comedian's popularly familiar ‘ay, ay’. Fourth-century Athenian orator Demosthenes is invoked since he was a stammerer who ironically enough became a great public orator by filling his mouth with pebbles, rather as the upper classes are said to speak with plums in their mouths. The problem here is with the erudition. Harrison is debunking the hegemonic power which puts ‘high culture’ in the hands of an elite, but arguably the bite of the poem can only be decoded by a reader with access to that very culture. On the one hand, Harrison is asserting the democratic availability of such culture; on the other, his poem is speaking from within it, and as such unavailable to most people. As a well-read friend of mine put it, ‘Harrison's got too much Latin for me.’

In performance Harrison reads this poem with a fire all the more effective for being contained. It acts as both indictment and incitement. It is a knowing last laugh by someone who has proved his cultural credentials and is now at liberty to challenge the hierarchy of control and social management which language enacts by making ‘classic’ poetry out of dialect registers and throwing it in the face of standard English and its chinless-wonder advocates. It seems a peculiarly male response, somehow. In the poem ‘Me Tarzan’ Harrison humorously plays off the macho male aspect of working-class culture against the suggestion that literature is somehow effeminate: while his mates are out ‘laikin’ and ‘tartin’, the young Harrison is captive to translating Cicero, who he is uneasily aware is likely to be seen as ‘Cissy-bleeding-ro’. 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.

Not one to miss a trick, Harrison makes mileage out of these very contradictions. There is a self-conscious element in ‘The School of Eloquence’, as for example when he realises that, adept now at a variety of languages, he has lost

… the tongue that once I used to know
but can't bone up on now, and that's mi mam's.

SP, p. 114)

As so often, there's a biting edge here when we realise the overtones of ‘bone up on’ in the context of the deaths of Harrison's parents which forms a major strand in the sequence, and which parallels the other major strand, cultural displacement. Harrison recognises how the experiences of the class he records sit uneasily in middle-class forms, his father ‘lost in this sonnet for the bourgeoisie’ (SP, p. 124). More problematically, he recognises how impossibly disparate are the audience he hopes for and the one he gets, the result in part of the class nature of literature but also of Harrison's own erudition: after one particularly rarified example, he apologises ‘Sorry, dad, you won't get that quatrain’, yet goes on to say ‘I'd like to be the poet my father reads!’ (SP, p. 114).

This problem of audience and accessibility is not confined to Harrison's father. It is a contradiction at the heart of his stated desire to have a public role as a poet. We can see it in the extreme ranges of his linguistic register. There is the plain, homely side, the ‘man speaking to men’ with the down-to-earth blunt address of a ‘loiner’, most explicit in the dialect with which he spices his poems. Jeffrey Wainwright14 has noticed words like faff, big-wig, piddle, glugged, pop, bugger, tusky, gob, man; to which we might add smithereens, gaffers, aggro, laikin', tartin', 'oil (for hole), gorra, among many others. But that is just one side of the Harrison lexicon. Beside this, as Wainwright points out, we need to put the strand which covers words such as glossolalia, dulciloquy, rebarbative, damascener, oviparous; to which again we might add inwit, sophomore, cynghannedd, and names as various as Caractacus, Roget, Marx, Frelimo, Farouk, Demosthenes. In addition there is Harrison's frequent recourse to foreign and ‘dead’ languages, whether Greek, Latin, Danish, French, Czech, German, Russian, with one example at least of Cornish. And he often indulges in frequently cryptic language play and puns. These can be of a literary nature: the poem ‘Study’ ends with a line which glances at Yeats's ‘Long-Legged Fly’ and Virgil in a manner which Edward Lucie-Smith recognises as deriving from Robert Lowell.15 Less rarified but still oblique, ‘The Pocket Wars of Peanuts Joe’, a poem about a celebrated Leeds masturbator, opens with the line ‘The -nuts bit really -nis.’ (SP, p. 16). Harrison expects his readership to work linguistically for their pleasure in a manner which can be quite uncompromising. The very enjoyment of Harrison's verse derives from his linguistic virtuosity coupled with the forceful economy of expression enforced through the verse form. In a sense he suffers from the containment he himself identifies in his classical school training, the imperative to translate potentially explosive content into a nicely turned form:

And so the lad who gets the alphas works
the hardest in his class at his translation
and finds good Ciceronian for Burke's:
a dreadful schism in the British nation.

SP, p. 120)

As so often, the reader has to work to mine the rebarbative implications behind these wryly turned lines; and having mined them, we realise that Harrison has put his finger on a linguistic gagging his poem itself enacts.

It would be misleading to suggest that all of ‘The School of Eloquence’ is equally oblique. Much of the writing is very direct, even at times notebookish in a way similar to Lowell's verse diary of that title. But there is a real tendency in Harrison's work from the beginning towards utilising material which makes demands of knowledge on the reader, knowledge which is not part of the general culture and which therefore threatens to make his work unapproachable despite his declared desire for a popular role.

It is all the more intriguing, then, to find Harrison's slow-burning anger about class, cultural suppression and displacement exploding into the startling and powerful long poems V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet. Both productions declare themselves as pieces written for public consumption, not least because both have been presented in video format on national television. The videos have undoubtedly had a significant role to play in making the two poems generally available in terms of tangible consumption. There is the ready availability of the TV experience as opposed to the work involved in the reading experience; and in terms of the illustrative commentary to the writing, both videos are remarkably good pieces of television art, in which Harrison's most evasive expressions receive instantaneous illumination through visual equivalents. Both facts mean that these two long poems must have received more instantaneous widespread public attention than most long poems in literary history. In itself this is a fascinating illustration of Harrison's commitment, like dramatist Trevor Griffiths's, to a popular audience.

This is also true of the forms of both poems. The quatrains of V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet derive from sources which themselves are popular antecedents, enacting Harrison's belief that through regular verse you can get to more people. Like Shelley in his ballad-form political poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, Harrison has chosen regularity as the vehicle for angry satire and blistering invective and both poems struggle formally to contain this more direct strain. Faced with the subject matter of both poems, it is as if Harrison's patience were exhausted and he had no option but recourse to Juvenalian tactics. Since The Blasphemer's Banquet is not yet available in printed form, it is more appropriate to consider V. textually in more detail with a glance at the other piece for further illustrations of the contradictions raised in Harrison's writing by this more overt strain in his work.

The first thing to say, though, is to state roundly the admirable risk-taking in Harrison's recent productions. In a verse culture still inhibited by the legacies of the tight-arsed well-made poem, it is all the more welcome to find a poet finding the scale of V. in terms of length and compass. V.'s 112 verses of rhyming quatrains were obviously intended as a ‘state-of-the-nation’ poem, as Ken Worpole has pointed out.16 The Leeds graveyard graffitied with ‘a repertoire of blunt four-letter curses’ and collapsing into a worked-out pit below is Harrison's emblem of contemporary Britain during the 1984 miner's strike, its culture rifted by divisions. Harrison's auto-critique of his vocation and his sense of language as a battlefield for hegemony are given particular edge by the setting of the graveyard, which allows him to point to the collapse of communication in the mixed ‘language of the graveyard’ as one source for ‘all the versuses of life’ and, with a typical pun, for his own verses. But simultaneously and daringly as in The Blasphemer's Banquet, Harrison takes on the ‘overwhelming questions’ too—death, time, the great contingent abstracts of human existence which he makes personal, specific and bitingly, unnervingly immediate. Rather than see the antecedents of this poem in a tradition of political satire epitomised by Shelley's ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, we would do better to recognise how much closer in outlook and tone V. is to its formal model, Gray's ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’. Harrison takes Gray's verse form, but he also takes Gray's elegiac stance as the tragic mask for his anger. His tone is admittedly far more sardonic than Gray's, with a grim humour more in common with Donne or Bishop King's ‘Exequy’. The verse too is much more vigorous. Gray's classically illustrative iambs have been invigorated with a strenuous resistance to the iambic norms, the trochee and dactyl of the opening line setting the stamp, along with Harrison's penchant for a verbal density akin to the best Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. But the elegiac direction which opens the poem, however ironised or undercut linguistically, shows a central element in V. At the heart of its magnificent attempt to take on Thatcher's Britain is actually a very personal anger and sense of tragedy, a feature common to Harrison's work with its continual awareness of time and death. V. is as much a personal elegy for Harrison's father and mother as it is for his society. It is the graffitied ‘UNITED’ on his parents' grave which triggers Harrison's anger, and with it a Hamlet-like guilt and sense of responsibility at having abandoned his origins.

This self-indictment generates the main invective focus of the poem, an imaginary dialogue between Harrison and the Leeds skinhead who graffitied that ‘UNITED’ on the grave. This confrontation, like that between Marlow and Kurz in Heart of Darkness, is between self and ‘alter ego’, as the poet names his skinhead, ‘skald or skin’. It is as well to remember during this discussion that, as with the rest of his work if modern literary theory is to be accepted, the ‘Harrison voice’ in the poem is not its author as such, merely one element in Harrison's imagination. When challenged to sign his literary productions, the skin graffities his name and to Harrison's shock, ‘it was mine’. This leads Harrison to recall how he too was branded ‘vandal’ as a child when, from sheer frustration, he sprayed a fire extinguisher at a political meeting being addressed by Hugh Gaitskell. But his intent in seeing an analogy between himself and the contemporary skin disaffected by Thatcher's society is not simply to say ‘This is what I might have been.’ More subversively, it is to say ‘This is what I am’; or, as the poet puts it to his alter ego, adapting Rimbaud, ‘the autre that je est is fucking you’. The poet is a sublimated vandal confronting ‘them’ with language, and by implication, just as impotent as the angry bovver boys he berates. Part of Harrison's intent is to ask who is responsible and to lay the blame for the alienations of contemporary society at the right feet—‘It isn't all his fault though, / Much is ours.’ Harrison's sense of social responsibility, like his guilt over his parents' ill-kept grave, derives from his own feeling of what he and others like him have not done, how compromised he is by his education and social position. As the skin puts it, ‘Fuckers like that get folk like me arrested.’ The indictment is as much for Harrison's sense of abdication from his own class as for his role as poet writing elitist verses. With a precisely chosen self-irony, Harrison defends himself and his vocation to the skinhead as being ‘to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing … to give some higher meaning to your scrawl’, only to be answered by the skinhead voicing his own deepest fears: ‘can't you speak / the language that yer mam spoke’; ‘A book, yer stupid cunt, 's not worth a fuck!’ This puts the same question Harrison asks in his translations of the fourth-century AD Alexandrian poet Palladas:

Where's the public good in what you write,
raking it in from all that shameless shite,
hawking iambics like so much Betterbrite?

SP, p. 86)

The structure of V. is a brilliant vehicle offering a sense of refracted possibilities—history, language, art, contemporary society, self-critique etc. And it is explicitly and uncompromisingly contemporary articulating the frontline experiences of unemployed youth, as when the skin rejects the notion of going to heaven and having, when asked to give an account of himself, ‘to pipe up to St fucking Peter / ah've been on t'dole all mi life in fucking Leeds!’ Surely then, in this poem, Harrison's classical restraint, erudition and formal containment have been overtaken by the urgency of what he has to say in a way which allows him to achieve the role of the public poet and be accessible? In one sense the answer is undoubtedly ‘Yes’. It is quite unique for a contemporary poet to have his work translated almost instantaneously into video form as has happened with Harrison's recent productions, and equally unique for them to provoke the outraged response which both V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet elicited. Both programmes were the subject of attempts to ban their broadcast, V. by Mary Whitehouse because of its language and The Blasphemer's Banquet by the Lay Adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, ostensibly because it might be counterproductive to British race relations, but one suspects actually because of its outright and unashamedly atheistical attack on all religion.

But this public profile for Harrison's work does not necessarily answer the question we have just posed. From my own experience I have had two contradictory responses which give some indication of the responses to Harrison's work. In the town where I work, Hull Truck's Youth Theatre presented an immensely successful dramatised version of V. which ran to full houses and drew in a large number of young people. Equally, a poetry workshop which I run at The Warren, Hull's nationally acclaimed community resource centre for young unemployed people, were unanimous about the power and general accessibility of the video version of V. At the same time, they asked some probing questions about Harrison's presentation of the skinhead voice. They saw this as patronising, and noticed that structurally the poem plays tricks on the skinhead, as when it makes him mistake Harrison's Rimbaud quote as Greek and say ‘don't treat me like I'm dumb.’ This poetry workshop included an ex-NF ex-skinhead who was now a volunteer art worker at the centre. He pointed out that football-supporting skins as such no longer existed and hadn't existed in Leeds for years, ever since the clampdown on football violence forced them to change their image to become more acceptable and so get into Elland Road again and carry on the aggro. Skins around nowadays were more likely to be into anarchy and punk than aerosolling football team names. It seemed from the group discussion that Harrison had taken the skin as a generically representative voice of disaffection but in a quite distorting way. Not only that, but the attitudes of the poem, not just those of the Harrison voice in the poem, seemed to the group to be exactly those of the middle-class ‘wanker’ the skin accuses Harrison of being—and this from a group whose own exclusion from poetry as middle-class ‘wank’ has been transformed by their own fervour at finding they can do it too, as their self-produced magazine Inner Lines proved.

This instance brings up a central problem in V., and that is Harrison's attempt to speak ‘on behalf of’ a group he no longer belongs to. This may be partly a result of the problems of writing in an increasingly pluralistic culture. But the dialogue strategy of the central part of the poem, the aggressive confrontation between two male voices, polarises the poem in precisely the way it seeks to criticise. The maleness of the voice leads to a further problem with the invective. The masculine ethos, far from being challenged, is actively reinforced by the complicity of the two male voices through language at the point when the Harrison voice calls the skin a ‘cunt’. It would be a questionable generalisation to identify the derogatory use of words describing human sexuality as a male use of language, but there is a sense in which it belongs to a very male-orientated cultural ethos. Obviously Harrison is in part exposing and ironising this, but in another inescapable sense he is also complicit in it. His answer to the skin's charges against his ‘fucking poufy words’ is to drop all pretence and show that behind the cissy poet is still a ‘real man’ who can trade swear words with the best of them.

The problem raised here is a wider one of the language and forms appropriate or necessary for a contemporary political poetry. It is perhaps remarkable how little overtly political poetry there has been since the advent of Thatcherism. Part of Harrison's project as I take it has been to evolve ways of writing which are precisely that, without compromising his sense of the demands of art. In ‘taking the lid’ off his work in the way he seems to be doing in V. and The Blasphemer's Banquet he is both liberating his work and endangering it through the exacerbation of the inner contradictions which have driven it from the beginning. And despite the more open invective, the problem of formal containment remains. In the last sections of V. with its somewhat problematic chorus of ‘home, to my woman’, Harrison extends the range of the poem's reflection on contemporary violence to include images of Ulster and the Gulf, but with an almost gratuitous ease. It is as if the formal facility of his verse writing invites him to package his meditations in too easy a form. And from verse 84, through its introduction of Harrison's father, bewildered by the changes in his city and the influx of ‘coloured chaps’, the poem comes close to an ambiguous nostalgia for Leeds's working-class past versus its cosmopolitan present. Instead of being a badly needed ‘Mask of Anarchy’ for the 1980s, V. finally has more in common with Wordsworth's ‘Immortality’ ode, its rancour gagged by the elegiac strain and by a tendency to grand gestures.

This problem of rhetorical facility is even more pertinent with regard to The Blasphemer's Banquet. Clearly the form of this piece imposed certain limits. It is an ‘occasional’ poem in the true sense, a poem generated in response to an occasion or public event. It is also a public address by Harrison to Rushdie in part as a gesture of solidarity as Harrison makes plain towards the end when he raises his glass to Rushdie's blasphemy in defiance of all the ‘fascist fatwahs’ of all religions. From this point of view the piece undoubtedly has a heroic and courageous dimension to it. It is also in a sense documentary verse allowing Harrison the role of social commentator over the visual images of cultural displacement afforded by Bradford's contemporary changes—churches turned into curry restaurants and so on. But what it also allows Harrison to do is to indulge to the full his tendency for a wry and sometimes stagy or even ponderous sense of ‘The Tragic Realities of Life and Death’. It is a verse meditation on the Vanity of Human Wishes in a peculiarly classical mould. This generates some wonderfully audacious moments, as for example when Harrison is seen in the auction room, also a converted church, where the auctioneer, appropriately named Mr Bishop, is selling off a job lot of books, including the Selected Poems of Tony Harrison. And when Harrison successfully bids for a bust of Voltaire, the auctioneer marks it down to ‘Mr Nicholson’, before correcting himself and remarking wryly ‘Your fame's not travelled before you’. Or from the linguistic point of view, there is the stanza describing the unavoidability of death which rhymes with an audacity Byron would have relished:

That great big O of nothingness that swallers
Poets and priests, queens and Ayatollahs,
Not only infidels but fundamentalists
Whether in black turbans or dog-collars.

But Harrison retains his high seriousness, and lacks Byron's full sense of formal anarchy. At the same time, the writing skirts close to doggerel. V. was attacked similarly, but in the case of The Blasphemer's Banquet I am less ready to accept Harrison's rejoinder to his critics that ‘my ear is better than theirs’.17

The Blasphemer's Banquet was a courageous and welcome instance of a contemporary writer putting himself on the line in the most uncompromising way, and for that it deserves our full admiration. But at the end of the piece I was left frustrated by its patchy brilliance and by the sense that Harrison had allowed the ponderous themes of Time and Death to upstage his political or even cultural anger at what has happened to Rushdie. At the same time, this seems to have prevented him presenting a more complex response to the problematic issues and personal realities stirred up by the whole incident. The form invites him into an easy verse-making, but because of the grand gestures invited by the tragic sense of the human condition, it could be argued that Harrison loses the political and satirical bite Shelley sustains in his broadside ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. Obviously Harrison's piece was in a sense written to order, under the pressure of the events it describes, like Shelley's, or like the equally courageous response to the Rushdie affair, the play Iranian Nights by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton which played to packed houses at the Royal Court in April 1989 and was broadcast on Channel 4. Shelley found a way of translating contemporary events through a fusion of medieval allegory and broadside ballad into a vitriolic satire and a great political poem in a genuinely popular mode without losing the edge of actuality. Ali and Brenton put their piece together in one week and managed to give it a strongly political focus maintained through a critique of ‘Fascism in brown skins’,18 and of Western imperialist hypocrisy. Harrison seems caught between actuality on the one hand and timeless truths of existence on the other, journalist, elegist and celebrant of ‘this fleeting life’, but losing the historical urgency which drove him to write the poem.

One reason for this is the tendency towards pessimism in Harrison's work. The title poem of his early pamphletNewcastle is Peru was a deliberate attempt to celebrate the remarkableness of the North of England and ‘to crush’, as Harrison said, ‘desperation towards a note of celebration in life which I find very difficult’.19 His admiration for Greek drama arises in part from its capacity ‘to look at its worst imaginings, its deepest nightmares, and yet not leave you feeling that life is not worth living’.20 His attachment to traditional verse forms is important here: he sees them as ‘a life support system’ which enables ‘the dark imagination, the pessimistic side of myself, to go deeper into the darkness’.21 And Harrison finds the pessimism of the Alexandrian poet Palladus ‘invigorating’, because ‘there is no sense at all of “gracious” surrender either to the inevitability of death or to historical change’; Palladus's verse is ‘not the stylish after dinner despair of high-table, the sighing gestures of surfeit, but the authentic snarl of a man trapped physically in poverty and persecution, and metaphysically in a deep sense of the futile’.22 While we should beware of reading Harrison's comments off against his own work, this strain of thinking does help explain the genuine sense of the macabre in his work, a persistent obsession with the physical fact of death which tends to override his sense of the historical. And perhaps the only way to explain that is to return to Harrison's cultural displacement from his working-class roots. The timeless verities of existence elegantly elaborated in his beloved classics can override the historical actualities of society in a writer who feels himself an individual who can't belong, however deep his compassion and understanding. Harrison's snarling invectives against death are genuine. His snarling invectives against an unjust and unequal society have a more problematic status.

Having voiced these questions, it is still the case that Harrison is at least taking the admirable risk of addressing as a poet crucial political and cultural issues of our day in a form which challenges the continuing hegemony of the small poem and the continuing hegemony of dominant culture. And he does so with unquestionable integrity and considerable conviction. Whatever the problems, one can only be thankful for the biting vigour of the verse of this working-class pirate bent on a bit of cultural ‘aggro’.23


  1. BBC 2 ‘Arena’ programme of Harrison reading and talking about his life (1985); Brent Garner, ‘Tony Harrison: Scholarship Boy’, Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society (1986), p. 23.

  2. Ken Worpole, ‘The Poetry of Tony Harrison’, New Left Review no. 153, September—October 1985, p. 74.

  3. ‘Arena’.

  4. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (1957), p. 239; quoted by Worpole (p. 63) and Garner (p. 18).

  5. Garner, p. 16.

  6. Worpole, p. 67.

  7. ‘Arena’.

  8. Radio 3 ‘Third Ear’ interview with Paul Bailey, 23 February 1988.

  9. Interview with Hugh Herbert, Guardian, 18 January 1985.

  10. ‘Third Ear’.

  11. Interview with John Haffenden, Poetry Review, vol. 73, no. 4, 1983, p. 21.

  12. ‘Third Ear’.

  13. ‘Arena’.

  14. Jeffrey Wainwright, ‘Linkwords: Tony Harrison, Selected Poems’, Poetry Review, vol. 74, 1984, pp. 74-5.

  15. Edward Lucie-Smith (ed.), British Poetry Since 1945, (Penguin, 1985), p. 241.

  16. Worpole, p. 73.

  17. ‘Third Ear’.

  18. Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, Iranian Nights (Nick Hearne/Walker, 1989), p. 18.

  19. Tony Harrison, Newcastle is Peru (Newcastle, 1969), Preface.

  20. ‘Third Ear’.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Alan Young, ‘Weeds and White Roses—The Poetry of Tony Harrison’, Critical Quarterly, vol. 21, nos 1-2, pp. 159-60.

  23. In the ‘Third Ear’ interview, Tony Harrison talked about ‘the almost piratical way I feel I acquired my style’, which is ‘full of a little bit of aggro’.

Carol Rutter (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2508

SOURCE: “Men, Women, and Tony Harrison's Sex-War Oresteia,” in Tony Harrison, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp. 295-302.

[In the following essay, Rutter examines the role of gender in Harrison's Oresteia.]

The Headmistress considered the splendidly wrapped Christmas present from the boy she'd harangued all term. ‘They don't carry grudges,’ she said. ‘Children don't carry grudges.’ Then corrected herself. ‘Boys don't. Girls—They're a bit iffy with grudges.’

I thought of Clytemnestra, stuck in Argos, ten years brooding on that grudge that turned to gall the organ that had started as her heart.

Girls carry grudges.


Because girls remember. Girls, the stay-at-home Penelopes at the loom, do-nothings (while men, the do-ers, sail off to do war, to do history) have inexhaustible time to brood on actions men forget as soon as They're accomplished. Like killing. Like war. Each invasion is such a surprise, such an adventure for frank, forgetful men, their bluff memories wiped clean of any war ever before. ‘Oh what a lovely slaughter!’ they crow. King Agamemnon

He swung the god-axe, Zeus the Avenger's,
tore Troy's roots up, dug her earth over,
her god-shrines shattered, her altars all gutted,
fruitful earth scorched into futureless dustbowls …

Let's celebrate! Let's scoff: ‘I doubt raper Paris thought it was worth it.’

But women (be-ers, not do-ers) are also survivors. Girls remember. So women ask questions:

‘Where's my father husband boy?
where do all our loved ones lie?
six feet under near the Troy
they died to occupy.’

Women remember the men who return from war ‘jars full of cinders’:

wives mothers sisters each one scans
the dog tags on the amphorae
which grey ashes are my man's?
they sift the jumbled names and cry …

Girls carry grudges.

Girls are culture's memory bank. And, in the stunning innovation that is Clytemnestra (‘I'm no more a breaker of bedbond,’ she says, ‘than, as a woman, I wield a man's weapon’: but she's lying, self-consciously ironic; the props are already laid out for the king-killing she has planned, and she will wield the knives), women remake men's erased history in the present. Ten years on, Agamemnon has forgotten all about Aulis when he feels the trammel he cast whooping over Priam's city enmesh him at home. The metaphoric bloodbath that was Troy is literalised when his own bath turns red; the slaughter at Scamander is recapitulated in the grudge murder that memorialises one death: Iphigeneia's.

Tony Harrison's Oresteia made me hear the claimant voice of this she-grudge story. Like his Medea, his Oresteia is a ‘sex-war opera’, where ‘opera’ means not singing, as in Medea, but work: the continuing cultural work of reinventing in our own time those most ancient of myths—of gender expectation and subversion, of phallocentricity and misogyny—that Aeschylus called up to give form and language to something he had to say to his audience in Athens in the fifth century B.C. (Were these plays—we know they were originally performed exclusively by men—performed exclusively to men? Was this trilogy Aeschylus’ warning of what happens when women are pushed (down, back, under, away) too far? Was the third inscription on the temple at Delphi—after ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing too much’—‘Keep women down’?)


For those brought up on Shakespeare, the Oresteia is loaded with surprises. We expect it to be the man's story, but from the first, with Clytemnestra—‘That woman's a man the way she gets moving’; she ‘feel\s] like a woman but talk\s] like a man talks’—expectations are subverted. Aeschylus' plays may not have been titled originally, but in our theatre, nominally the Oresteia would seem to be Orestes' trilogy. Yet Orestes makes a very late entrance, and a disconcertingly early exit. Agamemnon looks more conventionally the stuff of tragedy, the triumph of Troy despoiled by the killing of the king. But in this male-centred heroic world (male preybirds, male warriors, male clanchiefs, male chorus: only the queen and Cassandra the captive prophet break the Agamemnon's gender embargo) masculine stature is devastatingly ironised in the theatre's imagery, for what stands before us to speak for the clan, for the war, for male enterprise, to tell the whole story, is a chorus of impotent geriatrics, ‘Argos geezers’,

                                        recruiter's refuse
too old to join the expedition …
… doddering about on sticks …

The second and third plays reverse theatrical images. The stage fills with women: the Choephori, the libation-bearers who are also Trojan captives, and the Eumenides, who are Furies but also Kindly Ones, are female masks. A woman resolves the trilogy's final agon, which displaces Orestes' male defence of matricide with a renegotiation of female power in past history and future society. What we see is that a whole train of fury-ous women fuels the action of the Oresteia, grudge-nudged by male adventurism. Helen (is it a name or a metaphor?) is what the men call their campaign: ‘lust lode’, ‘man hive’, the ‘she manned by too many hes’. For this goad, this Helen who slips her mooring, who cuts the seal from bedbond, all causes give way. So Artemis, fury-ous, presents Agamemnon the demonic choice. And Clytemnestra, fury-ous, rolls out the red carpet. Will King Agamemnon trample ‘the dark dye-flow right down to the doorway’ that looks like red cloth but is really blood, his daughter's blood, and that spilt from the innards of Artemis'hare? Agamemnon pulls off his boots. ‘I'll feel that I'm walking the women who wove it.’ Then Cassandra, the fury-ous rhapsode, smells blood, hears:

Listen. The rooftops. Monotonous humming
that drones on forever and means only terror.
The blood-bolstered fiend-swarm holds its debauches,
cacophonous squatters that can't be evicted.


Apollo Apollo waygod destroyer
Again you're Cassandra's appalling destroyer!
He mocked me, Apollo, though dressed as his prophet.
He wanted me scorned and derided by bloodkin,
called vagabond, mountebank, gypsy and starveling.

Electra, the fury-ous daughter, dispossessed by the mother who ‘bartered her bairns and bought … her bed mate’, speaks gall:

A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.

Then there are the Furies themselves, the she-gods of grudges, ‘blood-battening bat hags’ says gynophobic Apollo. They call themselves, more wholesomely, ‘daughters of Night’:

NIGHT, Night, Mother Night
who bore us to uphold bloodright
The she-god of life-lot gave us these powers
ours, ours, for ever ours.
Those who kill their kin I hound
until I've got them underground.

The Fury-ous women are metamorphosed. The Oresteia ends with them installed at the centre of the Athenian polis, the cavern bowels of the Areopagus: the hill of Ares underpinned by reconciled Furies! It ends with a procession of women, robed in red raiment that recalls the blood dye-flow Agamemnon trampled. It begins there too. For it begins with Iphigeneia:

a virgin's blood launches the ships off to Troy
Her shrillings beseechings her cries Papa Papa
Iphigeneia a virgin a virgin
what's a virgin to hawks and to war-lords?
He says a god-plea her father
her father then orders
attendants to hoist her up on to the godstone
she bends herself double beseeching Papa Papa
wraps her clothes round her making it harder
up up she gets hoisted like a goat to the godstone
a gag in her mouth her lovely mouth curbed like a horse's
so that this bloodclan's not blasted by curses
her garments stream groundwards the looseflow of saffron
cloth drifting cloth trailing
What came next didn't see so can't tell you

‘Argos geezers’ avert their eyes, but Clytemnestra knows what happened next. So she waits for Troy's fall, Agamemnon's return, nursing the bloodgrudge instead of her child.

Astonishingly, in this sex-war, Clytemnestra has the right of it. She is a monster. But so is Agamemnon. She is appalling, shrilling over the body of ‘Shaggermemnon, shameless, shaft-happy, ogler and grinder of Troy's golden girlhood’ who ‘butchered his she-child … as some specious god-sop’. But her stance only inverts and parodies Agamemnon's predicament, storm-stymied at Aulis:

Can I choose either without doing evil
leave the fleet in the lurch shirker deserter
let down the Allies we've all sworn allegiance

Agamemnon concludes (as Clytemnestra will too):

They're asking for blood it's right what They're


Necessity he kneels to it neck into the yokestrap
The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it

Clytemnestra, the king killer, is ‘impious’, the ‘spouse fiend’ urged by ‘Black Ares amok’; but Agamemnon the child killer is unspeakable, manically deranged:

                                        harnessed to what he can't change
and once into harness his whole life-lot lurches
towards the unspeakable horror the crime
so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there's no stopping.

The language Tony Harrison writes for the Oresteia has the musculature of Beowulf: godgrudge, thronestone, clanchief, lifelot. It releases the primitive, the savage that Harrison came up against in Aeschylus, himself apparently deliberately archaic, and the effect of such temporal cross-referencing by Bard I and Bard II is to cut the Oresteia free from “period”. Its myths are older than time but circulate freely through history, permanently available to any culture needing to examine itself. For our contemporary theatre, and the modern re-make of the myths, Harrison's finest invention was those compounds—he-child, she-child, he-god, she-god, bed-bond, blood-bond—that give equal weight, equal linguistic status to male and female, that erase the “feminine ending” (the one Clytemnestra eschews?), the poetic falling off: daúgh-ter, gód-dess. He-child and she-child grapple as equals, both at home on the wrestling mat that is so frequently the metaphoric site for the Oresteia’s gender war.

Other verbal strategies—Harrison's ranging eclecticism of imagery, his playfulness in translating, his breaking apart of language and his wrenching it from its cultural moorings—make the sex-war of the Oresteia a diachronic debate, one that we recognise as the same round of suppression-frustration-reaction that does violence to gender relations today. So Argos’ king is brutalised: ‘Shaggermemnon’. So Helen of Sparta is demonised in an act of linguistic deconstruction that works on her as she works on men, destroying her even as the myth-making vandals appropriate her name to other cultural uses:

HELEN wrecker HELEN Hell
the one who first named her knew what was fated—
HEL-a god guided his tongue right- EN
HEL-spear-bride gore-bride war-whore- EN
HEL-ship-wrecker man-breaker Troy-knacker- EN

So the tattoo beat out in this bleak War lyric fuses multiple references, linking Troy to Vietnam to the Gulf, making Ares a Thatcherite entrepreneur but arousing too the depraved images of human flesh sold to the Holocaust and the absurdity of men using phallic weaponry to assert their masculinity in war that spends them, that kills them, the ultimate castration, the gelding of death:

‘Geldshark Ares god of War
broker of men's bodies
usurer of living flesh
corpse-trafficker that god is—
give to WAR your men's fleshgold
and what are your returns?
Kilos of cold clinker packed
in army issue urns’

In Harrison, as in Aeschylus, men win. Clytemnestra's revenge is appropriated by Aegisthus who makes Agamemnon's death answer Thyestes' feast. Apollo's breathtaking defence of Orestes’ matricide is to annul the charge since mother and child are not really kin:

The mother of what's called her offspring's no parent
but only the nurse to the seed that's implanted.
The mounter, the male's the only true parent.
She harbours the bloodshoot, unless some god blasts it.
The womb of the woman's a convenient transit.

Apollo's misogyny exposes the concealed agenda. There is more at stake in the Oresteia than Orestes’ fate or the future of the house of Atreus; more at stake than sex-war in Argos: nothing less than sex-war, gender coup on Olympus where men win by the simple expedient of inventing a new race of ‘sky-gods’, ‘upstart he-gods’ to supplant female power, Mother Earth, Night, her daughters the Furies, the most ancient of she-gods, whose force is Creation, the blood of the womb. The Oresteia tells this story obliquely, via the traded insults of Apollo and Furies. He calls them ‘Animals! Beast-hags hated by he-gods!’ whose ‘bat-snouts go snorting in society's bloodtroughs.’ They quote back their brief:

When we came into being, they were marked out, the confines.
We and the Olympians have no intimate contacts.
When bloodkin kills bloodkin
that lets the Furies in
We memorise murders. We're never forgetful.
We terrify mortals. We spit on their pleadings.
We relish our office, though spurned by the he-gods.

For the Furies, Apollo the sky-god is the abomination, a ‘thief of a he-god’, a ‘strutting young upstart’, his ‘thronestool sticky with bloodspill’, condoning matricide, ‘poaching the preserves of she-fate and life-lot’: ‘They do things like that the new era he-gods’. What is oblique in the Oresteia Tony Harrison makes explicit in the Medea where men's motives in supplanting the Mother are irrefutably exposed even as their habits of historical revisionism are traced back to gynophobia:

As part of their hostile campaign
against the old Earth Mother's reign
men degrade her
in whatever form she takes
Goddess brandishing her snakes,
Helen, Leda …

So Medea is re-mythologised into a ‘half-crazed children-slayer’; Eve of the ‘monstrous patriarchal fib’ is just a bone of Adam's rib; Pandora, the source of evil. In each case,

The point of this projected role
is that it's the opposite pole
of Mother Earth,
and what was once the source of life
's degraded
\by] menfolk who attempt to drag
the All-Giving Goddess down to Hag
and source of ill.
but when the horn of plenty poured
with all the good with which Earth's stored
she was the pourer.
Embattled men had to reply
with gods, male gods from the sky
and not the earth.

Enter Apollo. Enter the he-gods. Enter Athena to cast the vote that saves Orestes’ life, that upholds Apollo, discountenances the Furies: Athena, a she-god, but one whose gender is inscribed within male revisionism, offspring of Zeus, born from his head. So men win in the Oresteia. The Furies, placated, accommodated, are also captured, contained in that cave-womb sited under Ares’ heel: ‘Keep women down.’ That's what we hear at the end of the Oresteia (and we must interrogate the ending: keep alert, says the Medea, for ‘As the sex-war's still being fought / which sex does a myth support / you should be asking’). But what we see is something different. The stage picture shows us men sidling off after the trial—Apollo's exit is not even noticed. The stage belongs to women, Athena and the Furies. Trial turns into celebration, grudge into blessing, as a procession of women,

the women of Athens, girls, mothers, old women
will come as a glorious group in procession.
Drape our honoured guest-strangers in robes of deep sea-red.

Iphigeneia's bloody garments turn Grudge to Blessing, and what we see at the end of the Oresteia is she-child, she-god Triumph. Our ears contradict our eyes: men win! men win! But the stage picture remains on the retina. There is Blessing at the end. Or maybe verbal imagery and visual imagery resolve into a sex-war paradox:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there'll be better.

Peter Symes (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Blasphemy and Death: On Film Making with Tony Harrison,” in Tony Harrison, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, pp. 384-94.

[Symes is a film editor, director, and producer for the BBC. In the following essay, he discusses working with Tony Harrison on the verse film The Blasphemers' Banquet ]

In 1936, delivering a lecture to the North London Film Society, W. H. Auden concluded that to enable poetry to work with film ‘there was a difficulty finding the right kind of support to enable such experiments to be carried out. It is financial support that is required for these experiments, without restriction on the director's independence of outlook either by commercial or departmental policy.’ This is certainly true, but he ignored the other vital part of the film/verse equation.

Possibly because what he was required to do at the GPO unit was to provide verse for existing film material, rather in the manner of a composer writing music, Auden failed to mention the necessity of writer and film team being able to work closely together. It may seem a truism, but it is remarkable how misunderstood is the process, even by insiders, and its success depends entirely on the closest of relationships developing between all parties engaged on the project. If the work is approached in a conventional way, with the writer relegated to a secondary position, the results will be at best dull. Perhaps more than for any other film the writer has to remain as the engine of the production, supported by a team that both understands and can interpret his or her requirements. Idealistic? Possibly. But the goal of any film maker working with verse should be to enable. Unless the poet's own creativity is allowed to inform the film-making itself, you might just as well use prose, and produce a conventional commentary, because what we are talking about is not verse commentaries but films which are driven by the poetic imagination, something that will infuse not only the words, but the sounds and pictures too.

If it had not been for a peculiar set of circumstances, and the fact that these things are still possible in the BBC, the five films I have made with Tony Harrison would not have happened, and yet their success makes me puzzled at the low profile verse possesses on the screen. After all it is central to pop music, is used more and more in advertising, and is gloriously proclaimed upon the football terraces. But take a proposal to use it on the television screen to most commissioning editors in television and it will be treated with great scepticism. From various people at various times I have experienced the classic development of ‘verse never works’ through ‘well of course it works with death’ (after our first collaboration) to the final ‘well of course it works with Harrison’ (after the triumphant evidence that poetry could take a topical subject and be more dangerous and challenging than reportage). It might be argued that the gainsayers have a point in claiming that only Tony Harrison could carry off this feat since so little other work of this kind exists, but it is certainly impossible any longer to say that the technique itself does not work.

The Blasphemers’ Banquet, Tony Harrison's angry defence of Salman Rushdie, was transmitted in the Panorama slot on BBC 1 in 1989, in spite of demonstrations and a request from Lambeth Palace to ‘postpone’ it. It all seems a long way from that first meeting in a Soho restaurant when I approached Tony with the offer of writing and presenting Loving Memory, four films on death and commemoration. I had assumed some poetic content, but he made it clear that it would have to be all or nothing—he only wrote verse, and that would be all we would get. I gulped and agreed. Luckily my superior at the time, John Shearer, had the vision and the courage to agree too.

Loving Memory had started life as a series about great cemeteries of the world, one of those catch-all monsters the BBC flirts with from time to time, and had rapidly hit problems. Brought in at a late stage, and with little flexibility, I found myself hurriedly filming around Europe and was only able to involve Tony when about half the material had been shot. However, once he had agreed, he involved himself closely in the remaining filming, and then, more importantly, became a central part of the editing process, something he had not done in such an intense, collaborative way before. He was soon intrigued by the closeness of the work of the film editor to his own techniques. In both, the creator manipulates image and rhythm; in both he is concerned with momentum, structure and repetition; and in both there is the same tinkering and fine-tuning, the same running and re-running of sequence and of whole until the process appears to be working. Tony would work from his notes and our research, writing and re-writing as we juggled with sound and picture, coming up not only with description and explanation but with ideas, powerful verbal imagery and structure.

The first film to be edited happened to be Mimmo Perrella Non è Piu, a film which had been shot by the Assistant Producer Mike Hutchinson and was being edited by a very experienced Bristol editor, Liz Thoyts. It started out as a conventional if startling documentary about Neapolitan funeral customs, requiring the usual explanatory commentary, and Tony sat day after day with the editor wrestling both with that requirement and with the need for a more formal structure. Then it became clear that a second shoot was necessary for the All Souls’ Day celebrations in the cemetery, and so he was able to accompany the crew to Naples. This provided proof, if proof was needed, of how vital his presence was to be while filming takes place: one idea, glimpsed in a Neapolitan street, can be the difference between success and failure.

One of the strange customs Neapolitans embrace involves the advertisement, usually in the shape of a large poster on a wall, of the death of a relative. Lighting on one which advertised the departure of a certain Mimmo Perrella, Tony quickly wrote and filmed a wonderful opening for the film, and then proceeded to use the idea of Mimmo as a representative shade to guide us through each processional stage of both funeral custom and film. He also grasped the gift of the ‘non è piu’, turning it into a rhythmical incantation of great power:

Mimmo Perrella non è piu.
Mimmo Perrella is no more.
This gate his body will be carried through
he walked past into work not days before.
Mimmo Perrella non è piu.
Let's follow Mimmo Perrella's fate,
or, rather, not one single fate but two,
that of the body brought in through this gate
and put under marble in a dark, dry hole
where Vesuvius's soil makes it like leather,
and that other fate, meanwhile, of Mimmo's soul
exposed to an uncertain, otherworldly weather.

Back in the cutting-room, and with this framework now in place, Tony began to explore some of the other advantages verse can offer documentary, not least that of the subjective voice. Neapolitans dig their loved ones up after two years in order to inspect them and then move them to a niche in one of the many walls provided, a strange and rather gruesome ritual, and I can still remember sitting in the cutting-room and hearing him transform this sequence into something both moving and extraordinary by turning the verse over into the first person while we watched the widow standing by the grave:

Was this the Vincenzo who I slept beside?
Vincenzo Cicatiello non è piu.
Now, now I know You've really died.
Till now I only half-believed it true.
Being seen in such revolting tatters
wouldn't suit him. He was much too proud!
Although he's dead, she still believes it matters
that they make him feel he looks right in his shroud.

This sequence is a particularly telling one when discussing the power that verse can bring to documentary. Again, towards the end, as the shrouded remains of the skeleton are carried out on a sort of tray covered with a cloth, two lines clearly illustrate the ability of this type of commentary to both lift the image and enlarge it. ‘Under a blanket with a yellow cross’ is a simple descriptive line, supporting what we can see. It is the sort of line too many commentaries would leave to stand on its own, a redundant comment on something visually obvious. Here Tony only uses it in order to expand the image, and intensify it, because he then follows it with a verbal image of much greater power than anything seen on the screen:

Under a blanket with a yellow cross
he clutches a crucifix in leather claw
and leaves a wife and sister with the wounds of loss
that won't heal till they too are “no more”.

This sequence should leave the viewer in no doubt of verse's great advantage over prose: its ability to draw people in, and then tell them uncomfortable things without having them turn away; its ability to be subjective; its ability to transform and illuminate. We were beginning to discover exciting things—not only the power of the technique, but new and subtle ways of pacing the cuts so that their rhythm and that of the commentary did not cancel each other out; unthought of possibilities for shots previously considered functional or bland; ways around the contention that the two imageries, visual and verbal, tended to cancel each other out. Cheating the Void, the last film to be worked on in this series, took us further down this road.

In one way this was a much greater challenge for Tony, in that he was presented with a lot of disparate material of a Cook's Tour around the great European nineteenth-century cemeteries, yet paradoxically this allowed him greater freedom both to structure and invent. It was in this film that the subjective voice given to Vincenzo's widow was given to statues and to the dead, and in which an exhumation took place on the sound track of the artists buried in Père Lachaise, the famous Parisian cemetery. It was also in this film that we were occasionally able to dispense with image and go to black, a strong and unusual event on a medium scared of darkness and silence, and a perfect vehicle for the echoing line: ‘Oblivion that all our art defies’.

Tony had chosen to see these great nineteenth-century exercises in commemoration as an example of the struggle between memory and oblivion, something poignantly illustrated in the English graveyards where most of the tombs are now decayed, but there was a twist. He produced a critic's review of one of the first films ever made, in which the reviewer had written that such was the power of these moving pictures, death was now no longer absolute. We found this film which shows workers leaving a factory, and since it was French, we started our film in Paris, but framed the whole with the archive material, under the control of Tony himself. Our film is started by him in vision, and ended by him, sitting at the editing machine. The tour becomes an exploration through two centuries of the battle between memory and oblivion, but remains conscious of its origination on film:

Oblivion is darkness, memory light.
They're locked in eternal struggle. Which
of these two forces really shows its might
when death's doors are thrown open by a switch?

Having got this far by the spring of 1987, we were keen to take it further, but there followed two frustrating years when we went our separate ways while trying and failing to work together again. A film about rattlesnakes, set in a town in Florida that glories in the name of Arcadia, failed to find funding, and it wasn't until the Ayatollah intervened that a new project emerged. When I met Tony in Bristol in the spring of 1989 he was engaged on a National Theatre touring production of his version of The Misanthrope. The Rushdie affair appeared to be dying down, and he was angry that both government and people seemed to be allowing what he saw as a monstrous threat to freedom of speech to pass with inadequate remonstration. As luck would have it, there was a gap in the Byline series, a regular summer feature on BBC 1 which allows strong opinions to be aired, and so there was an unusually quick agreement to proceed. Here we were, more by luck than judgement, suddenly together again. As we were both busy we could do very little until early May, when the location recess began. Production was then quick and intense: more research, a filming start on May 27 which ended in Paris on June 5, and then an edit through to July 14. Transmission took place on 31 July 1989.

When I was considering this piece, I looked through the schedule and found that it provided the simplest way of explaining how the film evolved, and how our own working practice had developed. It proved to be an interesting summary of the evolution of an unusual film, and it illustrates clearly Tony's extraordinary technique and working method.

The Blasphemers’ Banquet is a passionate defence of Salman Rushdie's right to freedom of speech, even if it involves blasphemy. This defence unfolds through the deceptively simple structural conceit of a restaurant meal in Bradford (the town where a copy of The Satanic Verses was burnt in public) to which blasphemers past and present are invited. None of course turns up, most because they are already dead, Rushdie because by then he was in hiding for his life. Into this simple frame is introduced a rich tapestry of ideas and meditations involving the nature of blasphemy (Voltaire, Molière, Byron), the curse of fundamentalist religions, and the joy of our fleeting but passionate life all seen from the perspective of a militant unbeliever. How was it achieved?

Anyone who has worked with Tony will be familiar with the famous notebooks. These are of a particular kind, blue covers with a red binding of the sort much prized by Victorian diarists, and they multiply in his satchel with such alarming speed that I am sure more than one physiotherapist has been called upon to realign the poet's backbone. Into these repositories everything goes: cuttings from papers; pictures; ideas; snatches of verse. It was from one of these at an early meeting that he produced a cutting about the recent spate of stonings then taking place in Iran, and particularly of one stoning in which the unfortunate condemned had been buried up to their chests in the sand. Calling the project Heads in the Sand, Tony wanted to use this as the framework for the film, the condemned to be given a musical line celebrating life while all around them the forces of fundamentalism would be chanting their mantras to extinguish it.

In addition he was annoyed by the outbreak of ‘yes … but’ statements from public figures, and by the sudden wave of fundamentalist demonstrations (threats to abortion clinics in the U.S., to Dante's monument in Ravenna and so on). Could we use the singing heads as a life enhancing operatic element, and start researching the ‘but-ters’ which, with other archive examples, we could use to create a dramatic whole? Although all the early files in the office bear the title Heads in the Sand, causing considerable clerical confusion, anyone familiar with the film will know that both the heads and the prevarications are absent from the finished product. It is an illustration of the way ideas developed and of the fluid and exciting process that was involved. Quite quickly the idea of blasphemy and blasphemers began to displace the heads, sparked off by the Molière production mentioned earlier which happened to be touring in Bradford. Soon requests began to arrive for everything we could find on Voltaire as well. I have a sheaf of photocopies of pictures of Voltaire covered in scrawled notes and requests: could we go to the Musée Voltaire in Geneva; could we recreate the scratching by the imprisoned writer of a poem on the prison wall; what about a visual mix from a silhouette of the seated man to one of Tony, in similar stance, with the anti-Rushdie demonstrations in the background; what about using the famous crowning of Voltaire on the stage of the Comédie Fran‡aise with a laurel wreath; wasn't the circular wreath itself worth thinking about? These, and many others, illustrate not just the evolution of the ideas but also the preoccupation with sound and picture that makes a collaboration with Tony such a delight for a film maker. Anything becomes possible. The medium is there to be stretched and pushed in every direction.

By the time the filming deadline was approaching the heads had gone, but the desire for a musical motif remained, and the ‘butting’ politicians had developed into a full-blown search for fundamentalist lunacy. While researchers ploughed through miles of old film and dug around uncomplainingly for facts about Shi'ism and strange plants, I set off with Tony to spend three days in Bradford, principally to explore the possibilities of using the square where the book was burnt, but also to look at the numerous redundant Christian churches that cover the city. As we walked and drove around, we realised that these symbols of impermanence were in their own way extraordinary. No longer serving their ‘singing Sabbath congregations’ they are now carpet warehouses, auction rooms, temples and, famously, restaurants. I had no idea where the film was going at this stage, but when we discovered that one ex-church was a restaurant called the Omar Khayyam, and that this was about to change too, its owners having decided on a new name, the city and its churches took on a new significance:

Where there was passionate preaching and packed pews
are King Prawn Rogan Josh and Vindaloos.
For Bradford devotees of Indian food the OMAR KHAYYAM restaurant is “good

It's difficult here to give a sense of the excitement involved in this process, and equally difficult to convince people that it could afford to be so flexible, but once Tony felt confident with the basic blocks we started to film. With film being an expensive and time-consuming business, I had an obligation to be careful, but I knew from past experience it was well worth trusting Tony, and I was quite happy to start without a script, and with neither of us really knowing how things would work. We still operated to a tight schedule, and an agreed list of priorities, with Tony accompanying us everywhere, but the way we would incorporate the material gathered was not clear at this stage.

The churches were filmed, a further discovery of more Omar was made in the local cemetery (on a gravestone), and the film crew were treated to constant inexplicable requests to film bits of graffiti and to be sure to concentrate on ‘O's’—the O on the gravestone inscription, the O of the Omar Khayyam sign as it was removed from the restaurant, the O on various signboards. Even the director was by this time wondering where it would all end! By May 31, when we were due to film in the Bradford square, Tony had decided to use the Edward Fitzgerald quatrain employed in the Rubai'yat translation as his verse form, but had only written the few verses needed for this shoot. Designed as a beginning, they now occupy a place a little further down the film than originally intended:

This isn't paradise but the Bradford square
where Rushdie's book got burnt, just over there.
By reading it, where fools had it cremated,
I bring it whole again, out of the air.
Near where the National Theatre does a play
by one priests smeared as Satan in his day
I read a book by one dubbed Satan now
whose work, like Molière's, is here to stay.
And of the afterlife I have no heed.
What more could a godless mortal need
than a samosa and a can of beer
and books, like Rushdie's, to sit here and read?

The crew moved to Paris, to film Voltaire and the Comédie Fran‡aise, and while there we heard the news of the death of the Ayatollah. The scribbling in the notebooks intensified, and we returned to England and the cutting room to present the editor Peter Simpson with a new beginning, the bizarre funeral of the Ayatollah, and a strange collection of material: old churches, restaurant signs, demonstrations, archive films of ranting fundamentalists, statues and plenty of ‘O's’.

Taking possession of a room next door to the one in which the editing was being done, Tony started to write, read and meditate while below us in another area containing some alarmingly modern devices for musical composition, the composer Dominic Muldowney began to experiment with some of our sound effects and with an Islamic scale (a different scale from Western music, tuning every B and E on the keyboard flat by one quarter tone, thus giving three-quarter tone intervals). The brief was that he should use a minimum of conventional instruments, taking instead our own sound tracks (shouts, water noise, helicopter blades turning) as his music instead. He had also to compose the crucial life-affirming lines to be given to a soprano at certain points during the film.

It was really only at this stage that the idea of the banquet became central to the whole, and was erected as the skeleton upon which the flesh of the argument could be hung. Working with certain strong ideas (the Islamic dream of a paradise of water and shade; the impermanence of religions as evidenced by the churches; the inability of creeds to ‘split the world of the spirit from the world of shit’) the film was roughly assembled, with more time being spent on individual sequences than on the whole. The fundamentalists rapidly emerged as a very strong one, a fusion of the film editor's art and the composer's, and an interesting illustration of the collaborative nature of the whole enterprise. It was quite clear that as this bravura piece of editing emerged there was nothing Tony could add to it, and it became one of the sequences left to speak for itself. Meanwhile he concentrated on using the material gathered in Bradford and Paris, where, after our experience on Loving Memory, we had been careful to obtain shots that could carry verse well. Long tracking shots, close and abstract shots, lengthy holds all offered better opportunities for Tony to set up strong ideas and strong verbal images. All of this against a constant backdrop of toing and froing between rooms, with everyone throwing in suggestions and ideas. Although risky, this flexible approach to film-making offers enormous benefits: images, words, music and sounds all contribute to the whole on their own terms, and not as some weaker accompaniment, so while the verse remains the linchpin of the whole operation the other elements are never downgraded. The end result is a highly structured film, the structure always carried by the verse, but carrying with it sequences where image alone or sound alone or a powerful combination of the two are interwoven with the rest.

The process of writing and experimenting with the verse is a continual one throughout editing. Tony would sit in his own room writing, reading and issuing requests for further research. Then would come the summons to record. The room was wired with a microphone on a direct line to a 16mm film recording bay, and every time Tony felt he had something worth trying we would switch on and record him, take the section of recorded film straight to the editor, and try it out. It would then be assessed, reworked by Tony, re-recorded, and so on indefinitely.

This also worked for the music. If Dominic came up with a line that needed more length we could usually oblige and similarly he would take away a half-cut sequence and start playing with it, returning it to us with a sound track which we could then fine cut to. When we were about halfway through, the positions of the sung refrain had become apparent, and Teresa Stratas arrived from New York to record them. At the same time, Tony had begun to finalise the beginning and end of the film. It was only at this stage that the structural device of the meal was formalised, and the sequence shot in a studio. A final visit to Bradford to film an auction also took place about this time, my nervous mutterings about the budget and ‘was it really necessary?’ triumphantly overruled by the resulting sequence, one that was also topped out in the studio with some additional controlled shooting and the recording of Tony to camera:

Time, that gives and takes our fame and fate
and puts say, Shakespeare's features on a plate
or a Persian poet's name on a Tandoori
can cast aside all we commemorate.

By July 14 Tony's work was substantially finished, and the whole was handed over to the editor to prepare the sound for dubbing. Over the previous forty odd days I think none of us had more than one or two days away from the project, and we were exhausted. Nevertheless I still look back on the experience with great pleasure. Here was an unusually integrated film which relies on all its parts to succeed, which demanded great teamwork, and from which nothing could be removed without a loss to the whole. There is little fat on it. But the crowning glory of the piece, the engine which drives it with such assurance through its forty minutes, is the seventy-two quatrains with their passionate and powerful message:

‘I'm an unbeliever. I love this life.
I don't believe their paradise is true.’

He may be an unbeliever, and I can't speak for the poetry, but he is a damn good film maker!

Romana Huk (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Postmodern Classics: The Verse Drama of Tony Harrison,” in British and Irish Drama Since 1960, edited by James Acheson, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 202-26.

[In the following essay, Huk discusses Harrison's adaptations of classical drama and traces how the poet brings a new life and a contemporary edge to the Greek classics.]

To understand this, it becomes necessary to level the artistic structure of the Apollonian culture, as it were, stone by stone, till the foundations on which it rests become visible.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy


Over the course of the last two decades Tony Harrison, the well-known British poet and classicist, has brought his poetry to full power on stage. His metrical arguments, which have always addressed social issues and audiences rather than isolated readers, find their perfect venue there, despite the fact that, as Derek Walcott recently put it, the very idea of metred verse drama has come to summon for most people ‘the beat of footfalls down a vacant corridor, a museum, a ruined colonnade’.1 Reversing those footsteps, Harrison's much-hailed successes in translating and contemporising classical verse drama have led him to invent what critics are now struggling to describe as his own unprecedented sort of politically radical, popular, postmodern poet's theatre.2

Harrison's interest in the classics is not, as he has said himself, that of an antiquarian. His work draws attention instead to very contemporary issues concerning the politics of interpretation by deconstructing what he calls the ‘prop to the status quo’ which culture has made of the classics at various phases of its social and political history.3 But Harrison's is deconstructive theatre with a twist—one manifested poetically in both his conception and practice of adaptation. On the one hand, his plays’ forfeiture of conventional originality for the interrogation of past drama signals his acknowledgement of what has come to constitute postmodern theory's new concept of fate: that all writings and interpretations are always already embedded in the language, and, therefore, the vision of their cultural text, shaped as it is at each juncture between history, politics and art by hegemonic forces of dominance. On the other hand, Harrison resists the paralysis, cynicism or silence that accompanies what deconstructionists describe, in Greek terms, as our ‘aporia’ (or ‘no way out’) of intertextual deadlock by adapting for contemporary theatre yet another Greek construct. Like Nietzsche, he believes that this construct allowed the earliest practitioners of drama to face up to fate and still affirm life, with its opposing range of disruptive powers and shaping possibilities.

Nietzsche reconceived it in The Birth of Tragedy as the creative/destructive, Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, which pitted the Apollonian will to construct textual ‘illusions’ of mythical order, reason and tragic necessity against its opposite: the Dionysian, chaotic and levelling, material life force. The irreducibility of the latter's force to linguistic or rational formulation—symbolised by music and lyric poetry within tragedy, and by satyrical revelling at the end of tragic trilogies—continually called for recognition of the construction's illusion, for a ‘new world of symbols’, for perpetual adaptation and redramatisation of the myths that exerted their real force upon culture.4 Thus Apollo's presence in Harrison's plays, whether as himself or in some other incarnation, always represents ‘received’ or official culture and its exclusive ‘high’ art. To confront him, Harrison's radical recreation of the Dionysian principle links it to contemporary voices of social, racial, and gendered otherness, whose disruptive presences are also always in danger of being dropped through the fissures of culture's self-creating narrative, or textual tradition, which he believes has a history of selectively inscribing and lexically refining the classics into what Nietzsche called ‘a permanent military encampment of the Apollonian’ in order to read its western cultural legacy as a Golden Age precedent for its own rigidified social hierarchy and moral order.5 Retracking and reimaging traces of alternative forces in his new translations, Harrison seems to assume that if there is ‘no way out’ of textual hegemony there is, perhaps, a way in, a way of recolonising foundational texts in order to re-establish another kind of precedent, one of continual implosion and adaptation of cultural illusions by otherness in all of its internal and external forms: the only possible telos of his post-Brechtian dialectic operative in a world of texts from which there is no exit.

Poetry as Harrison writes it becomes once again the instrument of such creative/destructive dialectic; all his plays depend upon his unique rendering of its structure, medium and vision. Cocteau's oft-quoted distinction between ‘poetry in the theatre’ (but not fully related to the dramatic action, such as we had with Eliot and Fry),6 and ‘poetry of the theatre’ becomes an even more provocative one when discussing Harrison's plays, given that his poetry is his theatre. It enacts within its metred lines the fundamental conflict between forces that on one level would contain the textual illusion and those that on another would destroy it. At the same time it identifies one with the other in a vision central to his own developing social theory.

On its first working level verse provides the traditional structure to be penetrated by disruptive otherness. In his extra-theatrical poetry, Harrison is known for ‘occupying’, as he writes in one sonnet, the formal metres of verse with his own ‘unreceived’ Yorkshire accent and working-class perspective in order to both apprehend and renew the tradition that formed him from a position inside it, with a voice its standards were set to exclude.7 On an expanded scale, his adaptations deploy ‘common’ versus ‘received’ voices, interpolations of ‘low’ art forms, new gendered emphases, and culturally transposed settings with their modern racial issues and sublimated material histories. Thus he seeks to unmoor foundational texts, encouraging ancient and modern representations of class, gender and race to clash, interrogate and revise one another in the course of semiosis made slippery by poetic licence. Poetry therefore not only provides the ‘Apollonian’ structure which is to be occupied but also, and at the same time, in renewed dialectic, the invasive ‘Dionysian’ medium necessary to undermine the traditional representations it houses.

That medium once again bears a material counter-force in Harrison's work, noted for its hard-hitting, colloquial delivery, consonantal sound (which he associates with the ‘body’ of language) and concrete imagery.8 In dramatic dialogue, its pulse-like iambs, or ‘heartbeat’, as Harrison describes it, are also capable of taking over the text, undermining the words, and carrying a subverbal counter-rhythm into all but physical collision with the abstract social and moral constructions within which his characters find themselves trapped.9 Almost all of Harrison's work turns upon such pivotal conflicts between textuality and materiality, or sensuality, which contemporary theory describes as being another kind of inherent otherness that can never be fully captured in language or formed by dominance.10 Allying this internal force with those externalised as ‘other’ in his plays, Harrison presents social conflict as a kind of psychomachia in which dominant forces and their individual adherents self-destructively constrain their own innate impulses toward disruption and renewal by projecting them upon the socially diminished or outcast. Thus poetry finally becomes not only Harrison's structure and medium but his way of reading culture: its fluid associations and intertextual vision map the repercussions that silence, marginalise, devalue or vilify internal and external forces of rejuvenation.

Therefore, although it is true, as the jacket blurb for the first critical anthology of essays on his work has it, that Harrison is, ‘like Brecht … both a major social poet and an innovative dramatist’, his drama more accurately revises rather than ‘extend\s] the Brechtian tradition of music theatre’.11 Music, often of a percussive nature, is an important staple in Harrison's productions, but for reasons quite different from those Brecht might have articulated. Instead of using music and poetry to distance or ‘alienate’ the audience from the action, and thereby prevent the kind of identification that would interfere with their ability to analyse clearly and see beyond the illusion at hand, Harrison's reimagining of music within what he believes must have been ‘operatic’ Greek theatre involves his audience on both the sensual and rational level—the two different and contradictory ways of knowing operative in his dialectic—thereby also breaking the illusion but not from any position of transcendence. Wary of what Nietzsche called the ‘optimistic element in the nature of dialectic, which celebrates a triumph with every conclusion and can breathe only in cool clarity and consciousness’, Harrison engages his viewers in a new sort of hermeneutical enterprise which questions the editorial process of analysis by making that which falls through the lines of ‘clarity and consciousness’ palpable again, part of the argument on stage as well as in their readings of it, where ‘rationality’ bears a definition arising inevitably out of the same textual tradition as his script.12 Therefore his plays become, like Brecht's Lehrstücke, ‘learning plays’, though ones which cultivate not a clearer but a double-consciousness, an internal otherness constantly on guard against the coercions of language and its always illusory architectonics of truth.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that his work is more closely related to the verse plays of his friend Wole Soyinka than to any produced since mid-century by British playwrights. The ‘creative schizophrenia’ of post-colonial writers, as Derek Walcott describes it, leads in Soyinka's case to the same adaptive drive that promotes an ‘electric fusion’ or, as the subtitle for his adaptation of The Bacchae of Euripides has it, a secular ‘Communion Rite’ in which poetry brings the materiality of words back down from abstract realms of representation onto the physical stage—the Greek ‘orchestron’, the ‘dancing place’, the threshing floor of the cultural text.13


Although Harrison's first widely-received success came in 1973 with his commissioned translation of The Misanthrope, which is suggestively reset in De Gaulle's France and celebrated for its recapture of Molière's demonic satire and colloquial energy in rhyming couplets, it was his adaptation of Aristophanes’Lysistrata for Nigerian players nearly a decade earlier that truly set the stage for things to come.

Aikin Mata (1964), like Harrison's later adaptations of comedy, from his trilogy of fifteenth-century English mystery plays to his recent reconstruction of a Sophoclean satyr-play fragment, recovers its place in a tradition of festive/disruptive, ‘carnivalesque’ texts which Bakhtin traces back to satyric and Aristophanic comedy.14 Harrison reconstructs within such texts much of what later generations found most objectionable and tended to edit out: the Dionysian element, whose ‘concretised sensuality’ and ‘procreative force’ translated all exalted, mythic and authoritative constructions into the material images of the communal body in order to see them in an ‘other’ light, resist their linguistic abstraction and the power structure that exploits it.15 By interpolating modern forms of popular comedy from slapstick to music hall within such texts, as well as vigorous modes of popular dance, Harrison both recreates the contra-conventional material energy lost in what he describes as ‘effete’ European productions of classical comedy, and at the same time revalues the so-called ‘low’ forms of contemporary comic art.16

Such oppositional energies are diversified and magnified in his first comedy (as in his first tragedy) by their settings in nations formerly colonised by the British. Harrison demonstrates in Aikin Mata the fruitful violence that is done to classical scripts ‘refined’ over time by intertextual influences when the tables are turned and they are occupied by those they were meant to ‘civilise’. In their preface to the play he and his collaborator James Simmons write that the uninhibited mixture of mime, music and dance which their student players at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria brought to Aristophanes’ play from their experience of performing in Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel restored those elements to what Harrison believes were their integral place in the original play, providing a glimpse at what might have been its unadulterated force.

In Aikin Mata that force is literally a material, ‘procreative’ one, and one which turns Aristophanes’ vision of protest for peace through sexual boycott into a carnivalised war with textual hegemony on all levels, fueled by a Dionysian desire for a ‘new world of symbols’, which gets its way by the end of the play. The title identifies the central transformative symbols and physical counter-rhythms which the play sets into motion against the Nigerian patriarchy and inter-tribal hostility at the time of its production, just before the civil war. Hausa for ‘women's work’ (represented specifically by the pounding of guinea corn and yams with mortar and pestle), aikin mata also, in ‘vulgar’ usage, refers to sexual intercourse. Thus the liminal world of the body becomes, in this setting, identified with the marginalised ‘working class’; the women's decision to ‘strike’ involves turning their representation as bodily forces into the weapons they use to fight their way to the centre, where a new reading of priorities from a material perspective inverts and dissolves the social structure that defined them. From the moment that Magajiya (Lysistrata) announces to the Alkali (or magistrate) and the male chorus that women have taken over the palace, the purse, and that ‘… now we must reverse our roles: / You must obey as we did formerly, and we / Will give the orders. War is woman's work’ (35), war is redefined through its metaphorical conscription into the ‘base’ worlds of food production and love-making, while ‘women's work’, conversely, comes to mean the steady take-over of Nigerian government by its ‘pounding’ rhythms, which travel from their limited associations with the thrusts of pestle into mortar and their ready analogy in the sexual act to newly proposed figural models for social and political intercourse.

The verse embodies this occupying rhythm, which can be intensified through the kind of alliterative pulse heard in Magakiya's lines quoted above. Highly stylised, inter-choral exchanges, dances and mimes also accentuate its pounding to music and drums (whose percussive sound, reminiscent of the heartbeat, remains a constant feature of Harrison's theatre). Perhaps equally importantly they remind us, as Magajiya herself will in a metatheatrical move near the end of the play, that this text is itself as artific(ial) and adaptable as the cultural one ‘danced’ to daily, which also ‘plays a tune / With words, and if you dance, you dance’ (73). That the material body is caught in a cross-fire of textual ‘tunes’ is acted out in stichomythic fights between the male and female choruses. Through physical movements and gestures, stops and starts they dance out the dislocation, confusion and subsequent transformation occurring due to poetic upheavals in the community's signs and representations, and therefore within the community itself. For example, in the following scene the women, having pantomimically cross-dressed the Alkali in their own role's garb, chant from atop the palace walls in war metaphors, sending the exalted terms of patriarchy down to the level of ‘women's work’ and the displaced men below:

Choragos(w): Love's a combat.
Chorus(w1): Love's a wrestle.
Chorus(w2): Love's a mortar …
Chorus(m) (stop dancing and shout
up at women):
                                                  … and a pestle.
(resume dancing except for Choragos (m)
Choragos(m): You were born; and you; and you.
Chorus(m): Out of pounding …
Chorus(w) (jeering.): … fufu*?
                         (The drums pause.)
Chorus (m): You! …
                         (*Yoruba: cassava) (43)

While male bellicosity proves itself ridiculous and self-destructive in such translation, the women's wielding of their phallic pestles as weapons in carnivalesque imitation of the men in their world of military dominance makes the same point: such violence with a mutual symbol of production and fertility ultimately strikes back at ‘You!’—at Nigeria, impounding life's processes and spending sons in war.

At the same time that such parodic constructions are doing their deconstructive work, Magajiya ‘pounds’ the dislocated group of signs and violent images, slowly turning the way in which the latter are put to rhythmic use in ‘women's work’ into an alternative model for the running of the state:

                                                  … Oh, you must know
The to and fro of love, the press of bone
Upon a bone like grinding stones, the feel
Of gristle like a pestle softening the flesh.
… … … … … …
Think how the scattered seed and single yams
Are blended by such persuasion of hard stone
And wood. Persuasion. Nothing would
Another thing delightful in itself
By crude, ungentle strength. By gentle
And soft compulsions such as these, we will
Coerce this split Nigeria into one sweet whole.


Such ‘coercion’ is later distinguished from ‘co-option’ in the preparation of the reconciliatory feast, during which disparate ingredients neither ‘lose distinction’ nor ‘cause indigestion’ (68). Uneducated but eloquent Magajiya becomes a voice in the play for several kinds of ‘difference’, as well as for persuasive, material, common knowledge which demystifies what one tribal ambassador calls the ‘theoretical’ and ‘unreal’ pronouncements of statecraft (74).

Thus though this play is the first of several ‘sex wars’ which Harrison will write, the battle is not strictly between males and females but between dominant forces and their constructions of otherness, which the women in this play, in a microcosmic enactment of his own practice of adaptation, implode and recreate in a new world of symbols understood as being only that, and always illusory, reconstructable. Therefore, in a figural departure from Lysistrata, ‘Reconciliation’ is not embodied here as a beautiful naked woman—a problematic image of male repossession of things as they were—but rather as being imminent in the very weapon employed by both sides, the pestle/penis. At the end of its semiotic odyssey between male and female constructions and reconstructions of it, it lands as a comic sign of the word trying again to be made common flesh in the hands of Magajiya, the new leader, who seeing the ambassadors come to truce ‘erect, unsatisfied’, senses that ‘peace is so close / My fingers seem to touch it; it feels nice’ (71). In this utopian vision, ‘women's work’ actually gets done as such, and the play's concluding non-gender-specific rituals of eating, drinking and uniting bind diverse celebrants in the play's material, ‘pounding’ counter-rhythm finally universalised in their own image ‘Of Africa shaped like a heart’ (78).

Tragic texts involve Harrison in a slightly different and more subtle strategy of adaptation. If ‘comic presentation and sexual ambiance’ release the ‘terror’ of chaos, with its dislocations from constructed moorings of language and consequent potential for social renewal, then tragedy seeks to contain such forces and consolidate moral agreement in its different project of imagining and confronting fate.17 In his tragic adaptations Harrison practices what he calls a kind of ‘translator's judo’, using the weight of the original plays’ constructions of moral order, justice and necessity to throw them into new light, and reveal traces of what their characters must repress or project, both individually and socially, in order to adhere heroically to the script.18

Harrison's adaptation of Racine's Phèdre (1677) attempts to embody or ‘reinterpret physically’ those dominating forces at work in the society surrounding the latter's ‘absolutist’ reading of Euripides’ and Seneca's versions of the myth; he does so by relocating the tragic polarities of Racine's text in nineteenth-century British India, which ‘herself’ becomes his Phaedra Britannica (1975).19 In his preface, Harrison quotes Martin Turnell on Racine's pre-revolutionary France, likening its social dynamic to that of his own setting just before the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when ‘reason also had to operate tyrannically and repress by force an uprush of the senses whose indiscriminate way of perceiving, might jeopardise rigid boundaries constructed between ‘masters and servants, the rulers and the ruled, royalty and the people’—the only two classes that seem to exist in Racine's work (xix).

Dramatising such divisions in his inter-racial setting, Harrison traces the fates of expelled senses and of the designated ‘others’, the Indians and even ‘half-bred’ Thomas (Hippolytus), upon whom such intrinsic forces must be projected. Apollonian illusions of greater ‘rationality’ and cool, classical order aspired to by the colonisers and claimed as their own Western cultural heritage are continually undermined in Harrison's adaptation by poetry that connects rulers to ‘barbarians’, masters to ‘beasts’. Its sub-layer of hallucinatory imagery is supported by the stage set itself, which calls for a full-length neo-classical façade (reminiscent, Harrison suggests, of Comédie Française productions of Phèdre) to represent the Durbar Hall of the Governor's Residency, a Victorian ‘construction’ equipped with hundreds of blinds to keep out the hot Indian sunlight and alternative, sensual world.20 The colonisers’ own words are also constantly contradicted by the verse's nonverbal rhythm, its ‘Heart beat like a tom’ (11), replete with blood and pulse imagery and even heavy breathing marked out in metrical feet; moving more quickly than Racine's alexandrines, in rhyming couplets whose iambs Harrison calls a ‘bloodthrob’ (xxv), it roots them in the very sensuality they suicidally would suppress. Caught like mythic Phaedra with no reconciliatory ground between Minos, her father the punitory judge, and her mother Pasiphaë, the transgressive sensualist with a bestial appetite, Harrison's collective protagonist struggles against itself toward destruction before its own exiled Dionysian principles growing into the ‘monstrous composite’ which appears in new translation at the end of the play.

Harrison's production of this text characteristically and subtly shifts its focus from the title character to the larger social rhythm that creates her plight. In this case there is an eye to its storm—the Theseus figure, the Governor, who represents imperial Britain, survives the play, and in many ways controls its events even in absentia for the first of its two acts. Harrison's interrogation of this paradigmatic hero of reason against disorder, made a moral pillar in Phèdre and later apotheosised by the Victorians as a long-surviving clue to their own natures, involves recovering mythology's record of his darker, more lascivious and ruthless aspect, and recasting him in modern mythologisations of imperialism's civilising spread.

Such disruptive notes available in the myth allow Harrison to portray the Governor as leading, by virtue of his position, a double life, thereby escaping the repressive boundaries which will destroy his wife and son (and, by analogy, Britain's future in her colony). At his Residency he maintains an illusion of ‘discipline’, a ‘cleaner air’ (39, 34), so that while away for a symbolic half of the year, he may stray into ‘areas still unsurveyed’, unbounded, where he pursues, undetected, even ‘in disguise’, what Burleigh (Theramenes) satirically calls his ‘“scholar's” passion for the primitive’ and its dark, sensual gods (1,2), satisfying the ‘other’ side of his nature even as he turns swiftly against it in acts of violence, rape and massacre: a hunting down of the ‘beast’ within him through projection and criminal exorcism.

In his preface Harrison compares the ‘Imperial dream’ the Governor represents and administers in this way to Goya's dream of reason, which also ‘produces monsters’ in dark recesses just beyond its unmaintainably saintly light (xx). Retrieving such imagery from Theseus’ returning story of phantasmagoric capture by the ‘barbarian’ King of Epirus (whose wife he had been in the process of abducting with a friend), Harrison turns the Governor's similarly dream-like account of imprisonment in an airless ‘hell-hole’, chained next to a ‘flesh-starved monstrosity’ (34)—a reflection of his own unrecognised alter ego—into a mirroring illusion for the situation his own hypocritical rule is creating not only within himself but at his Residency, and thus into a key to the tragic events of the play.

Like the ‘somethings hungry in a pit’ (33) envisioned by the Governor, his wife the Memsahib and son Thomas Theophilus also grow unrecognisable selves in the dark recesses and ‘unventilated atmosphere’ (34) of the Residency where, having neither the opportunity nor the temperament to live doubly, they construct monsters of their own inescapable and so-called bestial desires. Harrison dramatises the process by which the inherent ‘animal’ element, here figured in the horses continually associated with Thomas/Hippolytus, becomes the ‘beast’ when unassimilated, repressed or projected. Thomas, half Rajput, but as strictly bound by the colonisers’ code as he is clad in its tight white uniform in the play, ‘masters’ any ‘mutinous passions’ he feels with what he calls his ‘shibboleths’: ‘bridle, curb and bit’ (38). Such shibboleths—linguistic constructions which by etymology are class-divisive—represent internal divisions that in the end kill him; caught in his chariot's reins in Racine's version and in the stirrups in Harrison's update, he will be dragged to symbolic unrecognisability by the trappings on his own horses as he attempts, in what might be seen as a dream-enactment of the Memsahib's suicide, to destroy his ‘beast’—the final apparition of their collectively constructed monster. The Memsahib, similarly divided but more powerfully situated than the boy, reacts like the Governor by projecting her attraction to exactly that which is ‘animal’ in Thomas upon India and its malevolent, illness-producing forces. She ultimately destroys her Indian ayah (Oenone), Thomas and herself in her attempt to exorcise her demons.

Harrison's adaptation thus recreates ‘Phaedra’ (who has no name in the play, only ‘the Governor's Wife’) and her step-son as ‘victims’, in Thomas’words, ‘shivering with symptoms in this feverward’(35), though the disease contracted has no more to do with India or congenital propensities, as the Memsahib fears, toward perverse lust than it does with the love Thomas feels for his father's Indian political prisoner, Lilamani (Aricia), who symbolises all he has imprisoned within himself. Instead, it is the Governor's hegemonic, hypocritical and hallucinogenic divisiveness which prevents them from recognising what their servants understand to be ‘feelings common to humanity’ (6), and turns them into the ‘flesh-starved monstrosities’ of his own vision. When he returns, assesses the situation, and wishes himself shut up again ‘in that hole’ (34), the audience absorbs by poetic connection one of the play's most important ironies: that that is precisely where he has brought himself.

He escapes it and the fate of his ‘victims’ by once again projecting his encaved monsters upon ‘others’, in this case his own half-Indian boy whom he accuses of being the incestuous

Animal! \inhale, exhale]
Now it all comes out!
The reversal everybody spoke about!
The lower self comes creeping up from its lair
out of the dismal swamps of God-knows-where.
It lumbers leering from primeval slime
where it's been lurking, biding its own time.
How could his kind absorb our discipline,
our laws of self-control, our claims of kin.
I've expected far too much. It's in his blood.


The dramatic ‘reversal’ as well as the beast and the blood are revealed to be the Governor's own as his innocent son, a potential conduit between cultures, rushes against an incarnation of his father's delusions. The ‘avenging Siva’ the latter calls down upon the boy and then senses, ‘like shivering and chill preceding fever’ (39) appears in Burleigh's description of Thomas’ death, ‘and shambles forward through the shimmering heat’ (50); this illusion-breaking illusion of Siva, the Indian god of destruction and regeneration, comes like the Dionysian forces that Nietzsche believed ‘annihilated’ tragic illusions at the ends of plays. Thus in Harrison's deconstruction of Racine's lines of causality as well as casuistry the consequences are all that are real; the Governor's imploded myths of self leave him in the same position as Lilamani, whose rebellious family he massacred—a victim of his own self-destructive rule, broken only through connection with the ‘other’. The audience joins in that realisation and in destroying the play's illusions when the Governor asks Lilamani to ‘ford … those frontiers of blood into his heart’, and the play ends with the sound of Siva's monsoon rains coming on, as the Memsahib and the final stage directions put it, ‘like slow applause’ (54, 53).

Variations on the same judoistic and carnivalesque strategies in adaptation shape Harrison's two trilogies, The Oresteia (1981) and The Mysteries (composed of The Nativity, 1980, The Passion, 1977, and Doomsday, first performed with the others in 1985). Both trilogies are based on texts in which key foundational concepts find their initial dramatic inscription within culture: Athenian democracy and rational justice on the one hand, and Christian dogma on the other. Such concepts are, once again, like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘rationality’ in his first two plays, deconstructed from sensual and ‘other’ vantage points in order to illuminate, in the first case, what must be sacrificed to the new political/cultural ideal, and in the second case to celebrate the possibility of renewal for official beliefs when the terms of the Biblical ‘highest are brought low’. Both are recreated in early English metres, whose heavy-limbed, alliterated stresses bear an even more conspicuously physical impact, and whose popular origins and interpolated balladry allow Harrison to begin his much-noted practice of casting (or recasting, in the case of The Mysteries) north country words and inflections (and actors) into the classics as well. Each nearly ten years in the making (and each far too vast in scope to treat at length in this essay), the trilogies represent something of a second phase in Harrison's career, during which his characteristic concern with the representation of otherness in cultural inscription is brought closer to home.

The heroic Anglo-Saxon measure and musculature, reminiscent of Beowulf, into which Harrison translates The Oresteia not only recaptures something of what he calls the ‘craggy’ physicality of Aeschylus’ use of language, full of neologisms not unlike Old English word-images, or kennings; it also helps disruptive forces of otherness in the trilogy to bring material evidence against the judgments of rationalising, historicising, and juridical forces that attempt to sort out the excesses of the Trojan War and its aftermath of domestic violence. Harrison's presentation of the dramatic argument concentrates on the momentum that connects the two kinds of excess, all of which culminates in the trial of Orestes for murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, who had killed his father, Agamemnon, for making a sacrifice of their daughter at the outset of war. In his interrogation of Orestes’ acquittal, which depends upon the sublimation of matriarchy's last surviving forces of vengeance, the Furies (interpreted to date as having led to the triumph of Hellenic ‘culture’ over ‘nature’), Harrison reweights the arguments of both participating forces not, in effect, to side with the ‘others’, figured forth as feminine throughout the trilogy, but rather to illuminate the agenda that represents them as such.

As Carol Rutter has noted, the women in the plays are the ones who ‘hold grudges’ like the Furies, remember violent means to political ends like Clytemnestra, prophesy unheard, like Cassandra, and become reimaged in this graphic version as the ‘bloodhounds’ whose voices full of ‘bloodright’ and ‘bloodguilt’ go coursing through the trilogy with a corporeal force that clashes with the interests of statecraft; it was Harrison's adaptation, Rutter writes, that ‘made her hear the claimant voice of this she-grudge story’.21 He accomplishes this in part by highlighting gendered patterns of experience in kenning-like compounds—'she-gods’, ‘he-gods’, ‘she-kin’, ‘he-child’, etc.—so that by the time the Furies, the ‘she-gods’, arrive in the court of Athens to litigate unsuccessfully against Apollo for the conviction of Orestes, the audience has a new view of the proceedings, one which connects along poetic peripheries a whole line of feminine ‘cases’ beginning with what serves as a virtual archetype for them all: the gagging and sacrifice of Iphigeneia for ‘the war-effort’ by her father Agamemnon, whose ships needed wind to sail out for Troy.22

The silencing of women in the plays not only allows them to be used as sacrifices or as scapegoats, such as Helen becomes for the male chorus as they struggle with gory memories of the unnecessary carnage of the war; it also allows the dominant masculine community to cast their own sublimated disruptive consciences upon women in order to subduct both at the same time, in much the same way that ‘Phaedra Britannica’ cast her own disruptive sensual self upon India in order to keep both down. Thus Apollo, instigator of the matricide and spokesman for one half of Orestes (who in Harrison's production is played by a notably small, almost feminine figure, as though to emphasise his ‘other’ half, the half that sways in a dance of guilt with the Furies), enacts on a godly plane the internal battle of his protégé as he turns to the rather beautifully masked she-gods and, like the Governor in Phaedra Britannica, bellows ‘Animals! Beast-hags hated by he-gods!’23

Pursuant to Apollo's misogynistic argument devaluing Clytemnestra's murder, motherhood, and women in general, whose wombs he calls ‘convenient transit’ for the father's seed (283), the Furies are literally ruled down, their ‘ancient conscience / pushed underground’ (287) into the caverns below Athens so that ‘culture’ may launch, like Agamemnon's ships, its patriarchal and allegedly democratic system. Harrison's translation emphasises the way that system works: Athena, engendered solely by Zeus and thus wont to ‘put the male first’ (284), decides with an all-male jury to acquit the son of an ally in the war, who ‘won \her her] spearspoil’ (277). She thereby gains the support of Argos and Apollo and the opportunity to appropriate, through threats, bribery, and ‘the linctus of language’ (288), the power of the Furies installed as the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, made guardians of Athens alone. Unlike the ideal democracy symbolised in Aikin Mata’s reconciliatory feast, the self-serving product of Athena's ‘gentler persuasion’ (287) at the end of The Oresteia depends upon the loss of an ingredient, the voice of the dissentient, destructive, non-partisan, non-forgetful ‘Grudges’ who vanish in a final procession up into the audience, who are asked to stand to receive it—a dramatic enactment of this text's absorption by the culture that has inscribed it within its own heroic tradition (as Harrison suggests with his verse form). Harrison's adaptation demonstrates that this ‘precedent’ for seemingly clear-cut progress made through ‘rational justice’ over ‘revenge’ carries hidden agendas but, as he says, ‘there's a lot of vested interest in the Classics as being a rather aseptic foundation of our culture’.24

If in The Oresteia Harrison is concerned with what, quoting Engels, he calls ‘the historical defeat of the female sex’,25 riding in tandem with that of the disruptive principle, in The Mysteries he reverses another kind of defeat, this one local, and accomplished through the production history of the text. The ‘others’ in this case are, ironically, the authors themselves: the medieval artists/artisans, the ordinary, northern working people who, through a collective process Harrison admires, one which involved the continual revision and adaptation of their own myths, fashioned cycles of liturgical plays for their street pageants only to be first suppressed by the reformed English Church, even destroyed in manuscript, and then relegated in this century to the margins of their own texts by translators invested in maintaining lines of authority. Angered by versions of the mysteries as he had seen them revived in York, where ‘God and Jesus were played by very posh-speaking actors from the South, and the local people again played the comic parts’, Harrison wished to ‘restore Yorkshire's great classic to itself’, which first meant restoring its ‘homogeneous language’ so ‘that God, Christ, and everybody else speak in the language of the time, which is also colloquial’.26

By so doing, Harrison reactivates the carnivalesque principle that adheres in the levelling drive through which participating townspeople and craftsmen's guilds brought the exalted mysteries of the Church down to earth, translating them into the words and material images of their everyday lives and jobs (just as the word ‘mystery’ itself can be demystified by its own etymological roots in ‘craft’ and ‘trade’). The figure of Christ the carpenter, who recrafted the mysteries of Old Testament inscriptions into new word-images and homely parables, broke the dead letters of Church laws, and ‘preached where people were most present’,27 becomes himself the embodiment of that creative/destructive energy moving between abstract concept and concrete image, word and flesh—or Apollo and Dionysus; Harrison's Mysteries demonstrate the catholicity of his adaptational construct.

He rediscovers its rejuvenative power in the original form of the plays: a northern descendant of Old English verse whose heavily alliterated ballad measures, full of mnemonic rhyme, onomatopoeia, monosyllabic images and changing, dance-like counts, offers up words and ideas, as several reviewers have put it, like ‘physical objects’. Treating the Bible as poetry, full of relationships that demand continual re-embodiment in the physical world, Harrison emphasises the dynamic most central to the plays’ own celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi, one which made ‘carnival’ all but a commandment: the necessary ‘communion’ established with divinity in the ‘body’ of Christ, made like theirs out of ‘the simplest part of earth’ (15) to which they were to continually return in order to remake him, a project symbolised by the bread he offers, both before and after crucifixion, as an example of ‘his corse, no common crust’ (102, 189).

Translating that injunction poetically, Harrison, director Bill Bryden, their company of updated actors/‘artisans’ and indeed the audience too, given that this is a promenade production which often involves them, collectively ‘make God’ by recreating the mysteries again in the simplest images of working Yorkshire, using the materials and relationships that inform its daily life. Thus God enters the world of miners, painters, firemen, butchers, bus conductors, mechanics, construction workers (and others) like a good foreman on a forklift truck, a ‘maker’ like them (11), and Lucifer gets dumped out of his incongruous armchair on another such vehicle while slacking off in self-preoccupation; Mary, first portrayed as a housewife, becomes a familiar figure of old age in a wheelchair before being paraded off to her son by a town band of tuba, banjo and drum—‘to his bigly bliss \her] bones for to bring’ (204); Simon of Cyrene, played by one of the production's Anglo-African actors, hurries by in his business suit until stopped to help carry Christ's cross; and a miner last sights Christ through the Good Friday darkness with the light on his helmet, representing the common people who were closest to the events as he (rather than the centurion) concludes The Passion by confirming Christ's divinity: ‘But since ye set nought by my saw / I'll wend my way’ (156).

Almost no scene passes without laughter, often at its own contrivance. Historically dismissed for such ‘intrusive and even blasphemous … mixture of comedy and serious action’,28 the mysteries in Harrison's translation foreground all such ‘diableries’, as Bakhtin calls them, in order to emphasise their central, close-to-classical, illusion-breaking and life-supporting functions.29 Like the satyr plays that followed tragic trilogies at Greek festivals, comic spoofs, like the famous ‘Second Shepherd's Play’ which follows and parodies Christ's nativity (and is recreated here as a Keystone Kops chase after Mak the lamb-stealer), throw the plays’ constructions up into the air, calling the audience's attention to their provisional nature, and to the need to continually, collectively reconstruct them in ‘new worlds of symbols’. With their jubilant dances like Dionysian dithyrambs between tragic scenes and their spillings into the audience, Harrison's Mysteries become his fullest demonstration to date of how the Greeks’ tragic/comic, dialectical imagination might be translated into an even more ‘democratic’ method of myth-making for the twentieth century.30

On the other hand, Harrison's most recent staged work, his reconstruction of the Sophoclean satyr-play fragment Satyroi Ichneutai (‘Tracking Satyrs’), offers his most comprehensive view to date of western culture as it actually functions. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1988) also combines tragedy and satyrical comedy but disturbingly reverses the order, concluding with his vision of the continuing social tragedy that accompanies textual sublimation of the Dionysian world.31 Like his as-yet-unperformed theatre works, Medea: a sex-war opera and The Common Chorus (a trilogy consisting of a new version of Lysistrata set at the site of the women's protest at the USAF base at Greenham Common, an adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and a play of his own in progress, Maxims, about the invention of the machine gun and chemical warfare), The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus becomes part of what might be seen as a new phase in Harrison's work which is characterised by even greater freedom in adaptation and more direct confrontation with current, topical, social and political issues.

At issue in Trackers are the consequences of selective memory loss on a cultural scale; Harrison turns Sophocles’ only partially exhumed satyrical spoof of Apollo's takeover of the lyre and ‘high art’ into a dramatisation of culture's literal and figurative burial of satyrical drama's integral role in tragedy, engineered by forces seeking to still the dialectic and divide art into elite and popular categories—a development Harrison views as being both a symptom of and textual tool used to perpetuate the ‘deep sickness’ still apparent in divisive society.32 He brings the Greek construction of ‘satyrdom’, or the inherent Dionysian self whose appearance after tragic constructions reaffirmed shared, elemental life and its ‘other’ perspective on artificial illusions, through a three-part movement into the present moment, where it finds itself ‘homeless’ in Apollo's world of high art. In the second of two stunning transitions in the play, the satyrs depart their fragmented script and, symbolically, their place in the imagination's self-portrait, to become representations of real, socially outcast and violent young men who by the end become the real homeless just outside the walls of the National Theatre. They thus enact Harrison's long-playing theme concerning the destination of ostracised aspects of self when what Nietzsche calls ‘the alleged reality of the man of culture’ forges and fosters deep divisions in art, society, textual traditions and therefore most of the tools with which individuals and cultures come to interpret themselves.33

If the second transition moves the action from the play's text into contemporary history, the first dramatic transition in the play moves from history into the text to be reconstructed—all of which becomes an only half-comic reproduction of the way intertextual forces of dominance act. It begins at Oxyrhynchus, in what remains of the ancient Egyptian town's rubbish heaps, where in 1907 B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, the Oxonian papyrologists, excavated four-hundred lines of Sophocles’ Ichneutai. Their sudden transformation at the end of the first segment into the Ichneutai's opposing roles of Apollo and Dionysius'best-known devotee, the head satyr Silenus, is in keeping with satyrical drama's characteristically magical and surprising changes. But this one, despite its hilarity, also signals the potentially sinister collusion between forces of art that dominate words and texts (represented throughout by Apollo himself, who goads Grenfell into finding ‘that play where \he] speak\s] the phrases’) (87), and therefore dominate to a great extent the imagination—particularly Grenfell's, which is ‘literally possessed’ (81) not only by Apollo but also by Apollonian illusions of high-minded, Olympian antiquity, which have taught him to ‘prefer / papyrus poetry and plays to papyrus cris-de-coeur’(85) (from the poor and homeless), and forces of history, because as Grenfell, turning to the audience, explains:

The past is rubbish till scholars take the pains
to sift and sort and interpret the remains.
This chaos is the past, mounds of heaped debris
just waiting to be organised into history. (79)

The forward stage set; composed of the mounds Grenfell points to, becomes one huge metaphor for culture's processes of selection and disposal of textual clues to itself. What it does not want to see it does not see, or ‘read’; Grenfell, so ‘dazzlingly fast’ with ancient Greek that ‘he can actually read / what most people can't decipher’ (81), repeatedly turns away from the many excavated petitions for shelter and loans with impatience, misinterpreting them or putting them away without trying: ‘ … the rest I can't read’ (82). Hunt can; in the second published version of this play he verbalises his different sort of historicising energy more clearly:

Grenfell, I love literature quite as much
                                                  as you
but these petitions have historical and human
                                                  interest too.


Aside from the ‘surreptitious drink’ (86) he takes to break from Grenfell's ‘military routine’ (80), Hunt's Dionysian aspect is less in evidence than his colleague's Apollonian one. Harrison wished that Hunt seem somewhat constrained by his role and even by his lines, just as disruptive satyr-selves are kept down by the social forces that shape Grenfell. But the sympathy he bears for ‘the folk in dire need’ (84) who surrounded the poets and playwrights, and the connection he makes between them and the Egyptian fellaheen Grenfell goads into working faster in the mounds indicates his Dionysian identification with the material experience, suffering, and ‘anonymous toil’, as Walter Benjamin put it, of those who always underlie and indeed enable, through the appropriation of their energies, the creation of art and the building of great cultural monuments. ‘There is no document of civilisation’, wrote Benjamin, ‘which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.34

Like the fellaheen who do the work of ‘tracking’ down Grenfell's poetry and plays, the satyrs also prove necessary, in their case as men-beasts with ‘horse-like sniffers’ (94), to the project of tracking down Apollo's beloved lost cattle, newly threaded into Hermes’ lyre, and thus to the discovery of what Apollo, after its procurement, will exclude them from—‘high art’ (119). But the satyrs vibrate with a power dormant in their Egyptian descendants, thereby extending and deepening the portrayal of loss inherent in culture's gain. Though they expand the identity of the exploited by representing the British working class in Greek translation, speaking in thick north country dialects and substituting wild clog dancing for dithyrambs (a spectacle which reminded many reviewers of Bill Tidy's northern tabloid cartoon strip, The Cloggies), they also represent, with their enormous phalluses standing for disruptive sensuality, and their phenomenological ‘surprise at everything’—which ‘reassess\es] / from basic principles all \we] possess’ (60)—one half of the art impulse, one charged pole in its dialectic, the integral regenerative principle without which Apollo's new lyre will conventionalise refinements, ‘will create that sort of elite / that will never get caught out tapping its feet’ (119).

But the satyrs' ‘staccato clatter’ defies (at least for the length of the fragment) the possibility of their exclusion from art by demonstrating its vital link to the life and beat of the verse which they (like Apollo) deliver to its rhythm. The satyrs are even connected by numerous images to the lyre itself, made of a tortoise shell and the cattle with whom they, ‘as part goat or horse, … identify’ (118). Thus they are in part the very ‘gut’ of the music by which they too, or their ‘two-thirds human part, s'impressed’ (118); they compose and understand the sacrifice made for its making, serving as a reminder of the necessary relation of celestial to bestial, ‘high’ to ‘low’.

As such, they constitute the original dialectic's Dionysian threat to what Nietzsche calls the principium individuationis of Apollo: the drive to develop ‘beautiful illusions’ in art, ‘dreams’ of high culture that edit out the suffering of the communal body. The play fell into that dream when Grenfell passed out, after a tussle with internalised Apollo, at the end of the first segment; the reconstituted fragment cast him, with his dominating biases, into the role of the god. There is a ‘delicate boundary’, Nietzsche writes, ‘which the dream image must not overstep lest it have a pathological effect (in which case mere appearance would deceive us as if it were crude reality)’.35 In Harrison's adaptation that line defines the end of the satyr-play fragment and its Dionysian opposition to Grenfell/Apollo's self-realising dream—which then swiftly climaxes within the play's final ‘crude reality’: contemporary history.

Just as the satyrs voice both choral wonder and objections to the new sound, singing in newly invented melody that ‘summat's been flayed / for this sweet serenade’ (111), and asking where a satyr will ‘start drawing the line’ (118), Apollo draws it first along a militant ‘desatyrised zone’ (121) within which any satyr attempting to play the lyre or flute, as did the legendary Marsyas whose story Silenus bitterly retells, will be flayed of their skin like the brutes with whom they sympathise. Thus Apollo, who has dropped his own discernible accent and ‘refined’ his image in the course of the play, turns dialectics into ‘a fixed scale in creation’ (117) which sets high against low and makes the preservation of the former justification enough for any inhuman action taken against the latter. In a chilling conflation of time periods and imagery (not unlike Titian's The Flaying of Marsyas, reproduced in the playbill, which depicts a violinist present at the gruesome event), Silenus forecasts that

You'll hear the lyres playing behind locked doors
where men flay their fellows for some abstract cause.
… … … … … … … …
Some virtuouso of Apollo's ur-violin
plays for the skinners as they skin.


As the victims of the new system become its literal scapegoats, Apollo makes his own projections: that the position the men-beasts assume at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens (whose stage with its ‘illusions’ is propped on the marble shoulders of bent-over satyrs), will manifest itself in real terms, in the famous ‘Cardboard City’ made by the homeless just below the National Theatre, where many in the audience spotted them on their way in to see Harrison's play. There their disruptive force will be sublimated like that of the Furies ‘pushed underneath’ Athens in The Oresteia:

While I am the one with the lyre and the wreath
satyrs will always be pushed underneath.
I prophesy that they'll track through the ages
and end up where you saw them, underneath stages.


As Apollo delivers such fulfilled prophecy to an audience he ‘assumes … are all Apollonian’ (120), the satyrs step off the network of split-open papyrus crates from which they had, at the outset, and in response to the audience's own solicited chanting, burst into the satyr-play-within-the-play as representations of the audience's ‘other’ selves. Having danced and ‘tracked’ down the origins of the lyre for them and for Apollo along these crate-backs painted like lines of text, their exit symbolises their being dropped, like the ‘différance’ against which culture must always define itself, through lines of textuality into the oblivion that has absorbed almost every trace of the satyr-play tradition.

In the play's dénouement their ineradicable otherness degenerates first into the violence of those who, as Harrison writes in his preface, ‘will sooner or later want to destroy what they are not allowed to inhabit’ (xiv), and finally into homelessness, as the former satyrs turn their papyrus crates into makeshift shelters. Though Silenus begs the audience to either chant them into the new ‘social text’ or back into their original Greek one, the audience of course cannot respond—practically speaking, because ‘no one reads Greek’ (134); symbolically and more importantly because they have lost the ability to exercise their double-consciousness in order to assimilate the satyrs, having lost too, like their victims, the ability to interpret for themselves what the textual tradition, as edited by forces of dominance, once had to offer or warn them of—what has been wilfully ‘lost in the translation’. The play ends with a terrifying image of that loss as Silenus, in one last effort to mount the tragic stage, is apprehended by Apollonian forces / flayers whose approach, signalled only by a ‘burst of Apollo music’ (136), narrows his spot-light until he vanishes with a silent scream.

That image, coupled with the sound of Marsyas’ cries produced in the play as ‘the tuning up of a large string section of an orchestra’ (124), offers a key to Harrison's theatre works, as discussed in this essay. His method of replaying the classics involves making his audiences hear both the music and the scream: the cost of what is rendered beautifully by his poetry. He ‘levels the artistic structure of the Apollonian culture’, as my epigraph from Nietzsche has it, ‘stone by stone’ until we see that ‘the foundations on which it rests’ are, as at the Theatre of Dionysus, our own satyr-selves caught in a double-edged image of culture's need to build illusions on the backs of self-destructive suppressions, as well as of its inherent potential for disruption and renewal. If otherness is always ‘pushed underneath’ then continual deconstructive reconstruction, or adaptation as he practises it, becomes Harrison's poros in aporia, his way out. ‘Above all’, he writes, ‘I love the ephemerality of the theatre!’;36 his own theatre becomes a place of opposing selves coming together, if only to see that nothing gets written in stone.


  1. Derek Walcott, ‘The Poet in the Theatre’, Ronald Duncan Lecture No. 1, 29 September 1990, South Bank Centre (London: Poetry Book Society, 1991) n.p.

  2. For a complete list of Harrison's theatre works to 1991, see Tony Harrison, ed. Neil Astley (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991) pp. 507-9. Further references to this volume will appear as TH.

  3. John Haffenden, ‘Interview with Tony Harrison’ in TH, p. 245.

  4. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967) pp. 46, 40 et passim.

  5. Ibid., p. 47; Haffenden, op. cit., pp. 242-3.

  6. Harrison has said that ‘the trouble with Eliot and Fry is that they brought the lyric into drama’ instead of vice versa (Richard Hoggart, ‘In Conversation with Tony Harrison’, TH 45).

  7. See ‘Them & \uz]’ in Harrison's Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987) p. 122.

  8. Harrison writes: ‘It's not the percussiveness of consonants but their sensuality, their sexuality if you like. Vowels are spirit, consonants body, people say. Then I'm for bodies …’ (‘The Oresteia in the Making: Letters to Peter Hall’, TH 279).

  9. Richard Hoggart, op. cit., p. 43.

  10. See, for example, Randy Martin's Performance As Political Act: The Embodied Self (New York: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1990), and Fred McGlynn's ‘Postmodernism and Theater’( in Postmodernism Philosophy and the Arts, ed. Hugh J. Silverman \New York/London: Routledge, 1990]).

  11. TH \book jacket].

  12. Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 91.

  13. Derek Walcott, ‘What the Twilight Says: An Overture’ to Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970) p. 17.

  14. M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) p. 28n.

  15. Ibid., pp. 255-6.

  16. Tony Harrison and James Simmons, Aikin Mata (Ibadan: Oxford University Perss, 1966) p. 5. All quotations are from this edition; hereafter, page numbers will be given in the text.

  17. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) p. 155. Soyinka adapts Nietzsche's ideas to discuss the birth of Yoruban tragedy in this chapter.

  18. Haffenden, op. cit., p. 240.

  19. Tony Harrison, Phaedra Britannica (London: Rex Collings Ltd., 1975) p. xx; cf. Racine's absolutism as described in Haffenden, above. All quotations from Phaedra Britannica are from this edition; hereafter, page numbers will be given in the text.

  20. Haffenden, op. cit., p. 240.

  21. Carol Rutter, ‘Men, Women, and Tony Harrison's Sex-war Oresteia’, in TH 296.

  22. Tony Harrison, The Oresteia in Theatre Works: 1973-1985 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) p. 195. All quotations are from this edition; hereafter, page numbers will be given in the text.

  23. The Oresteia, p. 282. Harrison remarks upon the fact that in Greek art the Furies are ‘always depicted as beautiful, but They're described horrendously’; the discrepancy in views betrays a complex inner conflict (Haffenden, op. cit., p. 245).

  24. Haffenden, op. cit., p. 245.

  25. Ibid., p. 241.

  26. Hoggart, op. cit., p. 44.

  27. Tony Harrison, The Mysteries (London: Faber & Faber, 1985) p. 117. All quotations are form this edition; hereafter, page numbers will be given in the text.

  28. David Bevington, Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975) pp. 239-40.

  29. Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 15. Bakhtin writes: ‘Laughter penetrated the mystery plays; the diableries … have an obvious carnivalesque character. …’

  30. Harrison's description of The Mysteries as being created by a ‘democratic’ process of collective adaptation is quoted from the introduction to Channel Four's television production of the plays, 22 and 29 December 1985, 5 January 1986.

  31. Tony Harrison, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, the National Theatre Text (London: Faber & Faber, 1990) p. xiv. All quotations are from this edition; hereafter, page numbers will be given in the text.

  32. Oliver Taplin, Harrison's friend and fellow classicist, makes this diagnosis in ‘Satyrs on the Borderline: Trackers in the Development of Tony Harrison's Theatre Work’ (TH 463).

  33. Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 61.

  34. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) p. 256.

  35. Nietzsche, op. cit., pp. 35-6.

  36. Letter to the author, 19 June 1991.

H. G. Widdowson (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4039

SOURCE: “Person to Person: Relationships in the Poetry of Tony Harrison,” in Twentieth-Century Poetry: From Text to Context, edited by Peter Verdonk, Routledge, 1993, pp. 21-31.

[In the following essay, Widdowson analyzes how Harrison's use of pronouns in his “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems illustrates his ambivalent relationship to his parents.]


‘You weren't brought up to write such mucky books!’is the final line in italics of Tony Harrison's poem ‘Bringing Up’. It refers to what his mother said when he showed her his first volume The Loiners, and it epitomizes the social dislocation of a working-class boy who won a scholarship to Leeds Grammar School and subsequently graduated in Classics.

In this chapter Henry Widdowson demonstrates in a sensitive reading that the way in which the grammatical categories of person (first, second, and third) are distributed across Harrison's poem ‘Long Distance II’ throws into relief its basic theme of estrangement; of loss of contact, person to person.

Widdowson points to a significant distinction between the pronouns of the first and second person (I and you) on the one hand and those of the third person on the other (he, she, they): the former are terms of address used to talk to people, while the latter are terms of reference used to talk about people. To put it differently: it is only the first and second person that are actually participating in a speech event. They are equals in terms of communication, in that their roles are potentially transferable as the speech event proceeds. The third person is not associated with any positive participant role; it has a distancing effect and people referred to in this way are cut off from communication.

Starting from this fundamental distinction, Widdowson soon recognizes that at crucial junctures in the poem the use of certain second- and third-person items is artfully blurred. As a matter of fact, this linguistic ambiguity appears to reflect that in his relationship with his parents the poet feels both intellectually detached and emotionally involved. Widdowson also points out some other formal and linguistic features dramatizing this state of mind, and comes to the poignant conclusion that this patterning of language, this casting of emotions in a poetic mould, would have been lost on his parents. Both the ambivalence and the estrangement will persist.

This chapter is an excellent example of how seemingly insignificant linguistic details can be related in such a way that they confirm and expand our initial responses to a poem. It also demonstrates that language as such is ‘innocent’, but that it loses this innocence and becomes a ‘loaded weapon’ (Bolinger 1980) as soon as it is used in communication, that is, in social discourse. This social ground of language, to which Harrison has shown to be highly sensitive, has been a key issue in much recent literary theory (Rylance 1991: 53-67).

                                                                                                                                  P\eter] V\erdonk]

First a general comment to set the scene. The particular poem I want to analyse is one of a pair among a number of poems in the volume ‘The School of Eloquence’ and Other Poems (1978) which are about the relationship between the poet and his parents. A recurring theme is one of disparity of values and guilt that his scholarship has estranged him from them and their working-class ways. Even his portrayal of them is betrayal of a kind, since it can only be based on the dissociation of his experience and expressed in a poetic idiom they cannot understand.1 He cannot talk about his parents in the way he talked to them. What comes across in these poems is a sense of exile and uncertainty of self. They are expressive of an ambivalence of position, a dilemma of identity: they are intellectually detached with descriptions distanced in the third person, the poet apart from what he describes, but at the same time he is emotionally involved in the first person, a part of it all as well.

This, then, is the poem: one of several variations on a theme of estrangement; of loss of contact, person to person.

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn't just drop in. You had to phone.
He'd put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon He'd hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she'd just popped out
to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven't both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there's your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

“Long Distance II”

At the most obvious referential level of paraphrase summary this poem is about family relations and their severance by bereavement. It is about communication and its loss in two senses, physical contact and emotional ties, telephone connections and human relationships, the one expressed in terms of the other. It is about being cut off, disconnected, distanced.

Linguistically, human relationships are mediated through the grammatical category of person, and in particular the personal pronouns. To quote from the recent Collins Cobuild English Grammar: ‘You use personal pronouns to refer to yourself, the people you are talking to, or the people or things you are talking about’ (Sinclair 1990: 29). It is through the categories of person (first, second, and third) that we make a connection between self and others and establish positions of identity. We might expect, therefore, that, given the obvious theme of the poem, the category of person should repay closer study. This, then, can serve as the starting point for our analysis.

A word or two to begin with about pronouns and person in general. The first- and second-person pronouns (‘I’ and ‘you’) identify participants and provide the necessary terminals so to speak, whereby people are connected in communicative interaction. They coexist in the same plane of involvement. Thus they are, in principle, interchangeable in the turn-taking of talk: the second person is a potential first person, and each presupposes the existence of the other. The same human person shifts role into the different grammatical persons of ‘I’ and ‘you’, addresser and addressee. And these pronouns are, of course, independent and self-contained. In spite of the term we give them they are not pro-nouns. We can of course use them in association with nouns, as when they are specifically identified (‘I, Claudius’; ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’), but they have no proxy function. They are terms of address, not terms of reference.

The third-person pronouns, on the other hand, indicate a non-participant role; they are terms of reference rather than of address. When people are referred to in third-person terms they are distanced, put at a remove from involvement with first-person self, no longer interactants. When you talk about people in the third person, rather than to people in the second person, you in effect disconnect them from communication: ‘Does he take sugar?’

So what, then, of the pronouns and persons in this poem? The first two lines establish the relationships of child (let us assume son in this case) as first person with parents as third persons: ‘my mother’, ‘Dad’: me, the poet, and them. There is a difference, though, between these two expressions. The first of them is a straightforward term of reference. The second ‘Dad’, however, can serve as a term of address also, a vocative (for example, ‘Sorry, Dad’) so although it is used here in the third person, it carries the implication of involvement, indeterminate, so to speak, between reference and address. He is not just being talked about in detachment but is also marked as a potential participant. ‘Dad’ seems appropriate as suggesting a continuing relationship: he is still alive. ‘My mother’, already two years dead, is distanced as a third-person entity by the use of the standard referential phrase. One might consider the difference of effect if the lines had been otherwise:

Though mother was already two years dead,
My father warmed her slippers by the gas. …

There is a further observation to be made about the distancing effect of these terms. ‘Dad’ is not only to be distinguished from ‘my mother’ because of its address potential, it is also a less formal term and expresses closer familial ties, more personal involvement. The version which is unmarked for such affect is ‘Father’, just as the marked versions for the address term ‘Mother’ are ‘Mummy’ or ‘Mum’ or (in Harrison's dialect) ‘Mam’. And, of course, these affectively marked terms can also be used for reference as well as address. Indeed, they are so used by Harrison himself in other poems. For example:

I asked mi mam. She said she didn't know.


Since mi mam's dropped dead mi dad's took fright.

(‘Next Door’)

Here too, of course, the use of dialect forms is a further device for reducing distance, expressing empathy, identifying the first person with third-person description.2

What we seem to have here, then, is a kind of fusion of participant address and non-participant reference perspectives. We might suggest that there is a set of three terms of reference of increasing affective involvement in Harrison's poetry:

my mother my father
mi mam      mi dad
mam           dad(3)


If we use these possible alternatives in the first two lines of the poem we are considering, with other modifications to retain the metrical pattern, we can propose a number of variants:

Though mam was then already two years dead,
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas. …
Mi mam was then already two years dead,
But dad still warmed her slippers by the gas. …
Though mi mam was already two years dead,
Mi dad still warmed her slippers by the gas. …

And so on.

Each variant, I would argue, represents a different relationship with the parents. And so it is with the original lines. The father, unlike the mother, is still, as it were, affectively connected, the relationship is alive as a potential participation. And yet to some degree distanced by third-person reference. The writer is connected in a way, and yet, in another way, disconnected. The ambivalence I referred to earlier is already present in the first two lines of the poem, represented, I would suggest, by the very choice of referential expression. In this sense, the end of the poem is anticipated by its beginning.

But what of the lines in between? They too, I suggest, are expressive of this ambivalence. And again, it is the grammatical category of person that is crucial. Consider the second-person pronoun in the first two lines of the second verse. It occurs three times. But it does not have a participant sense. It is the informal equivalent of the third-person impersonal pronoun ‘one’:

One couldn't just drop in, one had to phone. …

And this is the non-participant equivalent of the first-person pronoun ‘I’:

I couldn't just drop in, I had to phone. …

Again, there is distancing, but at the same time some retention of affective involvement represented by the residual participant force of the second-person pronoun ‘you’.

Consider now how the third person is used to talk about the father in the poem. In the first verse, there is an account of what he actually does, his physical actions, expressed as a series of objective statements of observable fact. In the second verse, there is an interpretation of his action. It is not a matter simply of what he does, but why he does it. The first person intervenes to give reasons and adduce motives. He is drawn into subjective involvement. And in the third verse he is drawn even further in. Here it is not just a matter of interpreting action but attributing feelings and attitudes to the third person which cannot possibly be accessible to observation, and which would normally, therefore, be associated only with first-person expression:

I couldn't risk his blight of disbelief. …
I'm sure that very soon I'll hear her key. …
I knew she'd just popped out to get the tea.

There is, then, in these three verses an increasing involvement, a gradual identification of the first person with the third person until they at times in effect fuse one into the other and the son articulates the feelings of the father in the father's idiom (‘… just popped out to get the tea’). And yet he retains some detachment and separate identity: expressions like ‘my blight of disbelief’ and ‘end his grief’ are of his thoughts in his idiom carried over from the last line of the second verse: ‘as though his still raw love was such a crime’.4

These verses, then, represent an ambivalence of position of the first person: he is both apart from and a part of what he describes, detached from the actions, and able to comment on them, but drawn into empathy with the feelings. Then in the first line of the last verse this ambivalence disappears with a definite assertion of separate and independent identity with the first occurrence (as the first word) of the first-person pronoun:

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.

This is clear and straightforward enough: a change of tone, a first-person assertion of present reality in contrast to the paternal illusions of the past that he has been recounting. And this shift is also marked, we might notice by a change in rhyme scheme in this last verse: a different form for a different kind of statement. Life ends with death: that is all, and that is that: no ambivalence or uncertainty here. But that is not all. Consider the next line. Here the second-person pronoun makes another appearance. This time, however, it is used not as before (in verse 2) but in its full participant sense: he is addressing his parents. They are both dead, and life ends in death and that is all, and yet he is talking to them nevertheless, reviving the relationship by this direct address. The line is disconnected, but he is making a call all the same. The ambiguity of his relationship as represented in the earlier verses is resolved into the definite distinction between first and second persons ‘I’ and ‘you’. But this only serves to create the poignant anomaly of addressing the dead, as if there were a possibility of continuing relationship. The uncertainty persists, in spite of the assertion of belief in the first line of this last verse.

And it persists, we should note, in spite of the assertion of actuality expressed in the phrase ‘my new black leather phone book’. This elaborate noun phrase (by far the most elaborate in the poem, with all its adjectives) seems, we might suggest, to insist on objective reality. Here is my phone book, new, black, made of leather, a real and tangible object, here and now. And yet it is black, suggestive perhaps of mourning, and though emphatically new and present, it contains the old and the past: your name and number are in it, even though you are dead and disconnected. Notice that this ambivalence is suggested even by the phrase ‘there's your name’ not ‘here's your name’: distal, not proximal; there (and then) not here (and now). And notice too that the number is ‘there’, as if it appeared on its own. There is no indication of human agency. The line does not after all read:

In my new phone book I write down your name. …

The line is disconnected, then, the parents dead. He still calls, just the same.

‘Just the same’: the concessive phrase that ends the poem itself relates to those that precede (‘though’ makes an appearance in each verse). Although … yet. Concession runs throughout: the very first word of the poem sets the key (‘Though my mother’). This much is certain, and yet. … And the poem ends on the same note. Ultimately, what the son believes is also undermined by concession. His certainty has no more substance than his father's. In spite of his assertion, he behaves like his father, and so is subject to the same disbelief in spite of what he claims to believe. There is even a recurrence of lexical items to link them: ‘still/(re) new’ in the last line of the first verse, ‘new/still’ in the last two lines of the poem: appropriately enough a kind of mirror image. The father still got a new transport pass for his dead wife, the son still puts a disconnected number of dead parents in his new phone book. So the father's resistance to the reality of severed relationship is shared by the son, and this itself represents a continuity of their relationship. Life in a way, then, does not end in death. And yet … the number is nevertheless disconnected.

The ambivalence remains unresolved, except in the resolution that its representation provides in the very patterns of language of the poem. For although the poem is referentially about disconnection, the patterns, the prosodic regularities, the links, and correspondences, represent the opposite. The end of the poem paradoxically connects up with the beginning, and one might almost propose combining words from the first and last lines to provide a summary:

Though dead and disconnected, I still call.

This patterning of language though, this casting into poetic form, is a mode of communication which his parents would not have understood or recognized as significant. As the ambivalence persists, so does the estrangement. The persons, parents and son, first, second, and third, ultimately remain distinct.

And yet. … Just the same. …


1 Compare the original poem with the following variant. What do you think the effect is of the different changes that have been made?

Though Mam was then already two years dead,
My father warmed her slippers by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed,
and still went to renew her transport pass.
I couldn't just drop in. I had to phone.
He'd put me off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone,
as if his still raw love was such a crime.
He couldn't risk my blight of disbelief. 
He knew she'd just gone out
to get the tea,
and sure that very soon He'd hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
I believe life ends in death, and that is all.
They haven't both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new phone book here I write their name,
and the disconnected number that I call.

2 The following is another poem by Tony Harrison, again one of a pair, about his parents:

Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead 
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.
Shocked into sleeplessness you're scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don't try.
you're like book ends, the pair
of you, she'd say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare …
The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.
Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.
A night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us We're alike!
Your life's all shattered into smithereens.
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.

“Book Ends I”

Consider these questions:

a Personal pronouns are much in evidence in this poem as well: first person (‘me’, ‘we’, ‘us’), second person (‘you’), third person ('she’). What relationships do you think they express in this case? Do you think they represent the same attitudes as in the other poem?

b How would the effect of the poem differ (i) if the second person was replaced by the third, (ii) if the two persons were interchanged, or (iii) if the address terms ‘mam’ and ‘dad’ were used? For example:

i Shocked into sleeplessness, he's scared of bed. …
The ‘scholar’ me, him, worn out on poor pay. …
ii Baked the day you suddenly dropped dead. …
A night he needs my company to pass
and you not here to tell us We're alike. …
iii Baked the day mam suddenly dropped dead. …
The ‘scholar’ me, dad worn out on poor pay. …

c Both of the poems consist of sixteen lines. They are, however, arranged differently. The first consists of a series of four-line verses, this one consists of six two-line verses, then a single line, and then a final verse of three. What significance, if any, do you think this arrangement has? Is it in any way suited to the theme of the poem?

d Verses 5 and 6 have the appearance of sentences. But they lack a main verb and so are grammatical fragments. In what way does this linguistic feature relate to the arrangement of lines as expressive of the poem's theme?

e What do you think the effect would be if the first lines of the poem were altered to read as follows?

We slowly chew mi mam's last apple pie,
Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead.

f What do you think the effect is of: i The use of direct speech, the mother's actual words, in verse 3? ii The inverted commas round the word ‘scholar’ in verse 4? iii The repetition of the word books in the last line of the poem?


  1. Sorry, dad, you won't get that quatrain (I'd like to be the poet my father reads!) (‘The Rhubarbarians’)

  2. Dialect forms are frequent in Harrison's poetry. They sometimes occur as the representation of direct speech (typographically marked in italics), as for example in the first of the ‘Long Distance’ poems:

    Ah can't stand it no more, this
    empty house!
    Carrots choke us wi'out your mam's
    white sauce!

    They sometimes occur unmarked in a text of otherwise standard English:

    Mi aunty's baby's still. The dumbstruck mother.
    The mirror, tortoise-shell-like celluloid held to it, passed from one
    hand to another.
    No babble, blubber, breath. The glass won't cloud.


    And, again, sometimes the forms are set aside in single inverted commas:

    Mi mam was ‘that surprised’ how many came
    to see the cortege off and doff their hats—
    All the ‘old lot’ left gave her the same
    bussing back from ‘Homes’ and Old Folk's Flats.

    (‘Next Door I’)

    The variation in representation itself perhaps indicates an ambivalent attitude. We should note too that although the use of dialect can be interpreted as mockery, an ironic distancing of self. This again suggests the uncertainty of position that I have traced in this particular poem, and which seems to me to run through all of Harrison's work.

  3. There are variants of ‘Mam’ and ‘Dad’ as terms of address in other social dialects, of course: ‘Ma(ma)’ and ‘Pa(pa)’, ‘Mater’, ‘Pater’. Some people (but not Harrison) use the unmarked referential terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ for address as well, in which case we of course only have a two-term system of third-person reference:

    my mother my father
    mother my father

    With regard to the terms that Harrison uses, all six make their appearance in his poetry (together with the minimal referential pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’). It would be interesting to explore the significance of their alteration. Consider, for example:

    My writing desk. Two photos, mam and dad.
    Dad's in our favourite pub, now gone for good.
    My father and his background are both gone.

    (‘Background Material’)

    My mother said: It suits you, your dad's
    Dad was sprawled beside the postbox (still VR).


  4. As I suggest in note 2, Harrison seems to be especially sensitive and uncertain about this difference of idiom. See the pair of poems ‘Them & \uz] I, II’. See also ‘Wordlists II’, a poem about the ‘tongues I've slaved to speak or read’, which ends with the lines:

    but not the tongue that once I used to know
    but can't bone up on now, and that's mi mam's.

Economist (review date 23 January 1993)

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Economist (review date 23 January 1993)

SOURCE: “A Bleeding Poet,” in Economist, Vol. 326, No. 7795, January 23, 1993, p. 83.

[In the following review, the critic praises Harrison as “one of today's most unusual writing talents.”]

For the first time in almost a decade, an English poet stands a good chance of winning the Whitbread prize, the literary award that ranks second only to the Booker in popular esteem in Britain. Unlike the Booker shortlist, which is confined to novelists, the Whitbread shortlist takes in writers of different categories of books—first novel, children's book, biography and so on.

The poet is Tony Harrison, and if he wins on January 26th it will represent deserved public acclaim for one of today's most unusual writing talents. Much of his poetry is written not for the printed page but for the theatre and television. And he is a writer who concentrates on public themes. One example is the dehumanising effects of war, in his television poem The Gaze of the Gorgon (his Whitbread collection); another is man's capacity to misuse scientific discoveries, in a poem for the theatre, Square Rounds. Asked why he is so interested in public poetry, he replies:

When I was growing up in the 1950s, poets seemed too concerned to explore their own consciousness. The range of dramatic poetry has always been far greater than that of the short lyric, which was a kind of norm when I was just beginning. The best poetry I knew happened to be in plays—the Greeks and Shakespeare, for example.

Mr Harrison's enthusiasm for public themes also came out of a simple need to communicate. He was born in Leeds in Yorkshire, and his father, a baker, was a man of few words. In this non-bookish household, young Harrison grew up with a passion for words which was sometimes frustrated at Leeds Grammar School, where he was a classics scholar. His English master at the school refused to let him read his poetry out loud in the classroom because of his working-class accent. He would have to learn how to speak “properly”, he was told.

In later years, and as Mr Harrison acquired stature and confidence as a poet, he became determined to understand the reasons underlying this rebuff at school. He explored the tensions between the dialect and the accent of the northerners he grew up with and a literary establishment that sought to impose its own standards of gentility and correctness.

I hear many young actors delivering their lines in a Gielgudian fashion, and I say to them: ‘Where are you from?’ And when they say, ‘The north of England’, I say, ‘Let me hear the voice you had before you went to drama school.’ And in that voice there is a richer engagement, a more sensual engagement, with language.

Mr Harrison's efforts to bring new dignity to northern speech in the theatre have included northern versions of the medieval Mystery plays and of Aeschylus's Oresteia, in which the chorus sounded to one critic “like 15 Arthur Scargills”.

Mr Harrison's greatest model has always been Greek drama. He particularly likes the image of a theatre in the open air, with plays staged in the full light of day, where actors and audience are seen by the same light, provided not by a lighting system but by the sun. The Greeks in their tragedies, he says, looked unflinchingly at the worst they knew about life.

The subject matter of the Greek tragedies could not have been darker, “but unless you come to terms with dark subjects, there's no measure of life at all.” When people today see reality from Somalia, Bosnia or elsewhere on their television screens, he says, they watch only as much as they can bear to look at, and that is often not a lot.

Mr Harrison's The Gaze of the Gorgon includes “The Cold Coming”, a controversial long poem spoken in a deadpan tone by the charred skull of an Iraqi soldier who was killed in the retreat (the so-called “turkey shoot”) from Kuwait City at the end of the Gulf war. This is Mr Harrison at his most pugnacious, inveighing against the triumphalism of the victorious and attacking the idea that war can ever be a solution to mankind's problems because, he believes, war merely breeds war. But when asked whether poetry could be a force for good, Mr Harrison balked at the simpleminded idea behind such a question. Poetry was different from the kind of public involvement that manifests itself in demonstrations on the street. How was it different though?

It's something to do with its apparent uselessness. There is something about the act of writing poems which seems futile in the face of Phantom bombers. A poem engages on a different level. It reminds us of those other feelings we neglect in order to concentrate on destroying others like ourselves whom, for the purpose of the exercise, we call enemy—or less than human. Meaning, of course, less than us.

Daniel Lapenta (review date October 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Square Rounds, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, October, 1993, pp. 380-81.

[In the following review, Lapenta criticizes the inflated writing of Harrison's Square Rounds but admires the imaginative staging of the production.]

The dividing line between stimulating political theatre and self-indulgent preaching is a fine one. Poet/director Tony Harrison's new theatre piece Square Rounds totters precariously on this thin border, threatening at any moment to topple into pretentiousness. Driven by a simplistic anti-war theme with a form which sometimes resembles an informative lecture more than a play, Square Rounds is often repetitive and frustrating. But just when Harrison the playwright can be dismissed for his inflated sense of the piece's importance, Harrison the director rescues it with striking, imaginative staging.

The corruption of beneficial scientific developments into weapons of mass destruction is the subject of Square Rounds. Harrison's vehicle for this theme is several scientists and inventors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who generated humanitarian advances as well as World War I's most fearsome weapons. The principal characters represent these two warring factions. American Sir Hiriam Walker invented both his self-styled “pipe of peace,” a medicinal inhaler which provided temporary relief for people with damaged lungs (such as himself and workers at munitions factories), and a “world standard” machine gun which he felt could “save many men from the grave by getting this war quickly won.” Opposing him is Fritz Haber, who developed a methane gas alarm for coal mines and the process of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere for fertilizers. This nitrogen fixation process also permitted the development of TNT, and Haber himself used it to create the ultimate weapon of his time, poison gas. As with Walker, Haber's motivations are divided, and he, too, sees his achievements as a means to shorten the war. In general, the exposition is direct; the arguments, even with occasional ironic twists (Haber is told by the ghost of his wife that he will “never live to see his fellow Germans use his form of killing on his fellow Jews”), are not subtle.

While the message is blunt and didactic, the theatrical style and devices which Harrison employs are much more engaging. To capture the near miraculous nature of scientific advances, he uses magic as a most appropriate production metaphor. Handkerchiefs that change color, magic wands, actors who disappear and suddenly reappear, instant costume changes, and a whole array of pyrotechnics are all utilized. The dramatic form is further theatricalized when Harrison has the Haber character, evidently an amateur poet, establish the conceit that all dialogue has to be performed in rhyming couplets or quatrains. While there is no logic to this “rule,” such artificiality does—along with the magic, music, and choreographic blocking—serve an important Brechtian alienation function. The overall style is reminiscent of Joan Littlewood's Oh, What A Lovely War, although that play's music hall format delivers a stronger antiwar message with its balance of humor and irony. Harrison and most of his performers (with the possible exception of Jenny Galloway who struts and cackles as the cigar-chomping Hudson Maxim, Hiriam's brother) don't seem to trust the artificial style and humor enough, often taking themselves far too seriously. When the piece loses its sense of humor, didacticism strikes with the deadening impact of a heavy sledge.

The large cast of twenty-one women and two men works as an ensemble, with women playing all of the scientists. Harrison's rationale for this cross-gender casting is unclear. While his choice does add to the theatricality, it also seems to send the message that women are as much to blame as men for the excesses of war. Adding to this perception is a program note which lists nineteen different military inventions patented by women in the years of World War I. Misogynistic blame-casting may well not be Harrison's point, but this reading can be derived from the production.

The frustrating and fascinating nature of Harrison's efforts is best summarized in the title of the piece. “Square Rounds” is used throughout the play with a variety of meanings. The first is when Sweeper Mawes, a “wheezing old geezer” who serves as a narrator, responds to Haber's challenge to speak in verse:

No Bosch defeats heirs of Byron and Keats
Shakespeare makes us all Prosperos
So square up for rounds of metrical sounds
How about that? That's not prose!

A second use occurs after the introduction of gas warfare, as Hudson Maxim cries:

The Hun's got gas devices, so my advice is we'd
better act quick and get ours!
If you poison their air then You'll be square but
make sure that you win the next round.

A third reference to “Square Rounds,” concerns the creation of ammunition for an early version of the machine gun patented in 1718. James Puckle developed two kinds of bullets: round, more “humane” bullets for use against Christian enemies, and the horribly destructive and painful square bullets (rounds) for use against the Turks.

Finally, this piece confronts the impossibility of making a square circle—a metaphor of the need to free scientific development from its darker consequences—which is, nevertheless, achieved through magic. Round metal hoops, like the sides of a spring-form cake pan, are suddenly flattened into squares; perhaps the impossible can be achieved! “Square Rounds” and its multi-faceted meanings are clever and interesting, but are the stuff of program notes rather than captivating theatre. At times Harrison rises above the pedantic and does engage his audience in an active political experience, but too often he is undone, like the characters in the play, by his own invention—one that turns back upon itself to destructive effect.

Helmut Haberkamm (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “‘These Vs Are All the Versuses of Life’: A Reading of Tony Harrison's Social Elegy V.,” in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C. C. Barfoot, Rodopi, 1994, pp. 79-94.

[In the following essay, Haberkamm provides an in-depth analysis of Harrison's V. and describes it as “a contemporary elegy, a public poem, which opens up to its social context without dispensing with private grief and ruminations.”]

Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.1

Although he began as a Tyneside poet, publishing his first collection The Loiners,2 as early as 1970, Tony Harrison's present popularity is based on his achievements as a playwright (The Misanthrope,The Oresteia,The Mysteries), mainly for the National Theatre,3 as a librettist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York (The Bartered Bride and Medea : a sex-war opera), as a translator of classical texts and French plays, and as the narrator on TV of his own works.4 In the autumn of 1987 his name hit the newspaper headlines after a film version of his long poem V. was broadcast on Channel Four, arousing a wave of criticism over his use of abusive vocabulary. Right from the start, Harrison has been an eminently political and socially committed writer.5 In the aftermath of the ban on Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses Harrison set out to defend his friend and his novel, and the fundamental human right of free speech.6 The Penguin publication of both his Theatre Works 1973-1985 and his Selected Poems have confirmed Harrison's public stature as poet and writer.

Born in 1937 in Leeds and graduating in classics from Leeds University, Harrison is a north-countryman proud of his inherited working-class background. The inevitable tensions for the scholarship-boy with low-brow roots and high-brow learning have determined his personality, and his poetry, which focuses on speechlessness, social divisiveness and displacement.7 He has never lost his particular sense of belonging, even though he has taught English literature in Nigeria and Prague, has translated many foreign texts, and works and lives in Newcastle, London, Florida and New York. As he admitted in an interview:

I had a very loving upbringing; without question, a very loving, rooted upbringing. Education and poetry came in to disrupt that loving group, and I've been trying to create new wholes out of that disruption ever since.8

This combination of his sense of place and open-mindedness and the underlying tension between his upbringing and alienation give contour and significance to his poem V., written during the Miners’ Strike (1984-85) and published in 1985.9

It can be considered to be a contemporary elegy, a public poem, which opens up to its social context without dispensing with private grief and ruminations. The speaker's autobiographical sincerity is maintained, since there is no difficulty in identifying the poem's persona with the author's real self: his age (then 47 years old), his family name and his profession are revealed.10 This personal identity is related to social conditions in present-day England, underlining Harrison's poetic creed that every writer has to be aware of, and answerable to, public issues.

The poem's setting, its structure running from the grave to the final epitaph, and its stanzaic and metrical form, recall Thomas Gray's famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which helped to create graveyard poetry as a genre in the middle of the eighteenth century.11 Quite obviously, Harrison refers to this classic of sentimental melancholy in the shaping form of the cross-rhymed iambic pentameter quatrain.12 His subject, language, attitude and intention, however, are markedly different, since this contemporary version is set in a completely changed social context. Harrison's modern churchyard has turned into a place of political dichotomies, social friction, emotional and verbal degradation. Visiting his parents’ grave in Leeds, the poet is swept out of any self-indulgent mood of mournful memory by the sight of offensive Skinhead graffiti and beer cans desecrating the cemetery. He is suddenly confronted with certain deplorable aspects of society. Consequently, a dialogue starts with an imaginary Skinhead to reveal his background and attitudes.

The poem must be read as a moving elegy of the decline of the North and the end of a national consensus in Thatcherite England. Economic, social, moral and communicative aspects are introduced, such as closed pits, unemployment, violence, crime, alcoholism and immigration. The Skinhead's vulgar vocabulary, his beer cans and scrawlings show growing inarticulateness and brutalization. Initially, the topographical poem describes a private visit to an actual graveyard (“Flying visits once or twice a year”, “an hour between trains”), but very soon its range widens to a social panorama. Tipped off by a graffiti sign (“V”) the poet turns to the “versuses of life” within contemporary English society. The title motif (V.) broadens its field of meaning and association. Primarily, it signifies the abbreviation sandwiched between two football teams: “LEEDS v./the opponent” (ll. 49-50). Afterwards, gaining more general meaning, it carries the notion of “against! against! against!” (l. 184):

these Vs are all the versuses of life
from LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White
and (as I've known to my cost) man v. wife,
Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right,
class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM,
Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought out on's Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past has never found.
The prospects for the present aren't too grand
when a swastika with NF (National Front)'s
sprayed on a grave, to which another hand
has added, in a reddish colour, CUNTS.

(ll. 65-80)

This telling “V” sign takes on yet further meaning, thus becoming the absolutely reduced yet resourceful symbol of the poem's content. Stanza 16 recalls the unique feeling of belonging to one nation during the Second World War, a collectivist ethos of solidarity long replaced by the split between the North and the South, those with a job and those without:

Half this skinhead's age but with approval
I helped whitewash a V on a brick wall.
No one clamoured in the press for its removal
or thought the sign, in wartime, rude at all.

(ll. 61-64)

Autobiographical and historical reminiscences intertwine, feelings are unearthed and memories return. The former sign of victory and peace has become the outcry and gesture of antagonisms. Furthermore, “V” figures as the graphic representation of a female vulva denoting crude sexual connotations: “Then as if I'd egged him on to be obscene / he added a middle slit to one daubed V” (ll. 263-64). If our use of sexual vocabulary corresponds to our attitude and deep-rooted emotions, this poem bitterly pinpoints our shortcomings.

The word “UNITED” appears as the antithesis to this idea of “v.” both in concrete and symbolic terms. Of course this grave graffiti refers to the Leeds United football team yet it casts a wider net on to “higher things, and to the nation” (l. 132). Thus it signifies the religious concept of life and reunion after death, and the social notion of solidarity within a community. But there are still more dimensions to it. “UNITED” also contains the idea of fulfilled partnership, communication and sexuality, tinged with “homely joys”, warmth and tenderness. Being an agnostic Harrison pleads for the immanent utopia of love and privacy, momentarily putting aside contrast and friction:

Home, home to my woman, home to bed
where opposites seem sometimes unified

(ll. 331-32)

Turning to love, and sleep's oblivion, I know
what the UNITED that the skin sprayed has
to mean.

(ll. 399-400)

The ones we choose to love become our anchor
when the hawser of the blood-tie's hacked, or frays.

(ll. 409-10)

Leaving the cemetery after his disillusioning confrontation with the skinhead, the speaker is made to concede resignedly that his utopian hopes must be regarded as futile:

That UNITED that I'd wished onto the nation
or as reunion for dead parents soon recedes.
The word's once more a mindless desecration
by some HARPoholic yob supporting Leeds.

(ll. 289-92)

Even the momentary idyll of intimacy is gate-crashed by social antagonisms. Every individual's personal life, referring and correlating to general conditions, can be threatened by social events and human mortality. The world breaks into one's private retreat, mediated by television bringing “shots” of far-away bloodshed and familiar battles. The poem gradually focuses on the on-going miners’ strike and its underlying oppositions. And there can be no switching off:

This world, with far too many people in,
starts on the TV logo as a taw,
then ping-pong, tennis, football; then one spin
to show us all, then shots of the Gulf War.
As the coal with the reddish dust cools in the grate
on the late-night national news we see
police v. pickets at a coke-plant gate,
old violence and old disunity.
The map that's colour-coded Ulster/Eire's
flashed on again as almost every night.
Behind a tiny coffin with two bearers
men in masks with arms show off their might.
The day's last images recede to first a glow
and then a ball that shrinks back to blank screen.

(ll. 385-98)

Thinking of the skinhead, the speaker retains some last hope of solidarity amongst individuals and generations. In the end the reader himself is asked the following rhetorical question:

I doubt if 30 years of bleak Leeds weather
and 30 falls of apple and of may
will erode the UNITED binding us together.
And now it's your decision: does it stay?

(ll. 417-20)

The interrelation of various times, social forces, private and public matters is clearly mirrored in the structure of this poem. The Roman numeral “V” represents the figure 5 and correspondingly V. consists of five major parts.13 “Next millenium” opens the poem and starts its final sequence. The first seven stanzas introduce the setting, its mood and its protagonist. A future point of time is imagined, two poet “peers” are ironically mentioned, and the speaker addresses the reader directly (“you”). “This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit“, starts the poem's second part (l. 29) centring on the “language of this graveyard” and “all the versuses of life”. The visible graffiti make the protagonist ponder violence and vandalism, and who is to blame for such a drab development (“It isn't all his fault though. Much is ours”: l. 104).

Cardinal to this passage is the sprayed opposition of V and “UNITED”. The speaker himself reveals his own convictions regarding art (“This pen's all I have of magic wand”: 1. 121) and “afterlife” (l. 125). A sequence of questions (ll. 149-67) functions as a bridge towards the central clash with the jobless skinhead “yob” speaking a rudimentary abrasive “aerosol vocab”: “This is a language of cultural decline: the graveyard of a nation.”14 In the course of this argument the protagonist's own stance, and his thoughts on his art, are questioned, if not shattered.

By flashing back to his own “bits of mindless aggro” in his childhood, in order to justify the solidarity implied in his own style of writing/speaking, and by gradually falling back upon similar offensive language (“Listen, cunt!”) the speaker strives to approach the skinhead on equal ground. He fails. The latter does not fancy getting chummy and shows no interest in making friends at all, and lashes back:

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

(ll. 265-72)15

Undoubtedly this is a heavy blow to the poet-speaker's understanding of himself as a mouth-piece of the underprivileged (“yobs like you who do the dirt on death”): “the reason why I want this in a book / 's to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing” (ll. 206-207). His intention of gaining “higher meaning” out of simple people's inarticulacy is to counteract the criticism of art being pointless self-indulgent luxury (“toffee”, “poufy words”). Thus the poem is meant to serve as a means to achieve representativeness and publicity on behalf of this non-reading “artless” youth. Increasingly the protagonist recognizes the skinhead as being his own “alter ego”, a sort of doppelänger,16 one generation younger, deprived of many qualifications and chances, but nonetheless from the very same background and region, and with the same language:

You piss-artist skinhead cunt, you wouldn't know
and it doesn't fucking matter if you do,
the skin and poet united fucking Rimbaud
but the autre that je est is fucking you.

(ll. 213-16)

The two of them share a “lust for status and self-publicity”17 that makes them write their individual messages. The debate's climax and final punchline brings this process of approaching a common denominator. As a response to the speaker's plea the skinhead starts signing the stone graffiti with his name: “He aerosolled his name. And it was mine” (l. 280). The recurrent motif (ll. 105 ff.) of the “boy footballers” bawling Richard Wagner's Here Comes the Bride initiates (ll. 281 ff.) and closes (ll. 313 ff.) a passage of transition (ll. 281-320) leading to the poem's fourth section (ll. 321-420).

The argument's main impact on the speaker becomes apparent. He seems to be divided, half way between “versus” and “united”:

One half of me's alive but one half died
when the skin half sprayed my name among the dead.
Half versus half, the enemies within
the heart that can't be whole till they unite.
As I stoop to grab the crushed HARP lager tin
the day's already dusk, half dark, half light.

(ll. 283-88)

John Kerrigan rightly asserts that “elegiacs lament the living”.18 The protagonist is occupied by intimations of his own mortality, his own life half-lived, his own roots lost and his local past long buried. It is a moment of serious self-revelation stimulated by the encounter with this inarticulate yob. The poem's central theme of dividedness touches upon the speaker's own biography and situation. The passage is tinged with a melancholy different from Gray's, marked by inner separation and alienation.

This sense of disappearance, both literally and figuratively, shows itself concretely. The visitor to the parental grave first leaves the churchyard, then his former home town Leeds. The bus ride across the half familiar, half estranged cityscape offers room enough for reflections on transitoriness and death, for views of the inner city, changed as it is by unemployment, chain stores, immigration and dereliction. This moving passage casts a gloomy light on the decreasing quality of life, communal values, familiarity and personal allegiances. It is embodied by his dead father, an obsessive figure in Tony Harrison's poetry, who represents a reticent yet reliable authority and often the poet's lost self.

“Home, home, home, to my woman“, this line sets the wistful tone of longing in the fourth part of the poem after the speaker's departure from Leeds (“then go, / with not one glance behind, away from Leeds”). Love appears to be the only escape and resort, yet even this is “wobbly on its pins”, still dependent on socio-political events reaching far into private lives. Not only does one's personal homely comfort depend upon other people's misfortune, but, moreover, one's warm and cosy nest is heated (“as brief flame”) by prehistoric seams and resources that have grown over hundreds of millions of years. There is no closing one's mind to facts, conditions, and bad news. Just as the dead in the churchyard lie above a worked-out pit, present life rests upon “perished vegetation”, “the foetid forest”, and the achievements of the dead (Lohengrin, Lulu).

The last part of the poem starts by repeating its initial line (“Next millennium You'll have to search quite hard”) and works as a sort of a condensing coda (ll. 421-48). A large number of previously mentioned details are repeated. A preview of future times is provided and the speaker appeals to the reader directly. The name of the place is given and the ironic use of well-known family names echoes the introductory passage of the poem. Beer cans and graffiti remind us of this elegy's backdrop of public and private experience. Most reminiscent of Gray's model, however, is the concluding epitaph. This final quatrain unites art (“poet”, “poem”) and its social foundations (“pit”, “SHIT”), private and public spheres, poetry and football (“Poetry supporter”). The very last line refers not only to the jobs of the “family dead”, but also, as a secularized carpe diem motto, to the full enjoyment of life in general. There are three meanings to the closing imperative (“then look behind”). Primarily, it captures the view from the Beeston Hill graveyard down onto Leeds. In addition, it signifies the recap of the “family dead” and one's background. And finally it propagates a concept of poetry that is based on memory and history. The long poem's frame is completed, its cyclical structure comes to a close, the present is embedded in the past.

Of course Harrison's modern elegy draws on Gray's famous model and makes ironic use of certain features. Harrison's poem starts off with: “Wordsworth built church organs, Byron tanned / luggage cowhide in the age of steam” (ll. 13-14). It transfers “the distinguished dead” as “two peers” to an urban cemetery, and rediscovers Wordsworth's familiar daffodils as “dad's dead daffodils”19 on the family tomb desecrated by sprayed graffiti and Harp lager cans. Harrison's anti-romantic sobriety is also shown when he ironically calls the spraying skinhead a “master of his flourished tool” (58), “Wordsworth's opposite”. In fact, Harrison's poetry owes a good deal both to Wordsworth's Northern wordiness and Byron's biting wit.

But there is not only the ironic name-dropping (Richardson, Hamlet). Rimbaud's memorable remark “Je est un autre” was intended to pinpoint the problematic nature of modern minds facing the disintegration of traditional values, conceptions and certainties. Harrison surely is serious when he transforms this quotation into a demotic word of solidarity with the young skinhead, his alter ego “the autre that je est is fucking you”. This confession is intended to bridge the gap between two generations, two different backgrounds of education, position and consciousness—they are one and the same skin.

A characteristic feature of the poem is its language, the variety of which and its many-layered meanings mirror the poem's social panorama. A great number of words and texts taken from the scene is cited: grave inscriptions, trademarks and graffiti. The poem is marked by slang expressions, hooligan jargon and colloquial speech coloured with a North-Eastern accent. Harrison does not make use of expletives to achieve cheap effects, but he quotes them straight from the horse's mouth to guarantee the authenticity and immediacy of his diction and message.20The social conditions of division and desolation thus find their linguistic correlative and poetic mouth-piece. The obscenities are attributable to reality; the language is intrinsic to the poem. The bovver-booted skinhead's “aerosol vocab” is contrasted with traditional poetic diction,21 ceremonial tombstone vocabulary, religious phrases (“prayer”, “saw the light”, “save mi soul”), and the intellectual speaker's hard words (“cri-de-coeur”). Furthermore, the degradation of sexual issues to the battlefield of swear-words plays off their origin of tenderness against general brutalization. Terry Eagleton asserts with justice:

No modern English poet has shown more finely how the sign is a terrain of struggle where opposing accents intersect, how in a class-divided society language is cultural warfare and every nuance a political valuation.22

Tony Harrison is a surprisingly versatile poet. His long occupation with classical Latin and Greek texts has refined his style and range of rhetorical and metrical means. A good example is the collocation of parallelism and chiasm at the beginning of the poem: “… butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard / adding poetry to their beef, beer and bread.” Throughout the poem we can find alliterations and assonances that keep the traditional quatrains from becoming stale.23

Ironic yet revealing puns are a characteristic of Harrison's poetry. This poem's title V. combines diverse meanings and hints, ranging from “versus“, “victory”, “vulva” and “verses” to “we“. The local features of “pits”, “props” and “galleries” not only signify the mine under the graveyard, that is industry as the basis of people's lives and deaths, but hint also at the many-layered social hierarchy and the theatre of human life.

The damaged sign “above West Yorkshire mines” (“PRI CE O WALES”) can be seen as an emblem of industrial decline and, in 1984-85, of political confrontation (ll. 135 ff.). The colloquial phrase in parenthesis—“(no prizes for who nicked the missing letters!)“—is a subtle witty allusion to another meaning of this detail because the very two letters missing are exactly the initials of the racist National Front: NF (or, “an F”?). Harrison's puns leave a bitter taste since they relate to home truths and deplorable social conditions. When the skinhead mistakes the speaker's French quotations for “Greek” (“it's all Greek to me”), the latter's language reveals its condescending, intimidating nature as a means of power, referring back to the poem's epigraph provided by NUM leader Arthur Scargill: “My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.”

Harrison does not shy away from self-criticism. The skinhead mockingly discards the poet as “a crude four-letter word” (l. 204). The poem contains a lot of these ironic twists and slants. Leeds do not “lead” but lose, and disappoint “their fans week after week“. The nihilistic skinhead is “incensed”. The “most liberal label” of the protagonist's late father reappears in the following stanza as the label on a can. The TV “shots of the Gulf War” are a bloody reality. The talk of “some solution” not only means cleaning the tombstone's crude graffiti, but also points to unsolved social conflicts. The neologism “HARPoholic” reminds us of eighteenth-century ideas of harp, lyre and bard as found in Gray. It refers, also, however, to a lager, drunk by “lager louts” and, hence, has a pejorative connotation, too.

The most touching accompanying motif in the poem is the group of children playing football. Whenever they make blossoms fall and start humming Wagner's “Here Comes the Bride”, the poem shifts to another nuance and level. Their appearance (ll. 105 ff.; ll. 281 ff.) frames the protagonist's encounter with the skinhead, thus stressing the contrast between innocence and brutalization, good prospects of life and hopelessly fallow resources. Flowers denote beauty, loving memory and vanity. The blossoms falling are a constant reminder of weddings and a wistful image of prematurely frustrated potential. This recurrent motif (ll. 313 ff.; ll. 401 ff.; ll. 437 ff.) is capable of conveying memories of the speaker's own childhood days (“the flood / of feelings their first falling had released”), gives a glimpse of a region in decline, yet also provides the hopeful preview of personal happiness and treasured togetherness (“my bride is coming / into the bedroom, naked, to my side”).24 Finally, this anticipatory dimension of the motif is fulfilled. Equally, the constant presence of flowers comes to an end in the “brief flame” of the coal fire warming the home. Repeatedly we can find “petals“, “rose-roots”, “daffodils” and “white roses“; the “perished vegetation” and “the foetid forest” signal the after-life of archaic flora and fauna. “Home, home to my woman”, this elegiac refrain is given as the undertone of unity, momentarily realized in privacy.

It is self-evident that Harrison's long poem contains many hints and elements referring back to Gray's elegy. This process of transposing and updating traditional material creates an ironic change of meaning and nuance. There are obvious parallels such as genre, atmosphere and setting (“many a mouldering heap”) with headstones and obelisks askew, an epitaph with parenthesis and imaginative outlook. The time of day is the same—“parting day” (in Gray), “the day's already dusk, half dark, half light” (in Harrison). The former's “weary way” is found again in V.: “Though I've a train to catch my step is slow. / I walk on the grass and graves with weary tread.” Gray's rural landscape of the melancholy mind is replaced by a townscape whose decline (“threats of pain and ruin”) Harrison watches with literal down-to-earthness. Leeds's “Town Hall / with the great white clock face” corresponds to Gray's picturesque “ivy-mantled tower” which is reminiscent of distinguished tower poets such as H”lderlin, Rilke, Yeats, or Jeffers, and their idiosyncratic, rather esoteric, concepts of poetry. The “useful toil” of Gray's countrymen is diametrically opposed to urban youths who are made to waste their jobless days. “How jocund did they drive their team afield!”, Gray's speaker enthusedly exclaims. Leeds United's drunk and disappointed hooligans taking their shortcut through the churchyard (“the lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea”) after they have cheered their team on, are worlds and centuries apart from Gray's solitary brooder, “Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife”. He, “mindful of the unhonoured dead”, would have never imagined someone spraying offensive messages on the tombstones, “spelt by the unlettered muse”. Indeed, the two poems are based on two opposing concepts of poetry. The romantic idea of the vates (who “waked to ecstasy the living lyre”, “muttering his wayward fancies”) is echoed by Harrison initially calling himself “bard”. In the course of the poem, however, this archaism is dispensed with in favour of a notion of the “poet” as a socially responsive and responsible contemporary.

Gray's noble “incense” returns when the skinhead is simply “incensed”. Family names and metaphors of flowers (“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”) play an important part in both poems. Gray's “one longing lingering look behind” forms Harrison's final gesture. The former's “homely joys” constitute the latter's remaining concrete utopia. Faced with traditional symbols of vanitas mundi (“blazoning my name”), Harrison's agnostic speaker takes Gray at his word: “On some fond breast the parting soul relies.” Parted soul, as we would say today. “Even from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, / Even in our ashes live their wonted fires.” These two lines from Gray's elegy find their literal realization in Harrison's calm nonchalance:

Further underneath's that cavernous hollow
that makes the gravestones lean towards the town.
A matter of mere time and it will swallow
this place of rest and all the resters down.
I tell myself I've got, say, 30 years.
At 75 this place will suit me fine.
I've never feared the grave but what I fear's
that great worked-out black hollow under mine.

(ll. 301-308)

Here the concrete meaning, that is the coal pit with its “300 million-year-old plant debris” (l. 312) which is to escape “insubstantial up the flue”, and references to “higher things” (eternity or nothing) are held in the balance. “Though I don't believe in afterlife at all / and know it's cheating”, the protagonist announces with aplomb (ll. 125-26). Wholeheartedly he turns towards the immanent human potential and problems of social life. The “lonely contemplation” of Gray's melancholy sentimentalist recedes in favour of dialogue, partnership, and an effort to cope with concrete political conditions.

There have been literary critics championing a native English tradition characterized by its realism of lived experience, its common speech and technical conservatism, and its appeal to the ordinary reading public. This “English line” mainly coming from Wordsworth and exemplified by Hardy, Betjeman and Larkin, has been termed a poetry of “Englishness”, of “sanity”, or of “equipoise”, as outlined by Geoffrey Harvey who discovered in these poets

a profoundly sensitive and complex response to the muddle and the drama of ordinary, everyday human life—a deliberately chosen poetic stance which focuses tenaciously on the mundane, the intransigent and sometimes frightening features of daily existence, and yet testifies with equal fidelity to those moments of transcending freedom which give life meaning—a response which includes both an affirmation of life's worthwhileness and a stubborn refusal to be deceived.25

Undoubtedly, this position has tended to neglect the importance of history, politics and international literature. Much has been said about the Movement poetics tending towards complacent Little-Englandism and narrow-minded anti-Modernism. It is a matter of common observation that British poetry has been greatly invigorated by writers from the provinces and regions, be it from Liverpool, the North-East,26 Ulster or the Celtic Fringe. In spite of his nostalgia for a profitable past, homogeneous communities and well-kept churchyards, Harrison succeeds in using his sense of locality as a source of authenticity and strength without sounding parochial. His poignant poem convinces its readers by its conflicting verbal registers, by yoking together disreputable vernacular, strident working-class voices, and respectable, crafty metrical formality, tradition and topicality, public address and private remorse. Indeed his moral aesthetic meets “the necessity of a clear, unambiguous and trustworthy relation between the poet, his audience and reality”.27 In spite of some mawkish, over-insistent and long-drawn-out passages V. is a truly challenging public poem, a grave emotional narrative with a biting political edge, accessibly recording both individual biography and the state of the nation. This eloquent yet disciplined poet responds to social concerns as if the ambivalent tube announcements and the resonant words of the homeless and dispossessed keep reverberating in his ears: “Mind the gap!”—“Some change, please?”


  1. “On Not Being Milton”, in Tony Harrison, Selected Poems, Penguin, 2nd edn 1987, 112.

  2. The title draws on the name for the inhabitants of Leeds, on lions, loin, loners, and loneliness.

  3. His intriguing play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (based on a Sophoclean fragment), which he directed himself, opened at the National Theatre in March 1990.

  4. In 1984 Harrison wrote a children's Christmas play for the BBC, The Big H, published in his Theatre Works 1973-1985, Penguin, 1985; in 1987 he wrote and narrated Loving Memory, a BBC series on death and burial customs in which he repeatedly quoted Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. It is difficult exactly to describe Harrison's role in the performance of the unique works that he has created for television (for further titles, see n.6), in which he is presenter, narrator and actor. If the term were not too whimsical, he should be considered the first television laureate or bard.

  5. For a year Tony Harrison was co-editor of Jon Silkin's very important literary magazine Stand. After his time as a lecturer at the University of Prague, he produced a Czechoslovakian issue of Stand (X/2). His powerful poem The Nuptial Torches, a monologue by Queen Isabella on the Inquisition, was chosen by Jon Silkin for his anthology Poetry of the Committed Individual, London, 1973.

  6. In his controversial BBC broadcast The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989), Harrison gathers such absent friends as Voltaire, Byron and Omar Khayyam to ruminate on the Rushdie affair, religion and art. The text was published in a resourceful collection of reviews and critical essays on his works: Neil Astley, ed., Tony Harrison, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1991, 395-406. Harrison has produced two further “verse-documentaries” for BBC TV: The Gaze of the Gorgon (“a verse commentary on the unspeakable horrors of the 20th century”) and Black Daisies for the Bride (“a tribute to sufferers of Alzheimer's disease”)—the descriptions of the programmes are quoted from The Radio Times for the day of the transmissions, respectively 3 October 1992 and 30 June 1993.

  7. See, for instance, his sequence of Meredithian 16-line-sonnets, The School of Eloquence, particularly poems such as “Background Material“, “Lines to my Grandfather”, “Bringing Up“, “Book Ends”. In his poem “Self Justification” he talks about his family, especially his uncle with a stammer, and his “lads”: “Their aggro towards me, my need of them's / what keeps my would-be mobile tongue still tied—” (Selected Poems, 172).

  8. Tony Harrison in an interview with John Haffenden (1983): see Astley, 246.

  9. All quotations in this essay are taken from Tony Harrison, v., Newcastle upon Tyne, 1989. This is Bloodaxe's second edition including photographs by Graham Sykes, and valuable press articles, letters, reviews. The poem first appeared in the London Review of Books; and was reprinted by The Independent. The film version won the Royal Television Society's Best Original Programme Award. All in all, the poem has reached several million “common readers”.

  10. Nonetheless the fundamental distinction between the writer of a literary work and the fictional figure within the text has to be maintained. The lyrical “I” is always a mediated construct functioning on the page. Therefore the expressions “speaker” and “protagonist” are used although the writer of the text may be clearly visible.

  11. Gray's poem, first published in 1751, had been anticipated by Young's Night Thoughts (1742-1746), Blair's The Grave (1743) and James Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs (1746), although there always has been much dispute about its date of composition: see The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale, London, 1969, 103-109.

  12. The classic elegiac metre and rhyme scheme can be traced back to Dryden's urban long poem Annus Mirabilis (1667). Its “heroic stanza” has a “fine laconic gravity”, a “leisurely authority” which its noble “cumulative” pentameter supports: see Hugh Kenner, A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers, New York, 1988, 187.

  13. Additionally, Bloodaxe's second edition has five stanzas printed on each page.

  14. John Kerrigan, “Knowing the Dead …”, Essays in Criticism, XXXVII/1 (January 1987), 11.

  15. Italics are used by Harrison for the skinhead's dialogue.

  16. John Kerrigan even interprets “the spectral skinhead” as a death figure: “At first a villainous interlocutor, familiar from Graveyard Poems like Young's Night Thoughts, this yob becomes the poet's alter ego.” After the speaker recognized his name written on the parental tombstone “the ghostly vandal, his hair cropped back to the lines of a skull, begins to recall that grinning figure with scythe and spraycan encountered in churchyard ballads” (Kerrigan, 12 ff.).

  17. Kerrigan, 13.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Harrison previously used this locution (“dead daffodils”) in his elegy, “Loving Memory” (Selected Poems, 185).

  20. Cf., for instance, Philip Larkin's poems “Sunny Prestatyn“, “High Windows”, “Vers de Société” with their poignant explicitness, and their lack of political force.

  21. Cf. for example ll. 173 ff., ll. 297 ff., ll. 433 ff. with Wordsworth's “diurnal courses”.

  22. Astley, 349.

  23. As the film version shows, the poem's rhythmical and linguistic potential becomes more apparent in performance. Reading it aloud to a pub audience Harrison succeeds in making its traditional metre and rhymes surprisingly flexible.

  24. This can be seen as an obvious allusion to Wagner's Lohengrin, III, i, set in the bridal chamber, where the bridal procession and chorus sing “Treulich geführt, ziehet dahin …”, and “Faithfully guided”, Elsa and Lohengrin, escorted by the King, “draw near” to experience “Love's blessing” and “highest bliss”.

  25. Geoffrey Harvey, The Romantic Tradition in Modern English Poetry, London, 1986, 5.

  26. For example, Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, Basil Bunting's Briggflatts, and Jon Silkin's American Cemetery Poems, all of which can be considered to be elegiac, basically autobiographical long poems which rely on a common native past revisited, modernist achievements and international influences.

  27. Harvey, 7.

Mick Imlah (review date 11 August 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

SOURCE: “Dead Men's Mouths,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4819, August 11, 1995, p. 18.

[In the following review, Imlah posits that Harrison's take on the horror of Hiroshima is somewhat strained, yet still “casts its dark imprint firmly on the mind.”]

From the vandalized gravestones in Leeds of V. (1986, through the many cemeteries visited in the four-part Loving Memory (1987), with its quatrains modelled on Gray's “Elegy”, to the “Bradford Tomb” in The Blasphemer's Banquet (1989), places of burial and markers of the dead have been at the centre of Tony Harrison's “film/poems” for television. Now Hiroshima offers him its awful variant (and a relative for the charred, upright corpse in his Gulf War poem, A Cold Coming): the “shadow” of a man, printed on the stone steps of a bank by the blast that vaporized him, and now cased in the Peace Memorial Museum. It is this unidentifiable “Shadow San”, released by the poet for “a day's parole”, who acts as his guide to the city as it prepares to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its destruction—though Harrison, who for the first time has directed a film as well a providing the commentary, uses footage shot on the forty-ninth.

As you would expect from Harrison, the dead condition of Shadow San is sharply conceived: he is speaking out now because, literally and ironically fading away from the stone, he might not “make” the full centenary; when the poet's shadow lengthens in the late afternoon, his own stays “just the same” until it retires, as darkness falls, on the eve of the anniversary, “to face once more the flash and fire”. The film's other chief symbols, the Dome and the doves, are more ambiguous, partaking of the contradiction between the ubiquitously proclaimed “Peace” and terrible memory. Writing in last week's New Yorker, Murray Sayle wonders whether any significant message is given out by the A-Bomb Dome, the one carefully preserved skeletal survival of the old city centre. Here it apears from dozens of different viewpoints, and as the obsessive subject of a local artist, as if it were a hellish mutation of Hokusai's Mount Fuji. The main business of the film, though, is the preparation by pigeon-fanciers of their birds—the so-called “Peace Doves”—for release in the Peace Memorial Park, a ceremony repeated each year at 8.23 on the morning of August 6. Harrison makes them harbingers of peril: they panic throughout, and, after their release, get lost or caught by hawks, fight amongst themselves, or (in one crisp detail) burn, claws up.

The metres of Harrison's commentaries are always taken from a telling model; in this, the grimly spoken tetrameter couplets are revealed halfway through to have their source in a Japanese version of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”, sung by the pretty successors of perished school-children. Harrison has approved the publication of his film/poems in an edition introduced by his long-time collaborator, Peter Symes of the BBC; but the commentary on The Shadow of Hiroshima is not calculated—as, say, that of V. was—to work independently on the page. A passage like “Dead men's mouths make only M, / the M in Dome, the M in Bomb, / tuned to the hum that's coming from / the A-Bomb Dome that I hear hum / all round this baseball stadium” may not seem much in the reading, but Richard Blackford's musical effects, Harrison's grinding delivery, and shots of a ringing bowl of empty seats give it an electric force.

Indeed, Harrison takes as many pains with his visual materials as he does with the writing, and verse and image are inventively contrasted, taking turns to apply the greater pressure. When the verbal pictures hot up (of “those / whose skin slid off their flesh like clothes. / Like clothes, three sizes oversize / their flayed skin loosens from their thighs. / Burns and blisters, bloated blebs”), the camera dwells reflectively on the surface of the river Motoyasu; later, these lines are echoed visually—two lovers slipping off their dressing-gowns—without remark from the narrative.

The aim of Harrison's toils for television, as declared on the back of the Faber volume, is no less than “to confront the major horrors of the twentieth century”. Hiroshima is one of the most complex of these, as the city's own confusion testifies—whether in the evasive inscription on the cenotaph (“Rest in peace, for the error will not be repeated”), or in the presence there of a pinball arcade called Parlor Atom. Harrison's effort is not without its moments of strain—a late flash of context, of “Japan in her aggressive guise / taking Pearl Harbor by surprise” seems either unnecessary or inadequate—but the whole casts its dark imprint firmly on the mind.

David E. Latané Jr. (review date June-July 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1894

SOURCE: “Permanently Barred,” in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 5, June-July, 1996, p. 23.

[In the following review, Latanté complains that Harrison's work is not easily found in American bookstores, but that his collections Permanently Bard and The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems “are worth seeking out.”]

Imagine for a moment a country in which a learned poet—past president of the Classics guild, no less—commands an audience for serious verse not only in the print media, in which a vigorously oppositional long poem appears in a major daily during a popular war, but also on TV, where a series of innovative hybrids pioneer a new genre, stir controversy, and provoke debate. This country, however, is not America, though we do talk a good game of poetry renaissance: “From cyber-savvy Californians to the word-slamming iconoclasts of New York's Nuyorican Poets cafe, from rappers and rockers to college professors, cowboys and school children, an eclectic new breed of poet is loose in the land” (press release for the PBS series “The United States of Poetry”). But the fact is that none of PBS's sideshow bards (not even Jimmy Carter) will have a public impact through the medium of verse. My imaginary land in comparison sounds like a poetic paradise. But it's not; it's in England, now.

While there are, as far as I can tell from haunting the poetry shelves of East Coast bookstores, a half a passel of Irish poets readily available, there appear to be only three living English poets at all widely distributed in America: the forty-year-resident of California, Thom Gunn; Mr. Sylvia Plath (Ted Hughes); and—oddly enough—Geoffrey Hill. While Tony Harrison has been Nortonized in the USA, this doesn't mean that his poetry is easily available. The Penguin Selected didn't last long on the shelves, and Farrar's ‘V’ and other poems hit the $1 remainder rack with alacrity. Faber and Bloodaxe are not well distributed here, but Harrison's two new books are worth seeking out. Certainly anyone interested in the revival of formalist verse or in the possibilities of a “post-modern” use of meter and rhyme should own all the Tony Harrison available: his achievements over the past thirty years top what the polemics of others only project.

In Carol Rutter's Permanently Bard, Tony Harrison has been made “suitable for ‘A’ Level, college and university courses” in the United Kingdom. But does suitable mean safe? Harrison's work has a dangerous edge, and while the generously selected autobiographical “Sonnets from the School of Eloquence” frankly treat many matters of adolescent consequence relating to class, growing up, snobbery, estrangement from family, sex, etc., many of the other, longer, more specifically public works could (and have) created different problems. “A Cold Coming,” for instance, which takes its title and epigraph from T. S. Eliot's “Journey of the Magi” but represents the monologue of a “charred Iraqi” corpse on the highway of death reflecting on a news story about U.S. Marines:

I read the news of three wise men
who left their sperm in nitrogen,
three foes of ours, three wise Marines
with sample flasks and magazines,
three wise soldiers from Seattle
who banked their sperm before the battle.

Harrison's ninety-two couplets on the “cold spunk meticulously jarred” appeared in The Guardian in March of 1991, but still haven't been published in the USA, and are not included in this new selection. Few US protest poems keep quite so determinedly on the point, which is sharpened by the strop of the couplet. One thinks of Bly's “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” which within one page reaches the pomposity of “This is Hamilton's triumph / This is the advantage of a centralized bank.”

The poems in Permanently Bard (sandwiched between an exhortative introduction and fifty pages of useful, though occasionally overly periphrastic, notes) are divided into five sections, more or less thematically, with the initial section opening with “Them & \uz],” Harrison's declaration of war on received pronunciation: “All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see / 's been dubbed by \Λs] into RP.” This poem makes infamous the snobbery of the initial English teacher against whom Harrison has claimed his poetry is slow revenge, and it is this plot that Rutter wishes to sell to the Sixth Formers and their teachers as the key to Harrison's work. But “The English Professor as Turkey” is a minor key after all, though one that will appeal to rebellious lads and lasses, as well as teachers who fear stuffiness over idiocy. For readers who have followed Harrison out of the anthology pieces (“Book Ends” seems to be the favorite) and into the complete “Sonnets” and other poems, Rutter's selection will be valuable chiefly for the rich setting of these poems in the specific biographical and cultural context. The book also provides some samples of Harrison's translations and poetic drama, such as the Agamemnon,Medea: a Sex-War Opera, and the satyr play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. The final section is dominated by the best of all the legions of contemporary poems that have made the reputation of Keats odoriferous. It's called “A Kumquat for John Keats”:

Today I found the right fruit for my prime, 
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like globes of grapefruit that now hang
outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon's tang

—and so on for dozens of delicious and deferential couplets.

The Shadow of Hiroshima and other Film/Poems is the partial representation of a composite and collaborative art. Stripped of its film, the remaining portion lacks the density of the pure verbal icon; the images and sounds must be notated via a marginal gloss, making the film/poems look on the page a bit like the “Ancient Mariner.” Harrison was approached by Peter Symes of the BBC in 1986, at about the time that he was recording the controversial poem “V” for television (“FOUR-LETTER TV POEM FURY” read the Daily Mail headline). Symes wanted him to work on a series about cemeteries called “Loving Memory.” By 1995, when “The Shadow of Hiroshima” was broadcast (and published in The Guardian), Harrison had assumed full command of the medium, shifting from author to auteur who writes and directs. Symes in his introduction places Harrison in the context of poetic/filmic work going back to Auden's Night Mail collaboration with John Grierson in 1935-36, and continuing through the more effervescent activities of Betjamin as Laureate in the 1960s and 70s. He concludes that “it is no longer possible to say that poets cannot or should not work on film. Harrison's work has confounded that argument.”

That is, of course, if one supposes that the discussion has even occurred. How does one approach the union of poem and film? Harrison's opening is perhaps the Horation notion that a poem is a speaking picture. A number of his works go beyond the ekphrastic tradition (poets describing works of art, whether imaginary as in Achilles’ shield, or as real as a picture by Brueghel) and allow the image literally to speak, to articulate its desire. We are perhaps now just beginning to ask, “What do pictures want?” and Harrison is one of the best essayers of this question.

In The Shadow of Hiroshima the most uncanny of portraits speaks: “‘This voice comes from the shadow cast / by Hiroshima's A-bomb blast.’” Shadow San's monologue is accompanied by historic film clips and repeated views of the A-Bomb Dome that marks ground zero. “Shadow San” is a speaking image that is also the sole trace of the first man returned not to earth but to subatomic particles; it is a fading image that is perhaps coterminous with the post-atomic epoch.

A film/poem that is more successful on the page is “The Gaze of the Gorgon.” The statue of Heinrich Heine interrogates our century as it recounts its journeys from the Empress Elizabeth of Austria's villa on Corfu (1892) to its current resting place in a drug-plagued section of Frankfurt in the era that supposedly marked the “end of history”:

Your average Frankfurt-am-Mainer
doesn't give a shit for Heine
(nor, come to that, the young mainliner!).
So elbowed to one side back here, surrounded by junked junkies gear,
I, Heinrich Heine, have to gaze on junkies winding tourniquets
made from the belt out of their jeans,
some scarcely older than their teens.
The Gorgon has them closely scanned
these new lost souls of ECU-land.

ECU-land is the Europe that presumes it has escaped the gaze of the Gorgon, but hasn‘t. This film/poem proceeds to contrast the Heine statue with Götz's muscular marble “Triumphant Achilles,” an icon of pre-1914 militarism, and to overlay Harrison's irreverent couplets—“Great German soul, most famed Frankfurter / on his plinth, the poet Goethe”—with the haunting lied of Schumann, “Ach, meine Liebe selber. …

I mentioned earlier that Harrison's poetry has a dangerous edge, and I wasn't thinking of the usual metaphors—the poetic exploration of one's own psyche, for instance, as some extreme and perilous activity. Nor even of the notion that departing from a style or subject matter by which one has become known entails a risk (presumably of alienating the client and reducing either royalties or job prospects). I had in mind the more nervy “risk-taking” of The Blasphemers’ Banquet, broadcast on the BBC 31 July 1989. This work is Harrison's immediate response to the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie and the burning of his The Satanic Verses in Bradford, a heavily Muslim town in post-industrial Yorkshire. While some in the literary world mewled and pewled about cultural sensitivity, albeit protesting the notion that the politically incorrect should be put to death, Harrison toasted the righteously offensive quality of Rushdie's work that they tried to downplay:

Where you're in hiding, tuned to the BBC,
I hope you get some joy in watching me
raise my glass to The Satanic Verses,
to its brilliance and, yes, its blasphemy.
Its blasphemy enabled man
to break free from the Bible and Koran
with their life-denying fundamentalists
and hell-fire such fanatics love to fan.

Newspaper, television, and even theatrical success make Harrison, perhaps, a suspicious import—and like the Havana cigar, he's out to make a stink. While metrical verse is no longer immediately dismissed, Harrison's poetry seems to be suffering from a bit of an embargo. Harrison is, however, a poet. As Sidney defends him, the poet is maker and prophet, looking to “the divine consideration of what may and should be”; the film images, music and verse all combine to the making of the poem (“verse,” Sidney goes on, “being but an ornament and no cause to poetry”), and the poetry in Harrison's case aligns with his ability to find an audience, to wedge what he has to say—at least about what should not be—into the daily paper. When the headlines blacken the front with “Croats launch all-out war” (The Guardian International, 5 August 1996), the last section has Harrison's description of the anniversary ceremonies in Hiroshima:

The peace-doves have been freed but why
won't this last shaking straggler fly?
Perhaps he's seen what's in the sky.
Where peace-doves are the birds of prey
are never very far away.

The editorial writer might—let's hope did—say much the same thing, in much the same words. But even stripped out of the film/poem, The Shadow of Hiroshima proves that there is still a raw power in saying it in verse.

Martyn Crucefix (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Drunken Porter Does Poetry: Metre and Voice in the Poems of Tony Harrison,” in Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by Sandie Byrne, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 161-70.

[In the following essay, Crucefix discusses the importance of formal meter and speech to Harrison's poetry.]


Harrison's first full collection, entitled The Loiners after the inhabitants of his native Leeds, was published in 1970 and contained this limerick:

There was a young man of Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds.
A pure white rose grew out of his nose
And his arse was covered in weeds.(1)

Without losing sight of the essential comedy of this snatch, it can be seen as suggestive of aspects of Harrison's career. For example, the comic inappropriateness of the Leeds boy swallowing some seeds becomes the poet's own ironic image of his classical grammar school education. As a result of this, in a deliberately grotesque image, arose the growth of the white rose of poetry—from the boy's nose, of course, since Harrison in the same volume gave credence to the idea that the true poet is born without a mouth.2 The bizarrely contrasting weed-covered arse owes less to the intake of seeds (rose seeds wherever transplanted will never yield weeds) than to the harsh conditions Harrison premises in the Loiner's life, as indicated in an early introduction to his work, where he defines the term as referring to ‘citizens of Leeds, citizens who bear their loins through the terrors of life, “loners”’.3

Harrison's now legendary seed-master on the staff of Leeds Grammar School was the one who humiliated him for reciting Keats in a Yorkshire accent, who felt it more appropriate if the boy played the garrulous, drunken Porter in MacBeth.4 The truth is that the master's attitudes determined the kind of poetic rose that grew, in particular its technical facility, which Harrison worked at to show his ‘betters’ that Loiners could do as well as (better than?) they could. Yet this was no sterile technical exercise, and Harrison's success lies in the integrity with which he has remained true to those regions ‘covered with weeds’, and in the fact that his work has always struggled to find ways to unite the weed and the rose. Perhaps the most important of these, as the limerick's anatomical geography already predicted in 1970, is via the rhythms of his own body.

Harrison has declared his commitment to metrical verse because ‘it's associated with the heartbeat, with the sexual instinct, with all those physical rhythms which go on despite the moments when you feel suicidal’.5 In conversation with Richard Hoggart, he explains that without the rhythmical formality of poetry he would be less able to confront, without losing hope, the unweeded gardens of death, time, and social injustice which form his main concerns. ‘That rhythmical thing is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness \. …] I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side’.6 There are few of Harrison's poems that go closer to the fire than the second of his Gulf War poems, A Cold Coming. Its initial stimulus, reproduced on the cover of the Bloodaxe pamphlet, was a photograph by Kenneth Jarecke in the Observer. The picture graphically showed the charred head of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burned-out truck, which had been hit by Allied forces in the infamous ‘turkey-shoot’ as Saddam's forces retreated from Kuwait City. In the poem, Harrison makes the Iraqi himself speak both with a brutal self-recognition (‘a skull half roast, half bone’)7 and a scornful envy of three American soldiers who were reported to have banked their sperm for posterity before the war began (hence, with a scatological nod to Eliot, the title of the poem). There are undoubtedly echoes in the Iraqi's speech of the hooligan alter ego in V., yet Harrison worries little over any narrow authenticity of voice in this case, and he does triumphantly pull off the balancing act between the reader's emotional engagement with the fierce personal voice and a more universalizing portrayal of a victim of modern warfare. Furthermore, it is Harrison's establishment and then variation of the poem's metrical ‘life-support system’ that enables him to achieve this balance, to complete a poem which weighs in against Adorno's view that lyric poetry has become an impossibility in the shadow of this century's brutality.

The poem's form—rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets—seems in itself chosen with restraint in mind, as if the photographic evidence of the horror lying in front of him led Harrison to opt for a particularly firm rhythmical base ‘to carry \him] to the other side’. Indeed, the opening five stanzas are remarkable in their regularity with only a brief reversed foot in the fourth line foreshadowing the more erratic energies soon to be released by the Iraqi soldier's speech:

I saw the charred Iraqi lean
towards me from the bomb-blasted screen,
his windscreen wiper like a pen
ready to write down thoughts for men.(8)

The instant the Iraqi's voice breaks in, the metre is under threat. Each of his first four stanzas opens with trochaic imperatives or questions, and at one point he asks if the ‘gadget’ Harrison has (apparently a tape-recorder, but a transparent image of poetry itself) has the power to record ‘words from such scorched vocal chords’. Apart from the drumming of stresses in lines such as this, Harrison deploys sibilance, the alliteration of 'g's and 'd's followed by an horrific mumbling of 'm's to suggest the charred figure's effortful speech in the first moments of the encounter. Regularity is re-established the moment the tape-recorder's mike is held ‘closer to the crumbling bone’, and there is a strong sense of release from the dead man's initial aggressive buttonholing as his voice (and the verse) now speeds away:

‘I read the news of three wise men
who left their sperm in nitrogen,
three foes of ours, three wise Marines,
with sample flasks and magazines \. …]’

In the stanzas that follow, the dead man's angry, envious sarcasm is controlled within the bounds of the form, and it is rather Harrison's rhymes which provide much of the kick: God/wad, Kuwait/procreate, fate/ejaculate, high tech's/sex. It is only when the man demands that Harrison/the reader imagines him in a sexual embrace with his wife back home in Baghdad that the metrical propulsion again begins to fail. It is in moments such as this that the difficult emotional work in the poem is to be done. This is our identification with these ghastly remains, with the enemy, and it is as if the difficulty of it brings the verse juddering and gasping to an incomplete line with ‘the image of me beside my wife | closely clasped creating life …’9

The difficulty of this moment is further attested to by the way the whole poem turns its back upon it. Harrison inserts a parenthetical section, preoccupied not with the empathic effort the dead Iraqi has asked for, but with chilly, ironic deliberations on ‘the sperm in one ejaculation’. Yet all is not well, since this section stumbles and hesitates metrically as if Harrison himself (or rather the persona he has adopted in the poem) is half-conscious of retreating into safe, calculative, and ratiocinative processes. Eventually, a conclusion yields itself up, but it is once again the metrical change of gear into smooth regularity that suggests this is a false, defensive, even cynical avoidance of the difficult issues raised by the charred body in the photograph:

Whichever way Death seems outflanked
by one tube of cold bloblings banked.
Poor bloblings, maybe You've been blessed
with, of all fates possible, the best
according to Sophocles, i.e.
‘the best of all fates is not to be’
a philosophy that's maybe bleak
for any but an ancient Greek. (10)

That this is the way to read this passage is confirmed by the renewed aggression of the Iraqi soldier who hears these thoughts and stops the recorder with a thundering of alliterative stresses:

‘I never thought life futile, fool!
Though all Hell began to drop
I never wanted life to stop.’

What follows is the Iraqi soldier's longest and most impassioned speech, by turns a plea for attention and a sarcastic commentary on the collusion of the media, whose behaviour will not ‘help peace in future ages’.11 Particular mention is given to the ‘true to bold-type-setting SUN’12 and, as can be seen from such a phrase, Harrison once more allows particular moments of anger and high emotion to burst through the fluid metrical surfaces like jagged rocks. There is also a sudden increase in feminine line-endings in this section which serves to give a barely caged impression, as if the voice is trembling on the verge of bursting its metrical limits and racing across the page. The impression is further reinforced in the series of imperatives—again in the form of snapping trochees at the opening of several stanzas—that form the climax to this section of the poem:

Lie that you saw me and I smiled
to see the soldier hug his child.
Lie and pretend that I excuse
my bombing by B52s.(13)

The final ten stanzas culminate in a fine example of the way in which Harrison manipulates metrical form to good effect. In a kind of atheistic religious insight, the ‘cold spunk’ so carefully preserved becomes a promise, or perhaps an eternal teasing reminder, of the moment when ‘the World renounces War’.14 However, emphasis falls far more heavily on the seemingly insatiable hunger of the present for destruction because of the way Harrison rhythmically clogs the penultimate stanza, bringing it almost to a complete halt. The frozen semen is

a bottled Bethlehem of this come-
curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium.

Yet, as we have seen, Harrison understands the need to come through ‘to the other side’ of such horrors, and the final stanza does shakily re-establish the form (though the final line opens with two weak stresses and does not close). Any naive understanding of the poet's comments about coming through fire can, however, be firmly dismissed. This is not the place for any sentimental or rational synthetic solution. Simply, we are returned to the charred face whose painful, personal testament this poem has managed to encompass and movingly dramatize without losing its form, thus ensuring a simultaneous sense of the universality of its art and its message.

I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY
and I heard the charred man say:


It was Wordsworth whose sense of physical rhythm in his verse was so powerful that he is reported to have often composed at a walk. It should come as no surprise that Harrison has been known to do the same. Though it was Keats's ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ which Harrison ‘mispronounced’ at school, Wordsworth is in some ways more important to him, because they both share a belief in poetry as the voice of men speaking to men.15 This conception of poetry as speech is a powerful constituent in Harrison's work, and perhaps one not clearly understood. John Lucas finds some lapses in Harrison's customary metrical exactness in V.16 But, to reverse Harrison's comment that all his writing (theatrical or otherwise) is poetry, all his poetry needs to be read as essentially dramatic, and deserves to be tested in the spoken voice as much as in the study. On occasions, Harrison, only half-humorously, draws attention to the fact that two uncles—one a stammerer, the other dumb—had considerable influence on his becoming a poet, and it is the struggling into and with voice that such a claim highlights.17 I have already mentioned Harrison's interest in the curious idea that the true poet is born without a mouth. This, too, implies the difficult battle for a voice or voices which can be found everywhere in his work, and it is in this clamour that I find its dramatic quality. In a public poem like ‘A Cold Coming’, Harrison makes use of the contrasting and conflicting voices by playing them off against a regular form. This is almost always the case, but in what follows I prefer to concentrate less on metrical effects than on the way voices interweave, in this case in more personal work from the ‘School of Eloquence’ sequence.

The very title of the pair of sonnets ‘Them & \uz]’ seems to promise conflict, at best dialogue, and it opens with what could be taken as the howl of inarticulacy. Each pair of these opening syllables gestures towards crucial worlds in Harrison's universe. The aι aι of classical dramatic lament is echoed by the ‘ay, ay!’ of the music-hall comedian cheekily working up an audience. Immediately, the reader is plunged into the unresolved drama of two differing voices, instantly implying the two cultures of the sonnets’ title. The line and a half which follows, sketching Demosthenes practising eloquence on the beach, is intriguing in that its locus as speech is hard to pin down. It is perhaps intended at this stage (apart from introducing the poems’ central issue) to hover in an Olympian fashion above the ruck of dialogue that follows, implying the heroic stance which will be taken up in the second sonnet.

Line 3 opens again into a dramatic situation with the voice of the narrator (the adult Harrison) repeating his own interrupted recital of Keats in the classroom, while the master's scornful comments appear fresh, unreported, as if still raw and present, in speech marks. The narratorial comment on this—‘He was nicely spoken’—confirms the poem's tendency to switch voices for its effects, this time its brief sarcasm barely obscuring the unironic comment likely to be made by an aspiring Loiner, or by an ambitious parent. The example of nice speaking (again in direct quotes) in the following line is the master's claim to possession, to authority in matters of language and culture, and the separated-off reply of the narrator—‘I played the Drunken Porter in MacBeth’—with its full rhyme and sudden regular iambic pentameter, implies a causal link between the two lines, painting Harrison as dispossessed specifically by the master's attitudes, as well as conveying the tone of resignation in the young schoolboy.

It will be clear that much of the tension and success of the poem has already risen from the dramatic interchange of voices, and the master's voice asserts itself again in line 7, ironically claiming a kind of monolithic, aristocratic purity for poetry which this poem has already attempted to subvert:

‘Poetry's the speech of kings. you're one of
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’(18)

The following lines contain a curious wavering in the clear interplay of dramatic voices, only part of which is resolved as the poem proceeds. Evidently, the intrusive, even hectoring, parenthesis (at line 9) is the narrator's questioning of what appears to be the master's voice's continuing argument that ‘All poetry’ belongs to Received Pronunciation. Yet the aggression of this attack, with its harsh alliteration and sarcastic question mark, is out of key with other narratorial comments in part I, though the tone is re-established in part II. In addition, I have some difficulty in accepting the master's words as appropriate to the situation which—with no break—continues the speech made to the young Harrison. For example, the word ‘dubbed’, with its implication of the deliberate laying of a second voice over an ‘original’, already hands victory to Harrison's claim for the authenticity of dialect, and as such would not be used by the believer in ‘the speech of kings’. Equally, the apparent plea, ‘please believe \Λs] | your speech is in the hands of the Receivers’, does not accord with the voice that summarily dismissed the pupil as a ‘barbarian’ seven lines earlier. In this case, Harrison's desire for the dramatic has foundered momentarily on that old dramatist's rock, the necessity for exposition which compromises the integrity of the speaking voice.

The true note of the master returns—interestingly, following one of Harrison's movable stanza breaks, as if confirming a shift in voice though the speech actually continues across the break—with ’ “We say \Λs] not \uz], T. W.!”’ The tone of the responding voice, after the suggestion of a more spirited response in the Keats comment, has returned to the resignation of the browbeaten pupil. This is reinforced by the more distant comparison of the boy to the ancient Greek of the opening lines, heroically ‘outshouting seas’, while the young Harrison's mouth is ‘all stuffed with glottals, great | lumps to hawk up and spit out’. The first sonnet draws to a close with this tone of frustrated defeat for the boy, yet the drama has one final twist, as the voice of the master, sneering, precise, and italicized, has the last word: ‘E-nun-ci-ate!’ There can be little doubt that the boy must have felt as his father is reported to have done in another sonnet from the ‘School of Eloquence’, ‘like some dull oaf’.19

The second part of ‘Them & \uz]’ contrasts dramatically with the first, though the seeds of it lie in the image of heroic Demosthenes and the accusatory tone of the reference to Keats which seemed a little out of place in part I. This second sonnet's opening expletive aggression strikes a new tone of voice altogether.

So right, yer buggers, then! We'll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry.(20)

The poem's premise is that it will redress the defeat suffered in part I in an assertive, unopposed manner. Neither the master, nor any other spokesman for RP is allowed a direct voice, yet the interchange of speech and implied situation can still be found to ensure a dramatic quality to the verse.

The passionate and confrontational situation of the opening challenge is clear enough, yet it's striking how it has taken the autobiographical incident in part I and multiplied it (‘yer buggers \…] We'll occupy’ ) to present the wider political and cultural context as a future battlefield. Even so, there is no let-up in the clamour of voices raised in the poem. Immediately, the narratorial voice shifts to a more reflective past tense (at line 3), as the rebel reports action already taken—and with some success, judging from the tone of pride and defiance: ’ \I] used my name and own voice: \uz]\uz]\uz]’. Even within this one line, the final three syllables are spat out in a vivid re-enactment of Harrison's defiantly spoken self-assertion. It is this slippery elision of voice and situation which creates the excitement of these and many of Harrison's poems as they try to draw the rapidity and shorthand nature of real speech, its miniature dramas and dramatizations, into lyric poetry. A further shift can be found in lines 9 and 10, in that the voice now turns to address a different subject. The addressee is not immediately obvious as the staccato initials in the line are blurted out in what looks like a return to the situation and voice with which this sonnet opened. Only at the end of line 10 does it become clear that the addressee is the poet's younger self, or the self created as the ‘dull oaf’ by the kind of cultural repression practiced by the schoolmaster. The reader is further drawn into the drama of the situation by this momentary uncertainty:

I'm Tony Harrison no longer

The remaining six lines are, as a speech act, more difficult to locate. There is an initial ambiguity in that they may continue to address ‘T. W.’, though the stanza break suggests a change and, anyway, this makes little sense, as T. W. is now ‘dead’. These lines use the second person pronoun in the impersonal sense of ‘one’, addressing non-RP speakers in general, and it is the generalized nature of these lines which disarms the effectiveness of the passage. This is particularly important in line 14, ’\uz] can be loving as well as funny’, the tone of which commentators such as Haffenden have questioned.21 The difficulty here is that if Harrison is addressing those who might use \uz] anyway, though there may be many amongst them for whom the fact that ‘Wordsworth's matter/water are full rhymes’ is useful ammunition and reassurance, the same cannot be said of the ‘loving as well as funny’ line, which might be variously construed as patronizing, sentimental, or just plain unnecessary. Nevertheless, the poem regains a surer touch in the final lines in its use of the reported ‘voice’ of The Times in renaming the poet ‘Anthony’. The effect here is both humorous (this, after all the poet's passionate efforts!) and yet ominous in that the bastions of cultural and linguistic power are recognized as stubborn, conservative forces, still intent on redefining the poet according to their own agenda, imposing their own voice where there are many.

Harrison's use of both metre and voice reflect the struggle in much of his work between the passion for articulation, especially of experiences capable of overwhelming verse of less conviction, and the demands of control which preserve the poet's utterance as art. Harrison's more recent work—especially that written in America—is more relaxed, meditative, less inhabited by differing and different voices, more easily contained in its forms. There are undoubtedly great successes amongst these (Kumquat, ‘The Mother of the Muses’, part III of ‘Following Pine’), but it is likely that Harrison's legacy will eventually be seen as a reassessment of the uses of formal verse and an exploration of the dramatic potential of lyric verse. These elements are rooted ultimately in his attempts to unite the rose of poetry with the weeds of truth and (often painful) experience, by trusting to the measures of his own body, and to a language he returns to the mouth.


  1. Loiners, 7.

  2. In a note to ‘The White Queen’, Harrison records that ‘Hieronymus Fracastorius (1483-1553), the author of Syphilis, was born, as perhaps befits a true poet, without a mouth’ (SP, 30).

  3. ‘Agrippa’, Bloodaxe 1, 34.

  4. See ‘Conversation’, Bloodaxe 1, 40.

  5. ‘Interview’, Bloodaxe 1, 236.

  6. ‘Conversation’, Bloodaxe 1, 43.

  7. Coming, 10.

  8. Ibid. 9.

  9. Ibid. 11.

  10. Ibid. 11-12. My italics.

  11. Ibid. 14.

  12. Ibid. 13.

  13. Ibid. 14.

  14. Ibid. 16.

  15. See ‘Them & \uz] I and II’, SP, 122-3.

  16. John Lucas, ‘Speaking for England?’, Bloodaxe 1, 359-60.

  17. See ‘Heredity’, SP, 111.

  18. ‘Them & \uz] I’, SP, 122.

  19. ‘Marked with D’, SP, 155.

  20. ‘Them & \uz] II’, SP, 123.

  21. ‘Interview’, Bloodaxe 1, 233.

Peter Forbes (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “In the Canon's Mouth: Tony Harrison and Twentieth-Century Poetry,” in Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by Sandie Byrne, Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 189-99.

[In the following essay, Forbes argues that Harrison has more in common with eighteenth-century poetic models than his twentieth-century contemporaries.]

There has been surprisingly little discussion of Tony Harrison's poetics, as opposed to his subject-matter. The crossing of his classical education with his background has mesmerized many into thinking that's all there is to it. Douglas Dunn, a poet with whom Harrison has occasionally been linked to form a notional school (tagged ‘Barbarians’ after Dunn's book of the name, or ‘Rhubarbarians’, after Harrison's poem), has briefly considered Harrison's poetry on several occasions.

\H]is style is reminiscent of the sub-classical manner of Thomas Gray. Historically alert readers might also sense the pre-Augustan clarity of Dryden, or the varied urbanities of Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Ovid and Martial.1

The pedal he presses consistently results in verse that could be called sub-classical, encrusted with Northern vernacular, sometimes demotic, but never populist \…]2

It is significant, and I believe correct, that Dunn doesn't seek to place Harrison within a twentieth-century tradition. For Harrison is curiously at odds with his contemporaries. He rejects the burnished sonorities of Heaney, the eye-cramming images of Raine, the trickeries of Muldoon. For all their differences, most of his coevals partake of the contemporary Zeitgeist, enshrined in the Poetry Workshop nostrums: ‘Show, don't tell’; ‘Particular, not general’. These ‘rules’ derive from Pound's precepts and represent his lasting influence. Although Harrison wrote a poem (‘Summoned by Bells’)3 to mark Pound's anniversary, and used Eliot's ‘Journey of the Magi’ to supply both epigraph and title for one of his Gulf War poems,4 there's no evidence in his work for even the minimal Poundian influence that most contemporary poems display. (‘Summoned by Bells’ suggests that Pound ‘helped to re-botch’ the civilization he described in ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ as ‘botched’.5

Not only is it difficult to place Harrison among his contemporaries, he doesn't often discuss them. He has expressed an impatience with what he sees as poetry's reduced horizons:

Poetry used to inhabit all the important arenas, the theatre, politics, that was where poetry operated. Then it retreated and shut itself away in the poetry magazines. What defeatism! What a pathetic decline!6

The poetry chose its little-magazine parish rather than the wider arena is questionable, but the inverse correlation between public verse / clarity and coterie poetry / difficulty is well established. Because small groups can communicate successfully in codes that would be meaningless to a wider audience, increasingly esoteric poetry actually becomes favourably selected in such groups, thus diminishing the audience even further.

But when Harrison began writing he did not seem such a singular figure. At the end of the sixties a new generation of formal poets emerged—Douglas Dunn, Derek Mahon, John Fuller, Fleur Adcock, Kit Wright. These poets were more adventurous than the Movement generation, and Harrison seemed to belong among them. They shared a new brio, frankness in sex, regionalism—for all their different personalities, here might have been a new movement with Harrison one of its prime exponents. But the others sit quite happily in the twentieth-century canon—Auden is the figure behind them, in varying degrees certainly, but if any of them wrote a sonnet, it would be in awareness of ‘Who's Who’ (‘A shilling life will give you all the facts’.)7 A Harrison sonnet will be Miltonic, Wordsworthian, or Meredithian.

Tony Harrison has always had friends and supporters among the poets: whilst a student at Leeds he met Geoffrey Hill, Wole Soyinka, James Simmons, and Jon Silkin, who published his early work in Stand. Alan Ross published his first book-length collection Loiners at London Magazine Editions. His fellow Yorkshireman Blake Morrison has been a staunch supporter. But the terms on which Harrison works—everything bar a few brief introductory essays in verse, no reviewing8—and his negative feelings about the poetry scene have inevitably led to a distancing.

The exception in terms of twentieth-century influence was the American poet Robert Lowell. The pungency of Lowell's early work provided an encouragement to Harrison. ‘The Nuptial Torches’ is the best example: a literary poem, unrelated to Harrison's experience, which imaginatively animates its epigraph: ‘“These human victims, chained and burning at the stake, were the blazing torches which lighted the monarch to his nuptial couch.” (J. L. Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic)’.9 One could compare this with Lowell's ‘A Quaker Graveyard off Nantucket’, which doesn't have an epigraph but recreates the death of the sailors (in a sense the gravestone is the epigraph). Compare these lines from Lowell and Harrison:

Flashed from his matted head and marbled feet.
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs;(10)
Young Carlos de Sessa stripped was good
For a girl to look at and he spat like wood
Green from the orchard for the cooking pots.
Flames ravelled up his flesh into dry knots(11)

Lowell's Grand Guignol rhetoric is observable throughout Loiners, but it is absent from Harrison's mature style, the dynamics of which I shall develop later.

In his early years the poet Harrison was most often linked with was Douglas Dunn. Critics and readers seem to like pairing poets off: Heaney and Hughes, Sexton and Plath, Auden and MacNeice, Armitage and Maxwell. Resemblances in these cases are more likely to be superficial than profound. Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn share working-class backgrounds and an insistence on formal metrics, but I believe they are very different. Dunn is a social and civic poet who has adapted the inheritance of Auden and Larkin to his own ends. His Barbarians (1979) may well owe something to Harrison, but a poem like ‘The Student’ shows their essential difference.

Dunn's subject is an ‘unknown student’ figure from Renfrewshire in 1820:

For our mechanics’ Literary Club
I study Tacitus. It takes all night
At this rough country table which I scrub
Before I sit at it(12)

Harrison's student is himself, sitting at a foldaway card table: ‘Ah bloody can't ah've gorra Latin prose’.13

I should like to enquire more deeply into the ‘sub-classical manner of Thomas Gray’ identified by Dunn.14 I believe that Harrison's circumstances and aims made twentieth-century Modernism and its followers an unsuitable academy from which to learn, whereas a long-ignored eighteenth-century aesthetic suited him very well.

In 1985 Nicholas Bagnall wrote an innocuous sounding and little-noticed book under the misleading title A Defence of Clichés.15 Bagnall's purpose was to question the overriding twentieth-century aesthetic imperative: Pound's ‘Make it new’. Against this, Bagnall opposed the eighteenth-century notion that writing should be ‘what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed’,16 that writers should use phrases that the reader has met before, rather than slow them down by making them try to unpick wholly novel phrases and allusions. He emphasizes the universal pleasure people take in shared catchphrases and of course links the eighteenth-century practices to the enormous credibility the classics then had. To quote from the classics was a virtue in itself, so much so that the eighteenth-century goal could be said to be the exact opposite of the Poundian novelty principle: a well-used phrase was hallowed by such usage, not diminished by it.

The connection between all this and Tony Harrison is his classical education. I believe that Harrison has carried the traits of a classical education into his verse practice far more rigorously than other classically trained poets, Louis MacNeice, for example. MacNeice remained a practitioner of the classics, but, despite a few versions of Horace, his poetry is of the twentieth century, influenced by Auden, Eliot, and further back by Hopkins. Harrison's attitude to his masters is classical—he keeps them constantly in view. Milton and Wordsworth are classical touchstones for Harrison in a manner foreign to MacNeice. The names ‘Milton’ and ‘Wordsworth’ occur several times in Harrison's poetry, along with many others more incidental. You won't find the names of poets very often in MacNeice's poetry—Hopkins, a key influence, never appears at all.

If the names Milton and Wordsworth have an iconic force in Harrison's poetry unusual in the twentieth century so also do the words poetry and poet. Harrison reifies the concept of the poet to an unusual degree. For him it is the equivalent of the more solid and earthy trades he grew up among in Leeds. He is unlikely to share Miroslav Holub's view of the tenuous status of the poet (Yes, you wrote a poem once, but how do you know You'll ever write one again?). He has said: ‘I wanted to make poetry a real job, and that's a question of hazarding the whole of your life on what you do’.17

A classical training of course is also a training in eighteenth-century thought processes. The classics have not changed and the Englishing of them reflects the period when they really mattered to us. What Harrison uniquely did was to graft on to classical notions of verse discipline his own vision of poetry as the equal of an industrial trade. Poetry to Harrison had to be at least as well made, not as prose, but as a leak-free plumber's joint. The man who parsed the Latin hexameters mutated into ‘the man who came to read the metre’. Harrison has also sought to justify formal verse by pointing out that iambic pentameters occur regularly in ordinary speech—especially the speech of his parents: ‘If you weren't wi'me now ah'd nivver dare’.18

But your father was a simple working
they'll say, and didn't speak in those
full rhymes.
His words when they came would scarcely scan.
Mi dad's did scan, like yours do, many times!(19)

Some find the combination of a fierce working-class sensibility and classical learning in Harrison paradoxical, but in fact they reinforce each other perfectly. It is the upper middle classes who lost their faith in Latin tags and went whoring after novelty. Homeric epithet finds a ready echo in working-class life: Lofty-browed Homer becomes Dead-eye Dick.

The great Yorkshire fast bowler Freddie Trueman was once quoted by a journalist on the origins of his nickname. Trueman said that they called him ‘Fiery’ because ‘it rhymes with Fred’. He was demonstrating his naive enthusiasm for poetry, alliteration being an inherently demotic art even if the word itself is unknown to the less well-educated. Sportsmen and women are always ‘Gorgeous Gussie’, ‘Fiery Fred’, or ‘Typhoon Tyson’ because finding likenesses in which the sound matches the sense is as instinctive a human activity as breathing.

What's more, the kind of everyday glum, undeceived, put-you-in-your-place rhetoric of working-class life isn't a million miles from Gray's Augustan language (making the appropriate transpositions, e.g. ‘fly-blown dump’ for ‘ivy-mantled tow'r’20). A working-class neo-Augustanism seemed ready-made for Harrison, reinforced by both his background and his classical training. And in this language, the two poles which are consciously set apart in his poetry find a reconciliation. His insistence on his background and his classics dictated his verse style, and made him a neo-Augustan, perhaps without knowing it.

The theorist of the Augustan age was Edmund Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). The essence of Burke's ideas was that we all see and feel the same things, so that what the reader experiences in reading poetry is recognition: of the states and moods described, which are universal, and the language in which they are described, which is conventional but is learnt by every educated person. Romanticism destroyed this notion; it sought unprecedented states, absolute individuality. Nothing that has happened since compares with the force of this change, not even Modernism, which can be seen as an extension of Romanticism in its insistence on the unprecedented, the extreme, even if it contradicts its metaphysics.

On one level, the difference between eighteenth-century and Modernist poetry can be summed up as: eighteenth-century poetry intends to communicate by using the common stock of ideas and phrases and moulding them into something harmonious—new but not startlingly novel; Modernism began in a revolt against bourgeois common values and deliberately eschewed the common stock of received ideas and phrases. We have become so used to Modernism (at least in its diluted form as practised by most contemporary poets) and its influence that of all the centuries the eighteenth now seems the most remote. Poets from Chaucer to Donne, and from Wordsworth onwards, are still alive for us, are chosen for Poetry Please, and still influence to some extent poetry today. But the practice of a poet like Pope seems to differ in a fundamental way from much of what preceded and followed it.

But if the eighteenth century is so unpopular today, how is it that Tony Harrison has come to write some of the most widely read contemporary poetry using its techniques? This paradox is explained by Harrison's subject-matter and diction. The formal principles of eighteenth-century verse are aimed at relatively easy understanding and a wide readership. The problem is that the subject-matter and sentiments expressed today seem impossibly pallid and low-key. But Harrison's poetry is blazingly passionate and aggressively up to date in its diction.

The eighteenth-century aesthetic has been important to Tony Harrison because of his passionately expressed desire to communicate to the widest possible audience. The Modernist's badge of pride in his alienation from the common herd is not for him: too aware of the alienation caused by his education, he wants to bridge gaps not widen them. Harrison's belief that poetry should appear in newspapers, on stage, and wherever the culture is vibrant has inevitable stylistic consequences. Despite seventy-five years in which acclimatization could have taken place, the wider public, even, say, the serious novel-reading or theatre-going public, have never really accepted difficulty in poetry. To be difficult has been to guarantee a small audience. Tony Harrison's early poetry, although not Modernist in technique, was knotty with allusion, and the syntax was often contorted. There has been a progressive ironing out, and his recent work has been much plainer than the earlier. It is no accident that when V. was subjected to attack by philistines, moral guardians, and the tabloid press, figures from the general arts culture such as Bernard Levin and Joan Bakewell rushed to its defence. These were people who had not often spoken up for contemporary poetry before. What made the difference was that here was a cause célèbre—and it was a poem you could understand! Not since Betjeman had there been a poet who so clearly wrote to be read widely, and to be read aloud. Closer in spirit to Harrison of course (if opposed in politics) is Kipling, a public poet, a political poet, and one who wrote in strong, archaic rhythms. Above all, Kipling is the poet recently voted the most popular amongst a wide audience (BBC1 viewers). In many ways Tony Harrison is the Kipling de nos jours.21

Several strands can thus be identified in the forging of Harrison's style: his classical training, which fosters respect for quotation and pre-digested phrase or modulation therefrom; the need to find a voice acceptable to a wider public; the conception of verse writing as a trade like any other, with its hallowed rituals and stereotyped procedures; his work in the theatre, with its requirement for clarity and strong rhythms; his unwillingness to accept the compromises made by his poetic contemporaries—writing reviews, judging competitions, running workshops, which has cut him off from the contemporary poetic Zeitgeist. All of these factors work in the same direction. They reinforce the tendency towards a taut, rhythmic style in which the diction doesn't depart too far from common usage, and isn't afraid to use conventional emotional expressions which receive an echo, if not in every bosom, in readers of the Guardian at least.

I am aware that Tony Harrison might not recognize himself in this picture. He acknowledges a debt to the seventeenth century rather than the eighteenth—particularly Donne, Marvell, and Milton. But Harrison's sensibility is not really metaphysical. Even when he writes in Marvellian mode in Kumquat, he doesn't attempt a ‘green thought in a green shade’:22 his verse is closer to the flatter diction of Pope and Gray. It might not be too fanciful to trace a movement from seventeenth to eighteenth century in his verse, from the pungent and elliptical early poems—‘The White Queen’, Newcastle—to the more meditative and smoothly paced ‘Following Pine’, ‘Cypress & Cedar’, and, of course,V.

V. obviously suggests Gray's Elegy as a starting-point, and the parallels have been extensively discussed by Sandie Byrne.23 But there are very obvious stylistic disparities between the poems. Gray's Elegy is a compendium of received wisdom expressed in received phrases: ‘ivy-mantled tow'r’, ‘rugged elms’, ‘lowly bed’, ‘blazing hearth’, ‘yew-tree's shade’, ‘cool sequestered vale’, ‘purest ray serene’.24 The leisurely pace of the poem and its strict metrics no doubt encouraged these sonorous phrases. No wonder Dr Johnson found that it ‘abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’.25 To some extent the echo was built in. To be fair to the poem, some of it is far more original than this. Its quotable quotes: ‘Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife’, ‘Some mute inglorious Milton’,26 deserve their status. But in V., as in all of Harrison's poetry, there are hardly any epithets at all, let alone cosy ones. His poetry is relentlessly substantive. He famously said that what was between him and his father were ‘books, books, books’,27 and what his poetry is made of is ‘nouns, nouns, nouns’. The vice of weak poets, to be always searching for flowery adjectives in an attempt to make a description more precise, never occurs to him.

When Harrison does use compound epithets, they are, like Gray's, from the common stock—‘hard-earned treasures’,28 ‘tart lemon's tang’, ‘dew-cooled surfaces’,29 or simply physically descriptive—‘buried ashes’, ‘shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop’, ‘unclaimed stone’, ‘blunt four-letter curses’.30 Unlike Gray's, though, these epithets have no designs of ‘poetry’ on us; they are deflationary rather than uplifting. ‘Gilded prayer’31 is the only one remotely akin to Gray. They are the dystopian inverse of Gray's mildly rubefacient phrases.

Harrison's attitude to the canon of English poetry is enshrined in his verse. ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We'll occupy | your lousy leasehold Poetry’.32 Appropriation rather than homage: he takes just what he needs and no more. Metaphysical poetry provides him with ‘Newcastle is Peru’; Louis MacNeice's ‘The North begins inside’ furnishes a handy epigraph.33 Harrison needs the tradition because no poet can work without one, but he resents it because it is a canon written and selected largely by the southern upper middle class. The extent to which Harrison's poetics are indebted to eighteenth-century formal principles has been obscured by the ambivalence towards the traditional canon expressed in his work and by his aggressively contemporary diction. His classical interests are balanced by a knowledge of twentieth-century science and technology, particularly the technology of war. In his ‘American’ poems he comes over as a man at home in the modern world of materials. His knowledge of street idiom is also formidable. But the formal poetic use to which these materials are put would not have seemed eccentric to Gray (whereas some of the materials themselves certainly would).

If Harrison's work owes so little, not only to his contemporaries, but to twentieth-century poetry generally, could his work represent a paradigm shift, like Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, or Eliot's first poems? His poetic strategy is different enough and coherent enough to be so considered, but he has few obvious followers. Like William Blake, he may well be a complete one-off. It might be argued that Simon Armitage's poetry would not have been possible without Harrison's example, but it is highly debatable, given Armitage's avowed influences—Auden, Hughes, Frank O'Hara, Weldon Kees, Robert Lowell, and Huddersfield argot. Would northern poetry have remained of only regional significance without Harrison's example? It cannot be proven, but I imagine that the Huddersfield phenomenon would have emerged just the same without him. The set of factors that made Harrison the kind of poet he is were singular and are unlikely to be repeated:

How you became a poet's a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry—
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.(34)

But it is now possible to discern a number of poets working in what might be called the New Plain Style—Harrison, Douglas Dunn, James Fenton, Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage—as opposed to the postmodernist obliquities of Paul Muldoon, W. N. Herbert, Peter Didsbury, Selima Hill, Medbh McGuckian, Ian Duhig, Maggie Hannan. Sometimes Plain Style and postmodernist modes coexist within the same person. There are many ways of being plain, and the poets are unlike each other in most respects, but Harrison was the first post-war poet to write such emphatically Plain Style verse, and in that he has clearly been influential.

In the end, Harrison's achievement has been to bring a new directness into poetry. Neither the obliquities of Modernism nor the pre-digested formulations of Augustanism suit his purpose entirely, although he is much closer to the latter than the former. If poetry in the twentieth century has been largely metaphoric—seeing something always as, or at least like, something else—Tony Harrison has chosen such dramatically vivid material—the pathos of his estrangement from his parents’ world, the skinhead's incoherent challenge to humanist pieties, the potential nuclear holocaust, the Gulf War and Bosnia—that the head-on approach has worked, while so many other poets were merely beating around the bush—the bush, of course, that they took so often for a bear.


  1. Douglas Dunn, ‘Importantly Live: Tony Harrison's Lyricism’, Bloodaxe 1, 255.

  2. Douglas Dunn, ‘Formal Strategies in Tony Harrison's Poetry’, Bloodaxe 1, 130.

  3. Gorgon, 24-5. The poem has an epigraph from Pound: ‘The art of letters will come to an end before AD 2000 … I shall survive as a curiosity.’

  4. Coming, 8: ‘A cold coming we had of it.’ The poem is also in Gorgon.

  5. See Ezra Pound, ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Life and Contacts’, Collected Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound (London, 1952), 208.

  6. Tony Harrison, quoted by Rosemary Burton, unpub. article.

  7. See W. H. Auden, The English Auden (London, 1977), 150.

  8. The three pieces that Harrison contributed to London Magazine in 1970-1 suggest that his decision to abandon this kind of work was a loss both to criticism and to himself: ‘I am surprised that \George MacBeth] has never translated this kindred spirit \Comte Robert de Montesquiou Fezensac], of whose poetry it was said: “The possibilities of verse for this expression of fluent, contorted, and interminable nonsense have never been more cogently demonstrated”’ (London Magazine, 10/8 (Nov. 1970), 94).

  9. ‘The Nuptial Torches’, SP, 60-2.

  10. Robert Lowell, ‘A Quaker Graveyard off Nantucket’, Poems 1939-49 (London, 1950), 18-19.

  11. ‘Nuptial Torches’, SP, 60.

  12. Douglas Dunn, ‘The Student’, Barbarians (London, 1979).

  13. ‘Me Tarzan’, SP, 116.

  14. Dunn, ‘Harrison's Lyricism’, Bloodaxe 1, 255.

  15. Nicholas Bagnall, A Defence of Clichés (London, 1985).

  16. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, ll. 297-8, Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Davis (London, 1966), 72.

  17. John Haffenden, ‘Interview with Tony Harrison’, Poetry Review, 73/4 (Jan. 1984), 30.

  18. ‘The Queen's English’, SP, 136.

  19. ‘Confessional Poetry’, SP, 128.

  20. Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in Roger Lonsdale (ed.), New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford, 1984), 355-6.

  21. The Kipling Treasury gave Harrison's library its ‘auspicious start’ (‘Next Door’, SP, 129).

  22. Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, vol. 1, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 3rd edn., rev. Pierre Legouis and E. E. Duncan-Jones (Oxford, 1971), 53.

  23. See Ch. 4 above.

  24. Gray, Elegy, 355-6.

  25. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols. (London, 1905) i, 51, 441.

  26. Gray, Elegy, 355-6.

  27. ‘Book Ends I’, SP, 126.

  28. ‘Clearing I’, SP, 144.

  29. A Kumquat for John Keats, SP, 192, 195.

  30. V., SP, 236, 237.

  31. V., SP, 237.

  32. ‘Them & \uz] II’, SP, 123.

  33. For ‘Facing North’, SP, 190. See Louis MacNeice, ‘Epilogue for W. H. Auden’, Letters from Iceland (London, 1937), 259.

  34. 'Heredity', SP, 111.

Mary Kaiser (review date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Permanently Bard: Selected Poetry, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 157.

[In the following review, Kaiser asserts that class and language are the predominant themes in the poems of Harrison's Permanently Bard.]

With its detailed introduction and extensive notes, Permanently Bard, a selection of Tony Harrison's poetry designed for Britain's A-level students, provides an accessible overview of Harrison's poetry for any reader unfamiliar with his work. Comprising fourteen volumes of verse, twelve plays and libretti, and three television plays, Harrison's output is prodigious, but his work is much better known in Britain than elsewhere. This is perhaps because Harrison is a distinctly British poet, one whose central poetic concern is with a distinctly British problem.

Harrison's poetry, whether autobiographical or dramatic, circles around the issue of class and language. He explores how accent, slang, and jargon define class status and mark out the territory of power in Britain. Many of Harrison's shorter poems deal with his progress from working-class Yorkshire beginnings to the elitist world of the classics scholar, along the way gaining the languages of the literate but losing his ability to speak to his parents in their own vocabulary. In “Wordlists” Harrison concludes, after cataloguing the languages he learned in school as a “good parrot,” that in the process he lost “the tongue that once I used to know / but can't bone up on now, and that's mi mam's.”

Even in Harrison's translations and adaptations of Greek and Roman drama, this theme of class and language surfaces. In The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Harrison's version of a satyr play, he recounts the tale of Marsyas, the satyr flayed as punishment for playing the flute of Athena. For Harrison, this legend is an allegory of the lower-class artist, punished for appropriating the language of the elite: “the Apollonian goes for his gun, / when it suddenly dawns on him the swine / the pearl is cast before by one divine / knows it's a pearl, and not some novel food / and aspires beyond dumb swinetude. / When he enters the Culture it represents / they reach for their skin-removing instruments.” As Britain's leading adapter of Greek and Roman drama into contemporary theatrical modes, Harrison himself has taken his Yorkshire working-class consciousness “into the Culture” and has made his own class history into a metaphor of the whole problem of class and privilege in British society.

In his plays Harrison gives dramatic verse a contemporary vigor by using colloquial language and gives the classics a brutal immediacy by using the harsh rhythms of Anglo-Saxon prosody. Harrison's pacificism and feminism appear often in his drama: his version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is set at Greenham Common, the site of the famous women's protest against nuclear weapons. Throughout his adaptation, Harrison links contemporary debates about war and feminism with those in the ancient Greek play, and the parallels are striking. Harrison's use of simple, direct language allows the words of the Inspector, for example, to apply equally well to 411 B.C. or 1992 A.D.: “Men give the advice and women take it. / Men enforce the law when women break it. / I'm a man. I say. You do. I wear the clothes / that give me authority and you wear those.”

Square Rounds, performed at the National Theatre in 1992, is an original play about the inventor of mustard gas during World War I, but it has the fundamental tragic outlines of Oedipus Rex. Fritz Haber, the inventor, gradually comes to a realization of his own delusions that chemical weapons would put an end to the war quickly and would kill with less suffering than conventional weapons, but this recognition comes just at the point when his wife Clara commits suicide in despair at the horrors her husband has unleashed. Finally, though, Harrison's political themes resolve themselves back into his predominant fascination with social and class conflict, because throughout his work the dynamic of an overlooked minority resisting an elite and powerful majority plays itself out, whether the context is ancient Greece or Rome, the postwar Leeds of his childhood, or contemporary London.

Carol Chillington Rutter (essay date May 1997)

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SOURCE: “Harrison, Herakles, and Wailing Women: ‘Labourers’ at Delphi,” in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 13, May, 1997, pp. 133-43.

[In the following essay, Rutter analyzes Harrison's The Labourers of Herakles and asserts that “To this female spectator in the audience Harrison's theatrical practice seems progressively at odds with his official profeminism.”]

As well as being a widely published poet, Tony Harrison is well known as a dramatist for his reworkings of classical materials, from ancient Greek to medieval. When he was invited to contribute a play for the eighth International Meeting on Ancient Greek Drama, on the theme of ‘Crossing Millennia’, to be held at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in August 1995, he chose to present a version of The Labourers of Herakles set on a building site—a building site the Greek sponsors specially ‘constructed’ for the event. In describing the single performance of the play, Carol Chillington Rutter, who teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, vividly evokes the theatrical forcefulness of the occasion: but she questions what she considers the ambivalence of Harrison's theatre work in its presentation and treatment of women—of which the decision to visualize the chorus of women in Labourers as cement mixers was most strikingly emblematic.

The Greeks take their theatre seriously. They announced an eighth International Meeting on Ancient Greek Drama entitled ‘Crossing Millennia’ to be held at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in August 1995, and they invited Tony Harrison to write a new play for the event. They consider him virtually Greek since his Oresteia—a modern translation into English which they translated back into modern Greek—and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus.1 Harrison agreed, then let them know that he wanted to set his Labourers of Herakles on a location that had to look like a construction site.2 What did the Greeks do? They got the bulldozers out. They excavated Harrison's playing space out of a hillside just below Mount Parnassus.

The European Cultural Centre is used to taking extraordinary pains to make sure that ancient theatre survives and matters in the modern world. Since 1985 it has organized international conferences that bring together academics and actors, playwrights and audiences in a week-long series of events that include lectures, symposia, workshops, and performances—all played outdoors, most of them on a stage set at one end of Delphi's ancient athletic stadium. (Delphi is, of course, an unrivalled theatre venue, being the home of the oracle of Apollo—first patron of the arts—and the Muses' frequent address. )

The E.C.C.D. organizers had assembled from around the world the directors and companies reckoned to be the contemporary theatre's foremost practitioners of Greek drama. From Japan, Tadashi Suzuki brought a stunningly spare and disciplined Electra that was inspired by his perception that ‘All the world is a hospital and all men and women are inmates of that hospital.’ His Chorus sat in black and white kimonos, hunched in wheelchairs, attended by starched nurses in white uniforms. Electra was a wild-eyed escapee from Bladerunner, Clytemnestra a cackling hag who propelled her wheelchair around the lunatic ward with a crutch.

From Germany, Heiner Goebbels, a musician rooted in the discipline of ‘gesture music’, presented a version of Heiner Müller's The Liberation of Prometheus that used an actor on the end of a microphone as a dispassionate narrator while a vocalist, working as one of a trio with percussion and amplified piano, recreated the story as a series of extraordinary sound effects. The most appalling was the vocalist's simulation of the eagle daily ripping out Prometheus' bowels as if they were lengths of electronic tape on fast forward and rewind.

The Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos and his Attis Theatre Company gave a performance of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound of such relentless intensity that it made the ancient outdoor stadium where it was played feel claustrophobic and the midnight darkness into which it plunged the audience when the stage lights went out seem like illumination—relief from the stark, nearly static visual architecture of actors'bodies, frozen in tortured positions, speaking the play out of mask-like faces. The female figure of Chorus, lying taut and prone in the foreground, was superimposed upon Prometheus in the middle ground, his arms stretched wide, his fists clutched in agony around sponges that dripped, as if water from his prison rock, or blood from his body. All the while, Io, bare-breasted in the background, tossed her head in endless cow-like convulsions.

In total contrast, Yuri Lyubimov worked up a hilarious version of Aristophanes’ Birds with students from Athens University's Theatre Department. They set the comedy in a wading pool. Cloud Cuckoo Land bobbed mischievously out of reach at the end of a ducking and diving clutch of orange balloons. Poseidon was followed everywhere by a spouting hosepipe. The Birds flapped and fell about on the slick surface. The audience got well drenched and almost every child spectator landed in the drink.


All of these productions honoured the spirit of the Delphi forum as they reached back, ‘crossing millennia’, to recuperate ancient drama for the modern theatre. They were, in essence, translations, not just from ancient into modern Greek, German, or Japanese, but from culture to culture, from medium to medium. In every case, they were re-makes of ancient plays that, recovered, remained wholly recognizable to an audience.

But Tony Harrison was doing something different. His Labourers of Herakles was a new play that used fragments—quite literally—of the past to pose a question about the future, which, in Harrison, is always a way of contemplating the present. Like the original Trackers and, more recently, the unpublished The Kaisers of Carnuntum of May 1995, Labourers is an occasional play intended—like Aeschylus' Oresteia or like Euripides' Bacchae—for a single performance. So even though Labourers is not Harrison's best theatre work, I think it is worthwhile to give a full account of the performance, not least because, while the playtext may never be published, it yet documents Harrison's current thinking on where the theatre ought to be sited on today's (and tomorrow's) cultural map.

Even more importantly for a female spectator such as myself, The Labourers of Herakles also focused an uneasiness about Harrison's feminist politics that has whispered around the margins of my reading of earlier plays—most notably The Common Chorus, Harrison's remake of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which he set outside the US Air Force Base at Greenham Common.3Labourers becomes my point of entry for an interrogation, if not a critique, of those politics.

Harrison sets his Labourers on a rough building site, ringed with cement mixers and littered with tools and bags of cement. For the first twenty minutes, this hour-long piece is wordless, pure performance text. We watch as five laddish labourers in hard hats and ragged cut-offs begin laying the foundations for a ‘theatre of the millennium’—something of a joke upon Harrison's hosts, since the E.C.C.D. has long aspired to building a new theatre at Delphi. Harrison here achieved their project in travesty.

This theatre under construction looks like one we are familiar with. It is circular and has a central ‘orchestra’. Rearing up behind it is a cement silo which bears the black profile of Herakles, crowned with the lion skin and head—the company logo of the biggest producer of cement in Greece. Herakles' face features on all the bags of cement lying around the site.

The Labourers get to work. The cement mixers start turning; gradually we recognize them, standing behind the action, ‘commenting’ but not interfering, as this play's Chorus. The shovelling, the banging, the mechanical rasping all reach a percussive crescendo when suddenly from the cement silo comes an unearthly voice, singing a fragment of Phrynichos, one of the earliest known Greek playwrights and founders of tragedy. The cement, it seems, is haunted. It literally contains the voices of the past.


This new mortar is evidently made of broken down, recycled marble—fragments of ancient statues, sculptures, friezes—thrown (as James Fraser lamented a hundred years ago of the marble that Herodes Atticus donated to the Stadium) like ‘so many … ancient marbles … into the lime kiln’. What the ghost-voice from the silo sings is another kind of fragment, the only surviving line of what was once a tetralogy Phrynichos wrote on the Herakles myth, referring to the wrestling match between Herakles and Death.4

Momentarily, the Labourers recognize their ancient voices and sing their ancient selves. Labourer 1 freezes into the stance of the wrestling Herakles. The work resumes. Then, suddenly, a barrier collapses and reveals, as if in an archeological dig, a statue of the same Herakles. Labourer 1 is possessed by the madness of Herakles, his shovel becoming his club, his shirt his lion skin. Labourer 4 goes berserk, performing the rage of Herakles as a manic percussion solo in which cement mixers, construction tools, silo, and JCB are his instruments. The madness transfers to Labourer 1, who, as described in a stage direction,

suddenly squares up to the statue and demolishes it with violent blows. He throws bits of the shattered body into the turning cement mixers, increasing the thunderous noise of them. Then he turns his murderous intentions to the sacks of Herakles cement which he throws, slashes, and deguts, hauling from his victims’ innards yards and yards of red and white barrier tape like guts. There seem to be no more cement sacks to slay. He pauses, then notices two small sacks (which represent children). He impales their little bodies on the end of a pick. Red silk guts ooze from their wounds. Exhausted by killing he becomes the STATUE OF HERAKLES staring in a catatonic aftermath of devastation and death.

Labourers 2 and 3 pick their way across this scene of devastation, turning over pieces of the dismembered statue ‘like those who search the rubble of a gutted city for something familiar’. The stage directions want them to look ‘like women who search for their missing children’. Then,

with a tragic shriek of recognition, the two LABOURERS fall to their knees, and huddle to the \child-sized] sacks in their grief, pulling from within them a length of red silk and a fragment of a ‘classical’ mask.

Putting on the masks, they ‘become the mourning mothers of MILETOS’; they ‘sing a text from another fragment of PHRYNICHOS’ and ‘dance their grief as mourning mothers’.

It is only now that the play begins to speak, to put words to this exhilarating, terrifying and bewildering choreography of violence, that begin to name and interpret it. Labourer 1, coming to ‘life’ as Herakles, tells us the awful story of Miletos, a city of immense cultural richness which fell to the Persians in 494 BC because the ‘Medizing appeasers’ in Athens ‘were ready to let Ionia stay / with no fellow Greek assistance beneath barbarian sway’. So the city was captured, the male population slaughtered, the women and children enslaved.

In Athens, Phrynichos memorialized the disaster in a tragedy, Halosis Miletou, or The Fall of Miletos, which so distressed his audience that he was fined and the play permanently banned. But not, according to Harrison's Herakles, before Phrynichos, ‘to sting the cowardly appeasers’, introduced the first-ever female Chorus into a theatre that been a male preserve: Phrynichos’ was the first / to bring on wailing WOMEN’. They were played, of course, by men (indeed, by ‘dragged up men’, says homophobic Herakles), but in masks that made them women, that made them mourning mothers voicing female grief.5

Herakles. Phrynichos. Miletos. Tragedy. Oblivion. And man's instinct to wrestle against it. We pick out these fragments piecemeal, but they refuse to fall into place yet. Instead, the play gives us more to watch. The mourning ‘mothers’ collect up their ‘babies’, remove their masks, throw them both into the turning cement mixers, then pour the churned remains out as blood onto the new theatre's foundations. They resume the role of hairy-arsed Labourers, and we are made to wait for what Harrison here withholds, the statement that will disclose how all the fragments fit together.


First, Harrison switchbacks onto one of his recurrent political themes, explored most passionately in The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus where the satyr Marsyas was flayed alive for presuming to play Athene's discarded flute and where Art was seen to be built on the bent back of Labour: the stage in the theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis literally weighs on the backs of the satyrs, who hold up the stage but are never permitted to perform on it. In Labourers Harrison re-invents his loutish satyrs as loutish labourers. They are building this ‘new theatre for the millennium’, but they know they will never attend it. They aren't the ‘right sort’ for theatre; for them, ‘art’ does not go beyond ‘the fucking football on TV’.

As a prank, though, the Labourers decide to leave their footprints in the wet cement they have just poured. That way, they joke, every future Agamemnon or Oedipus will be ‘walking in our tracks’, standing their ‘play’ on the anonymous ‘work’ of the unrecognized Labourers. Only the joke goes wrong. The Labourers get stuck.

They bellow for help, but ‘There's nobody here for miles around.’ Labourer 3 points at us. ‘What about all that lot over there?’ But ‘All they're allowed to do is sit and stare’—‘They're audience. They're not allowed to act.’

So, to entertain the time, and sensing that they will only be rescued if they release from oblivion the ancient ghost-voices who are trapped in the cement, the Labourers perform the entire extant works of Phrynichos, thirty-some titles and odd-line fragments—all that survives of this first tragic playwright. It is when they reach the end of the roll call with Halosis Miletou, and realize that the spirit of Phrynichos is not going to free them, that the deus ex machina they appealed to earlier steps forward in the person of The Poet—Tony Harrison himself.

Harrison has a message for the Labourers, and also, implicitly, for the audience. The Labourers (literally) and theatre (metaphorically) will ‘stay stuck until you do / more than the title of Halosis Miletou’. If there is going to be a theatre that will survive into the millennium, it had better get to work on the materials of the political present:

Although I speak in English and not in ancient Greek
it's the poet Phrynichos on whose behalf I speak.
To honour Phrynichos who gave theatre a start
in redeeming destruction through the power of art
and witnessing male warfare gave the task
of mourning and redemption to the female mask,
to honour such a poet all poets and actors need
to celebrate his struggle and also to be freed
from Europe's impasse where art cannot redeem
the cry from Krajina or the Srbrenica scream
all the poet and actors need to do
to perform the sadly missing Halosis Miletou
is to incline their heads NW a few degrees
to see the moral madness of the modern Herakles.
The spirit of Phrynichos says you must cast aside
mythology and fables and look at genocide.(6)
Cast aside mythology and turn your fearful gaze
to The Fall of Miletos, yesterday's,
Once more the women in head scarves trudge the roads
of murderous Europe. Look at them, and write your odes.
If Phrynichos were here he would write his play
about The Fall of Miletos happening
there today.

So, The Poet tells the Labourers, to ‘get free’, ’ \do] a play’, a play that is about themselves, about their own attempts at ‘redeeming destruction through the power of art’. ‘Look at the wars today’, he tells them, ‘then learn to sing.’

‘I don't believe it,’ scoffs Labourer 2. ‘Pass me my shirt,’ says Labourer 1. ‘I'm fucking freezing!’ But the shirt that he puts on is Herakles’ shirt of Nessus—the shirt, as the stage directions tell us, ‘of modern Europe's agony’. This ‘fitted furnace’ encasing Labourer 1 is ‘Europe's conscience’, a robe of ‘racist rage’. And it is a garment, as Labourer 1/Herakles tells us, that we all wear:

From the Persian who gutted most of Greece's shrines
to the Mladic who blasts the Muslim mosques with mines,
from Ibn El Ass …
to one who mortared mosques …
we've all been sent a garment of agony like this.
My body's flayed red-raw by revengeful racist rage
bellowing with butcher's bloodlust through our blighted age.
An hour's flight from here the cities are ablaze
with tragedies each day to fill a million plays.
And officials with the suit and ties of Nessus on
walk the corridors of power in Washington and Bonn.

Herakles gets the last word in this play. The fire that torched Miletos, the fire that is torching him, is the same fire the theatre holds up as a torch for the future. How will that audience play with this fire? Labourer 1/Herakles passes us the torch with the final lines in the play:

Now the power to free us is entirely yours.
Fine us and ban us. Or give us your applause.


When Tony Harrison stepped forward as The Poet to deliver his message, he, like the other playwrights and directors represented in the eighth International Meeting, was honouring the spirit of the Delphi forum, but he was also putting his own political spin on the theme of ‘crossing millennia’. As Harrison tells it in Labourers, from the first, from Phrynichos and Halosis Miletou, Greek theatre was political.

So it is not enough to imagine we are preserving ancient theatre by preserving ancient texts, whether we preserve them in libraries or in performance; it is not enough to ‘cross millennia’, retrieve plays that originally were interventions in contemporary political culture, and perform them today in ‘translations’ that reproduce them merely as ‘mythology and fables’. 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. We must discover the site of tragedy in our own culture.

If we are Greeks, Harrison suggests, that means looking at the Balkans, looking at our complicity in today's genocide. For all of us, the ‘theatre of the millennium’ should not be a salvage yard. It should be a site where today's work is going on, a site—like the one Harrison cunningly contrived in Delphi—permanently under construction.

So what role does Herakles play in all this? The Superman in the lion skin seems to hold a permanent fascination, an attraction and repulsion, for Harrison, who keeps returning to him—and re-imagining him—as something of a human pun. Herakles collects up a range of contradictory ideas that position him to serve the dramatist as a compressed metaphor for much that he wants to say.

Harrison is currently working on a series of Herakles plays, and his strained relationship with the club-wielding monster-basher, whom he frequently characterizes as a grotesque Miles Gloriosus, perhaps dates from his time as a scholarship boy at Leeds Grammar School, where the nascent poet knew poetry made him a ‘lassy lad’ while the stained glass window in the school chapel held up to him the image of the ‘real man’, the macho Miles, as an approved role-model for boys to aspire to.

If, as Harrison has often said, his poetry is an act of slow revenge upon one of his grammar school English teachers who humiliated him by mocking his voice, perhaps his continuous refashioning of Herakles is an act of revenge upon a role-model that humiliated him by mocking him as ‘sissy’?7

Herakles, of course, is one who ‘crosses millennia’: he belongs both to the epic past and to the capitalist present. So his seven labours still pour out in today's world as reinforced concrete. But he has always been a notoriously ambiguous signifier, both hero and horror. His labours were depicted in a frieze that decorated the stage in the ancient theatre in Delphi. And Phrynichos dramatized his heroic wrestling match with Death.

But Herakles the hero who wrestled Time and Oblivion (and the destruction of cities: it was Herakles to whom the Greeks appealed when the Persians invaded) was also Herakles the maddened monster, Herakles the pedophile misogynist—as Harrison constructs him in Medea: a Sex-War Opera (1985)—who, in his fury, battered his own children to death.8


In his programme notes to The Labourers of Herakles, Harrison makes Herakles signify the massively aggressive male urge toward destruction which, in the play, is specifically formulated as ‘racist rage’. But he also signifies the heroic male resistance that defeats such destruction. So, ‘paradoxically’, writes Harrison, ‘the most destructive forces Herakles must wrestle with are himself and his own destructive impulses which led him to the unspeakable murder of his own children.’

Women would seem to have an important role to play in monitoring and contesting—even subverting, appropriating, and transforming—the Heraklean project in Harrison's theatre. Indeed, Harrison in the programme goes on to ask a pair of compelling questions that, for me as a female spectator, radically reframe the politics of the play to define the real issue at stake not as racist rage but as gender rage.

Harrison is wondering about Phrynichos’ introduction of the female mask into his all-male theatre (he presents this as fact) when he asks, ‘Did Phrynichos need to create the first female mask to mourn … male destructiveness? How did the actors of Phrynichos learn to incorporate the female lament into their souls when they wore these first masks of women?’ How indeed? And if those men were able to incorporate the female, to be transformed by such embodiment into women, was their violence that expressed itself as ‘rage’, as ‘madness’ (as ‘Herakles’), similarly transformed?

Serviceable Herakles crosses not just the millennia but the gender divide as well. He became a woman when Omphale dressed him in her clothes and, setting him to spin, gave him women's work to do. Did transvestite Herakles take on a woman's sensibility with the chiton and the distaff? Is yet another name for Herakles ‘Woman’?

At some intellectual and emotional level Harrison seems perennially interested in these questions about women's faces as they outface men, about women's voices as they contest the violence men call ‘heroic’, about the transfer of women's emotions into men's imaginations. In his theatre, what men get up to—epic warriors at Troy in The Oresteia and foul-mouthed squaddies at Greenham Common in The Common Chorus alike—turns out to be only some ‘cock-bound fantasy’.

The real war is never that phoney game of Boys'Own deluded adventurism that has them whipping their weapons/cocks out of their scabbards/trousers and then measuring them against their enemies’ on a playground they call a battlefield. In Harrison's theatre, the real war is never between Greek and Trojan or Russian and American. It is between men and women—Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Medea and Jason, Fritz Haber and Clara, Lysistrata and the squaddies. The real war is the sex war. And the woman's role in that war is to call men to account.

At least, that is how I have always taken Harrison's official (rhetorical?) commitment, his own post-Phrynichan ‘need to create the … female’ as a way of testing, and contesting, the male. But now I begin to doubt my understanding, for if those are Harrison's politics, his theatre practice increasingly contradicts them, and in The Labourers of Herakles even mocks them.

Simply, the questions he asks so compellingly as poet and ideologue in the programme notes do not much matter to him as playwright and director in the theatre. In the programme he wants to notice women and to ask questions about male violence. In the theatre he marginalizes ‘women’ and renders them only in parody as his Chorus of ‘female’ cement mixers.

To be sure, the five cement mixers were never officially credited either as the Chorus or as women. But during the writing and rehearsing, Tony Harrison called Labourers his ‘play with a female Chorus of cement mixers’ and his actors trailed the play using the same in-house shorthand. The ‘Chorus of female cement mixers’ became the signature of Labourers—what was most publicly known about the play in advance of the performance.

Of course, strictly speaking, this shorthand was a kind of mistake. Harrison has rightly often said that the characteristic of a Greek-type chorus is that it always manages to find words to express its response, however horrible the things it witnesses. On the Greek mask, the eyes are always open, and the Chorus always finds words to speak out of a mask whose mouth is always open.9 A Chorus without a voice is not a Chorus. So what does it mean if Harrison denies his female Chorus in Labourers the voice that is their raison d'être?


In the programme Harrison talks about women, but in the theatre he puts male violence on spectacular display. The audience at Delphi watched fascinated as Labourer 1, possessed, ‘performed’ the rage of Herakles, demolishing the statue, throwing the body parts into the cement mixers, slashing the cement sacks and ripping out their red innards, impaling the ‘children’ on the end of his pick. This astonishing theatrical tour de force went on for several minutes, and its effect was to recruit the audience's admiration to the performer and the performance. We were watching a real live labour of Herakles!

Both the performer and the performance were irresistible. Both gave the audience enormous theatrical pleasure in the sheer feat of physical and technical virtuosity. But this was something like watching a juggler keeping twenty spheres in the air spinning so fast that we could not see they were skulls. The performance dismantled the scene's disturbing content in ways that Harrison seems to have failed to calculate (or was blind to). It turned out to celebrate, not to critique male violence. The audience did not ‘just sit and stare’. They gave the rage of Herakles a round of applause.

Officially, of course, Tony Harrison is seriously pro-feminist. Officially, women do matter in his theatre. How much they matter is revealed in The Labourers of Herakles when gynophobic, homophobic Herakles scathingly asserts that they never mattered until Phrynichos admitted them onto the stage—that Phrynichos who

was the first to bring on wailing WOMEN,
and what's by far the worst
it wasn't women sang the roles but dragged up men.
Greek drama was never the same again.

So women matter (literally, in this theatrical example) because they get in the way. They occupy male space and occupy it to make men uncomfortable: they wail. And (again literally in this theatrical example) they effeminize men.

Again, women matter when Harrison, following Phrynichos, makes the introduction of the female mask part of the narrative of his own play: when the two Labourers ‘discover’ among the cement sacks slaughtered by Herakles the little ones that are their ‘children’ and pull from them the lengths of red silk and the ‘classical’ masks that transform them into women. In the theatre, that brief sequence when men-as-mourning-mothers sang and danced their grief was unutterably heartrending.

Women matter finally when Harrison, as The Poet, recalls why Phrynichos needed women: ‘witnessing male warfare \he] gave the task / of mourning and redemption to the female mask.’ This, too, is heartrending, as The Poet collects into a single image an unbroken female history of ‘mourning mothers’, who, heirs to grief in a line that stretches from fifth-century Miletos to present-day Krajina and Srbrenica, still ‘in head scarves trudge the roads of murderous Europe’.


But are these references anything more than gestures? To this female spectator in the audience Harrison's theatrical practice seems progressively at odds with his official profeminism. Over the years Harrison has increasingly altered women's scenarios and pushed women's roles to the margins of the stage—as a playwright choosing to keep women almost entirely off the stage, and as a director choosing time and again not to work with women actors.10

So is it possible that his concern for the female mask in The Labourers of Herakles is only a cover for his real concerns?11 Is Harrison always focused on the male body beneath? How serious can his commitment really be to ‘redeeming destruction through the power of art’ if, in his theatre of representations, he renders Phrynichos’ witness to male warfare not as the Chorus of mourning female masks that Phrynichos invented but as the Chorus he gives us—a semi-circle of wailing cement mixers that look like rotating wombs, that haemorrhage menstrual blood, and that have to be mechanically activated by the very men whose destructive power Phrynichos would have had them contest?

Or is Harrison merely a sign of the times? Is his Labourers unexpectedly representative of male writing in 1995, what Jude Kelly—the (female) artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse—called the typically male ‘aren't we ghastly, but aren't we interesting?’ type of play that was then everywhere in evidence? The problem, I am willing to concede, may be as much mine—the woman spectator's—as Harrison's. Perhaps women are simply out of patience with a theatre of ‘sub-Tarantinoesque longings’ in what playwright Phyllis Nagy calls ‘a world of adolescent fantasy and misogyny’.12

Ideologically, Harrison would seem to be on the side of ‘redeeming destruction through the power of art’, and that means, he says, looking at women, looking at the challenge, the alternative women offer to the Heraklean model. ‘Look at them’, says The Poet, then ‘write your odes’. But the poet of The Labourers of Herakles does not ‘look at them’. He allows his theatre to glance at them only momentarily, exploiting the deep emotional and cultural resonances bound up in the image of mourning mothers cradling their dead babies—an image Harrison has returned to regularly, ever since Herod's soldiers slaughtered the innocents in The Big H (1984) and The Mysteries (1985).

But then Harrison averts his eyes to gaze instead at the sexier scene of phallic aggression. Here Harrison is clearly interested in destruction, not redemption. His Labourers, bonded in male aggro, made violence an exuberant game, and killing a bravura play. They put in perhaps three minutes of theatre time as masked women singing grief. The rest of the hour-long piece relished the phallic performances that were set centre stage. The question ‘How do the actors of Harrison learn to incorporate the female lament into their souls?’ never got asked. For the Herakles these Labourers served was certainly not Omphale's.


The morning after The Labourers of Herakles had its single performance, the actors left Delphi. They left behind a site thoroughly wrecked by their performance. Two young girls played among all the debris, unconsciously re-enacting fragments of Harrison's play. They were ‘like those who search the rubble of a gutted city for something familiar … like women who search for their missing children. They pick up various fragments and pieces of the STATUE \of Herakles], then let them fall.’

They found a hand. And a paw from the lion skin. They rolled over the decapitated torso. The statue had been castrated. Without the phallus Herakles looked almost female. Omphale could not have done better. Was this deconstructed Herakles the play's hopeful sign of the end of male violence? Had the phallus, symbolic locus of male aggression, been thrown with all the other Heraklean body fragments into the female cement mixers to be made into something con- not de-structive?

Alas, no. The actors themselves had mutilated their Herakles after the show in a post-performance ‘bit of fun’, according to Labourer 1/Herakles. Moreover, they made the phallus the locus of new writing, personal inscription, and memorialization: they signed it and gave it to their playwright as a souvenir.

The female spectator who reads such male skylarking as cultural material available to analysis is not ‘considering too curiously’. Nor is she one of Herakles'‘wailing WOMEN’. She is merely following Tony Harrison's own characteristic practice of pausing over all such cultural ‘accidents’ and pondering their multiple significance. Harrison, after all, is the poet who lingered, like a latter-day Gray in a country churchyard, over obscenities graffitied in a Leeds graveyard and saw how the V sign versus could be made into ‘verses’.

So it is Harrison who teaches me to dwell upon his actors' off-the-text action and to notice that, in carrying away the phallus, what they took away as their prize was the sign of male violence. Were they unconsciously memorializing the very destructiveness that Harrison's ‘art cannot redeem’?


  1. The Oresteia was first produced by the National Theatre in November 1981 and performed at the ancient theatre of Epidauros in July 1982. It is reprinted in Tony Harrison, Dramatic Verse 1973-1985 (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1985). Trackers was written for the E.C.C.D. International Meeting in 1988 and was revised for a limited run at the National Theatre in 1990. The Delphi text is published by Faber and Faber (London, 1990).

  2. Directed by Tony Harrison; designed by Jocelyn Herbert; music by Richard Blackford; sound by Glen Keiles. The Labourers were Lawrence Evans, Fraser Marlow, Conrad Nelson, Barrie Rutter, and Tim Wright. The project was supported by the Royal National Theatre Studio and sponsored by Heracles General Cement Co. The first (and only) performance was on 23 August 1995.

  3. Originally written for the National Theatre, The Common Chorus has yet to be professionally performed. The text is published by Faber and Faber (London, 1992). For a discussion of the play, see Carol Chillington Rutter, ‘The Poet and the Geldshark’, in Tony Howard and John Stokes, eds., Acts of War: the Representation of Military Conflict on the British Stage and TV since 1945 (London: Scolar Press, 1996). I am very grateful to Tony Howard for reading revised versions of this paper and offering his wisdom.

  4. Quoted by Tony Harrison in programme notes.

  5. Herakles is, of course, presenting a radically skewed version of this history (but then, ‘history’ is grist to the playwright's mill). For another account, see N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 204-7. ‘Appeasers’ (like ‘genocide’ later) is a misleading term given the shape of politics in the region in 494 BC. Most of ‘Ionia’—that is, western Turkey and the off-shore islands including Miletos—had, by 494 BC, already been ruled from Persia for one or two generations. Before that, the area had been more loosely under the control of the kingdom of Lydia (southwest Turkey).

    Greek city-states existed, and often thrived, over all the Mediterranean in seaboard territories notionally ruled from elsewhere. There was no political sense of ‘Greek-ness’ nor even of ‘Hellenism’: where ‘appeasers’ implies some duty by the standards of which the Athenians (or some of them) failed, there was no duty—no defensive treaty, and nothing like a League of Nations. On the contrary, Greek states made alliances with Greek and non-Greek states to compete with and balance each other's power. Most importantly, the Persians were not Hitler (neither were they Gandhi). In terms of comfort, trade, even arguably mental life and religious freedom, someone in the eastern Mediterranean in 494 BC might well have preferred the remote rule of the very tolerant Persians (who, it should be remembered, encouraged the renewal of Jewish Temple worship) to being at the mercy of the much closer-to-hand inter-Greek city-state politics which took a heavy toll of life in those same off-shore islands late in the fifth century BC.

    Harrison's pro-Hellenism—if it duplicates Herakles'—reflects an unthinking racism. As for Phrynichos' play, according to Herodotus, ‘The Athenians … showed their profound distress at the loss of Miletos in a number of ways, but in none more clearly than in their reception of Phrynichos' play; for when Phrynichos produced his Capture of Miletus the audience in the theatre burst into tears, and the author was fined a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a disaster which touched them so closely. A law was subsequently passed forbidding anybody ever to put the play on the stage again’ (The Histories (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 395).

    The claim that Phrynichos was the first to use female masks in the theatre is traced to a short sentence in the Suda, a frequently inaccurate Byzantine encyclopedia of the tenth century AD, which does not elaborate the statement. It says nothing about a female chorus lamenting the loss of Miletos. The Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta yields nothing of what it calls the Miletou Halosis besides its title: no fragments; no clue about its content. I am grateful to my colleagues, Rowland Cotterill and Derek Hughes, for reading drafts of this paper and for directing me to the information contained in this note.

  6. The Milesians, says Rowland Cotterill, died because they rebelled, not because they were Greek. ‘Genocide’ involves a world of nations: this is not the world of Greece in the fifth century BC. Neither is it Phrynichos’ language. A hostile viewer might be inclined to suspect Harrison, in using the emotive term ‘genocide’, of trying to get ideology on the cheap.

  7. See Tony Harrison, ‘The Inkwell of Dr. Agrippa’, in Neil Astley, ed., Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies 1 (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991), p. 32-5. It is of course the case that Herakles’ wrestling with Death—to which the sole surviving line of Phrynichos’ Herakles tetralogy seems to refer—occurs when he brings Alcestis back from the dead. Is this, asks Derek Hughes of Harrison's use of the Herakles myth, ‘a relevant counterbalance to Herakles the misogynist destroyer? Is a point about gender being made here?’ The answer to these questions in terms of Harrison's work must wait for his version of the Alcestis, currently in progress.

  8. This opera, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera, remains unperformed, but is published in Tony Harrison, Dramatic Works 1973-1985 (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1985).

  9. I am grateful to Oliver Taplin for reading and commenting on parts of this paper and in particular for the lively debates we have had over the cement mixers. I want to state very clearly that he does not support my interpretation of The Labourers of Herakles nor the central argument of this paper.

  10. What I am seeing here may be a progressive shift. In Harrison's version of The Oresteia, Clytemnestra, like her original, made good her plot and wielded the man-axe. In The Common Chorus, Lysistrata, unlike her original, did not make good her plot: in Aristophanes, she ends the war; in Harrison, she gets busted. In The Kaisers of Carnuntum, the ‘woman's part’ is played by Commodus who appears as Herakles in drag. In Labourers, I am suggesting, the ‘woman's part’ is given to the cement mixers. Harrison has had one experience as a playwright and director of reversing his usual practice of writing for an all-male (or nearly all-male) company, as in The Oresteia or Trackers. He wrote Square Rounds for an all-female company at the National Theatre in 1992. It was an unhappy experience for director—as Harrison willingly admits—and company alike (one of the actors told me she was ‘still trying to recover’).

  11. I do not mean to argue that Harrison is a hypocrite. What I am describing is a (common) process by which Harrison at once idealizes and exiles women, while concealing from himself this contradiction and also concealing the process of concealment. That is, I have described an ideology. And ‘ideologies’, which affect us all, make any clear-cut surface/reality distinction hard to draw.

  12. Quoted in Simon Fanshawe, ‘Women Will Not Be Written Off’, Sunday Times, ‘Culture’ section, 14 January 1996, p. 8-9. Subtitled ‘Why women in the theatre have nothing to cry about’, Fanshawe's feature surveys a theatre that, despite those ‘sub-Tarantinoesque longings’, is strong on women, strong in opposition to male retreat into fantasy and misogyny. ‘If you look carefully at the scene, it is clear that a talented regiment of women was producing substantial work last year, both on and offstage. Not only that, they were mining a far wider seam than \the] boys did.’ If women actors, directors, and playwrights ‘have nothing to cry about’, maybe women spectators—me, for one—can stop wailing too as women's work increasingly makes it onto the stage.

Additional coverage of Harrison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 65-68; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 44; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.