- Continuous by Tony Harrison
Rex Collings, £3.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 86036 159 4
- The Oresteia by Aeschylus, translated by Tony Harrison
Rex Collings, 120 pp, £3.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 86036 178 0
- US Martial by Tony Harrison
Bloodaxe, £75.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 906427 29 0
- A Kumquat for John Keats by Tony Harrison
Bloodaxe, £75.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 906427 31 2
There are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century. Of course, poets from D.H. Lawrence to Craig Raine can boast a proletarian background, but their poetry isn’t usually interested in doing so – not at its most characteristic and not to an extent that would make the term ‘working-class poet’ a useful one. Other poets have written of working-class ‘subjects’ (by which is usually meant the view from the factory floor) and have furthered working-class aspirations (by which is usually meant socialism), but most of them have been haut bourgeois – Stephen Spender writing of cogs, driving-belts and the beauty of labour – lacking first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in. Douglas Dunn, impeccably proletarian and Left-inclining, once wrote memorably about a backstreet in Hull – but he, it turns out, is Scottish. And D.J. Enright’s vivid account of a working-class childhood, The Terrible Shears, is really more prose documentary than poem. Remarkably, in an age that was supposed to see the flourishing of working-class writing, Harrison seems to have the field to himself.
One would not insist on the fact of his being a working-class poet did he not do so himself. But his embarrassment, pride and surprise at the fact (‘Me a poet!’ begins his ‘Self Justification’) are a dominant theme in the 50 sonnets that make up his collection, Continuous, which adds 33 new poems to the 17 that first appeared in ‘The School of Eloquence’ sequence of 1978. At their simplest level, that of narrative (for the sequence does add up to a story of sorts), the poems describe the poet’s childhood in Leeds during the 1940s and early 1950s; his endeavours as a scholarship boy; his mother’s death and cremation; and his return visits, as a successful poet and play-translator, to see his lonely, grumpy and aging father, who in the end dies and is cremated too. The Leeds setting is every bit as accurately observed as Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street: the 8 × 5 gardens, kept up or not kept up; the front doors used only by doctors, postmen and strangers and the backyards with their ‘beaten hard square patch of sour soil’ (a typically heavily stressed, heavily monosyllabic Harrison description); the cloth caps, coal fires, false teeth, ukeleles, wedding photos and Co-ops associated with this part of the North (but not the greyhounds, braces and tin baths a less informed observer would have gone for).
Continuous has a full complement of characters who in Harrison’s hands avoid becoming ‘characters’: Ethel Jowett, next door, who loved the D’Oyly Carte and gave young Tony The Kipling Treasury; the feuding Sharpes (‘Through walls I heard each blow, each Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!’); grampa Harrison, who ‘carried cane and guineas, no coin baser’, and grampa Horner, who
when a sewer rat
got driven into our dark cellar corner
booted it to pulp.
But the chief focus is on the family triangle – father, mother and only son – and the dislocation that ensues from the mother’s death, a dislocation touchingly and even comically observed:
Vol. 4 No. 8 · 6 May 1982
SIR: Blake Morrison is a little hard on Tony Harrison’s Oresteia: ‘God only knows’ what it is like ‘to have to hear it in the National Theatre’ (LRB, 1 April). I cannot speak for God, but I myself found it, combined with Harrison Birtwhistle’s score and the strictly choreographed masked movement of Peter Hall’s National Theatre company, both rhythmically compelling and visually exciting. The verse may have lacked the exhilaration of Continuous, but it was surely aiming at quite different effects and represented a different enterprise altogether. Harrison is to be applauded for his nerve in employing such a bold verse-strategy in the face of such a daunting text. In the theatre his alliterative Yorkshire Aeschylus succeeds brilliantly.
SIR: There is a tendency among reviewers to take several works by one author, to discuss one at length, and then, as their word limit draws perilously close, to dismiss the rest in a few throwaway sentences at the end. This is sometimes tiresome and occasionally infuriating. After a lengthy and detailed assessment of Tony Harrison’s Continuous Blake Morrison alienates all sympathy by his flippant treatment of Harrison’s translation of the Oresteia. ‘To read the play is dull enough: what it would be like to have to hear it in the National Theatre, waiting for the next alliterative noun-compound to make its inevitable thud-thud, God only knows.’ Perhaps God does know. The people who have been flocking to the production since it opened (necessitating an extension of the run from January to June) certainly know. Does Mr Morrison not think it possible that a work written for the theatre, for performance in a particular way (by an all-male cast wearing masks) in conjunction with a musical score, might have more, rather than less, impact in performance than it does on the page? Quite possibly Mr Morrison would still dislike the Oresteia if he did go to see it. I concede that he was not asked to review a play in performance. Yet, as a reviewer of the text, he surely ought to exercise a little imagination. Would he dismiss Rigoletto, Die Meistersinger, Peter Grimes or Fiedermaus unseen if a glance at the libretto failed to impress him?
SIR: In what monkish cell has Blake Morrison been conducting his explorations into contemporary verse? He alleges, without telling your readers what they are, that ‘there are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century … Harrison seems to have the field to himself.’ This would be admissible only if you’d had your ear to the grounds of middle or upper-class literary coffee mills. Which is not to say that Harrison isn’t a genuine or working-class poet – nor that working-classness necessarily or always matters very much.
But since Morrison invokes these grounds, and a concern with thinking, let me commend the food for further thought on this subject to be found in plenty in the poetry of Attila the Stockbroker, Jim Burns, Aidan Cant, Anne Clark, John Cooper Clarke, Joolz Denby, Patrik Fitzgerald, Mark Hyatt, Roger McGough, Barry MacSweeney, Brian Patten, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, Alan Sillitoe and Seething Wells; and in the poems, as well as the songs, of pre and post-punk songwriter-singers, such as Syd Barrett, Pete Brown, Kevin Coyne, Ray Davies, Roy Harper, Richard Jobson, John Lennon and Paul Weller – amongst many, many others. None of them is haut bourgeois (indeed, most of them wouldn’t know, or want to know, what that means): but each is, or was, like Tony Harrison, in full possession of ‘first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in’.
New Departures, Bisley, near Stroud
Blake Morrison writes: I have yet to see a Michael Horovitz letter (and I have seen many) which does not reel off at least a score of names which are said to prove the existence of some renaissance in contemporary British poetry. The names vary from week to week, but the ones cited here do little to persuade me that I was wrong in singling out Tony Harrison. For this is an issue of quality rather than quantity, and the ‘genuine working-class poet’ is, as I understand it, not only genuinely working-class but of genuine poetic stature. None of Horovitz’s candidates meets that requirement, not even what he calls the ‘pre and post-punk songwriter-singers’ (in what useful sense can the likes of Roy Harper and Syd Barrett be called pre-punk – this is rather like calling a Thirties poet a pre-Forties poet?). Like Horovitz, I don’t believe that ‘working-classness necessarily or always matters very much.’ But it does matter in Harrison’s case because it is the subject of Continuous. And if one is going to invoke class one should be accurate and not assume that all rock musicians are by definition working-class. John Lennon was brought up in a semi in a respectable neighbourhood, and punk has had more to do with bourgeois art schools than with working-class council estates. Nicholas Murray and Rosemary Burton take me to task over my remarks on the Oresteia. I agree with them that the text is not all, and that a score, choreography, masks and even perhaps ‘an all-male cast’ may well be enriching, complementing or at any rate distracting. But not being able to relegate the matter of language as happily as they seem to, I still feel that my own pleasure in the production would be ruined by the illiterative overkill of the translation. I can’t imagine what theatrical rituals would enable me to tolerate the violence done to language:
Leave the prophet’s earthcleft free of pollution
or a serpent with wings on and venomous fangbane
shot from gold bowstrings will go through your gutbag …
The fact that people have a taste for this sort of thing, and that the National Theatre run has had to be extended, does not make Harrison’s translation good. No Sex Please We’re British is another popular London play.
Vol. 4 No. 10 · 3 June 1982
SIR: In a letter about the virtues or otherwise of Tony Harrison’s Oresteia translation, I remarked on the ‘alliterative overkill’ of the verse. This appeared in your columns (Letters, 6 May) as ‘illiterate overkill’, which is going too far.
It appeared in Mr Morrison’s typescript, incidentally, as ‘alliterate’. He seems to have been a little torn in the matter.
Editor, London Review