Tony Harrison: Selected Poems

Tony Harrison: Selected Poems. Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England. £8.99

In a seminal poem called ‘Heredity’, a poem made of one gnomic quatrain, Tony Harrison presents us with an allegory of his poetic fostering: 

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.

One realizes when one hears the poet speak these lines aloud that it was written in total sincerity. I was familiar enough with his work beforehand to interpret them with a degree of droll irony, and Joe and Harry as whimsical fictions, but in fact they were family relations whose inarticulacy and social ineptitude grounded Harrison as he won a scholarship to Leeds university – a privileged opportunity for someone of his social standing at the time – and would later forge the plain-speaking grammar of his poetry. In another poem he evokes them triumphantly:

Theirs are the acts I nerve myself to follow.

I’m the clown sent in to clear the ring.

Theirs are the tongues of fire I’m forced to swallow

then bring back knotted, one continuous string

igniting long-pent silences, and going back

to Adam fumbling with Creation’s names;

and though my vocal cords get scorched and black

there’ll be a constant singing from the flames.

When I saw Harrison read at a local Arts Cinema, promoting his film version of the Prometheus myth, he spoke of the recurring imagery of fire in his work, from his father’s ovens at the bakery to the cremation of his parents to the fires of the Holocaust. The tongues of fire he refers to here are not the multilingual voices of elect apostles, but quite the reverse: it is a fire that has incinerated speech. Lingua Adamica: in a sense, Harrison feels that he is pioneering for the Working Class in poetry, that he is the first, or one of the first, to give voice to the voiceless. His democratic technique and his formal patterning are ways of enabling utterance itself, of finding modes of expression sympathetic to an ancestral or social lineage which he feels is inhibited by ineloquence. His vocation as a poet has been fuelled by a ‘retrospective aggro’ which he feels for an English teacher who wouldn’t allow him to read poetry aloud at school because of his accent.

His epigraphs and dedications are telling: he has dedicated a couple of poems to the Yorkshire artist David Hockney, and it is likely that part of the kinship stems from a geographic affinity. One poem is occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the death of DH Lawrence, a fierce son of the Midlands, possessing more truck with the industrial North than with the Southern institutes of education. Harrison penned his poem in New Mexico, where, disillusioned with England, the ‘priest of sex’ had lived in self-imposed exile. Like Lawrence, Harrison was scorned at public school for his gruff voice and humble origins. Like Lawrence, Harrison preserved his dialect in verse, which in itself was an act of rebellion against the decaying ruling class. Like Lawrence, Harrison was accused of writing ‘sordid’ books. Loiners, Harrison’s first book of poetry, caused his mother to despair for what she regarded as her son’s disgraceful admissions of lust, as though he were a prowling priapic deviant. There is a touching poem about his mother’s chagrin on this matter, but it strikes me while rereading it that something is lost in not hearing the author himself quote the lines. His voice has a blunt, deep gravitas about it, but when his verse is scanned simply as lines on a page it is exposed as being rhythmically flat. With hardly any supple modulation of cadences, there is a mechanical monotony to his metrics which occasionally makes concentration slip into mindless incantation. Poetry meant for chanting is best when it is enchanting in its themes.

Harrison gained notoriety in the 1980s for his film-poem ‘v.’, in which the English language was seen as being violated by its own practitioner with an excessive onslaught of expletives. The poem was written during the miners’ strike, and takes as its template Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, a poem derided by Pound and the Modernists (did Pound write anything better?). In it, he sees himself in the vandal who has defaced his parents’ gravestone, and recollects an incident where he sprayed a fire extinguisher at a public band playing operetta:

What I hated in those high soprano ranges

was uplift beyond all measure and control

and in a world where you say nothing changes

it seemed a sort of prick-tease of the soul.

One can deduce from this that Harrison presumably derides any notion of platonic idealism or visionary afflatus. He is not, however, opposed to a notion of ‘high art’: he remains the working class Loiner who loves Classical literature. But while Harrison is passionate about the Greeks and the Jacobeans, about Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere and Racine, a characteristic stamp of his work is his habit of introducing elements which are often associated with low art into poetry, or the illiterate into the literate. The insistence upon hijacking classical forms and cramming them with intractable material is a conscious act of reclamation. Harrison’s poetic self is a hybrid of the appreciative academic and the philistine aggressor. His poems are cultural battlefields; his natural speech and his cultivated artistry are opposing battalions locked in a mutually revitalizing conflict of power, making old forms fertile again. In ‘The School of Eloquence’ Harrison formally adapts and reshapes the sonnet, making it sixteen lines. This is no mere act of vandalism, and as long ago as John Donne a poet could write a sixteen-lined poem and call it a sonnet. He has said in an interview that ‘one of the important things about familiar form and metricality is that it draws attention to the physical nature of language; the spell-binding nature of it, and the ceremony of articulation.’ Believing more in the power of drama than in religion, his whole poetic enterprise has been to create something equivalent to the scale and scope and public dimension of dramatic poetry.

His sense of insular social affliction may not be of great interest to the future: filling a poem with expletives is not likely to endear poetry to the ruffians he is giving vent to, and greater writers of a Working Class background have not felt the need to carp on about it in a seemingly unending rigmarole. He is passionate about these schismatic Class divisions, and feels embattled by the Oxfordian refinements that he suggests have monopolized poetry, spraying his territorial scent in a diatribe ‘all stuffed with glottals’:

So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy

your lousy leasehold Poetry.

Sean O’ Brien praises him for his ‘great technical accomplishment’, but I am less certain. I admire his relentless use of formal structure as a means of shaping into coherence the disparities of life, and as a means of resisting what he disparages as the ‘chopped-up prose’ of his contemporaries, but dogged rhythms often procure doggerel, and too often in his poetry the ictus ticks like a metronome in shoddily composed pentameters – inflexible rhythmical recurrences as automated and monotonous as anything in Alexander Pope.

This book is now regarded as a contemporary classic, in part because it contains a long sonnet sequence which was not published entire in any previous volume but which accrued incrementally, and partly because it hasn’t been succeeded by a Collected or New Selected Poems. Why this is the case I am uncertain, since this reissued volume doesn’t achieve a total representation of his poetic career. The poems which have appeared since this book are more comprehensively political. ‘Initial Illumination’, absent from this book, is a very powerful poem on the first Gulf War, a poem whose urgency resonates as much today as when it was written. Also excluded from this selection are bawdy and boisterous poems which scornfully renounced any suggestion that he might be the heir to the laureateship after the death of Ted Hughes. The old forms he employed laboured under the weight of his republican polemic. Poetry does not wholly succeed as a vehicle for manifesto.

Harrison has been trying to achieve a more prophetic, universal voice, and sometimes he manages this. Other times he writes entertainingly in verses delightful to intone, such as in the alliterating, tongue-twisting sonorities of this – from a poem about deathwatch beetles mating and gnawing through the trusses and pediments of imperial churches:

How many houses for the Lord

has the knock-for-nooky squatter gnawed?

Carved escutcheon, scuncheon-squatters

more bug cloggies than gavotters,

rafter-feasters, roodscreen-wreckers

send morse-a-mate from mite maracas.

In oak as old as Robin Hood

the midnight maters knock on wood…

…Bluntly put the bugger’s fucked yer

entire infested infrastructure.

These are notable absenses, but we should nevertheless be grateful for what we have in this volume: the elegiac poems composed after the death of his parents are strong and tender (‘Marked with D’ is especially moving); ‘The Nuptial Torches’ adroitly combines the political and the erotic; ‘v.’ remains one of the most powerful social poems of our time, and ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ is magnificent, finding inherent in the fruit the grudging affirmation: ‘Life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.’

Harrison has refuted Adorno’s notorious dictum that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz, insisting instead that poetry must not allow itself to be usurped even by the most monstrous acts of genocide; that, indeed, it must in some way be answerable to them. This is the action of the Gorgon’s gaze, the unblinking mask of Greek tragedy: to stare at suffering until it becomes comprehensible, analogous to the act of control within poetic utterance, which can be sustaining, and which contains and shields the guttering flame of human optimism, for poetry itself, as an act of shaping and forming, is intrinsically affirmative.

Who lives for the future, who for now?

What good’s the cigales way or the fourmis

if both end up as nothing anyhow

unless they look at life like Socrates

who wished, at the very end, to learn to play

a new air on his lyre. Why?

said his teacher, this is your last day.

To know it before I die, was the reply.

Jim Newcombe, 2006