Venisti tandem

Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Poems by Tony Harrison
    Viking, 204 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 670 80040 6
  • Palladas: Poems by Tony Harrison
    Anvil, 47 pp, £2.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 85646 127 X
  • Men and Women by Frederick Seidel
    Chatto, 70 pp, £4.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2868 2
  • Dangerous play: Poems 1974-1984 by Andrew Motion
    Salamander, 110 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 907540 56 2
  • Mister Punch by David Harsent
    Oxford, 70 pp, £4.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 19 211966 4
  • An Umbrella from Piccadilly by Jaroslav Seifert and Ewald Osers
    London Magazine Editions, 80 pp, £5.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 904388 75 1

A year or two ago, Geoffrey Hartman urged literary critics to declare their independence. They should not regard criticism as an activity secondary to the literature it addressed, but as an art in its own right. Think of Pater, Valéry, Blanchot. Hartman’s advice seemed bad to me, and I preferred to abide by T.S. Eliot’s assumption that the aim of criticism should be ‘the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste’. But I have to admit that the matters of current interest to critics are miles away from the current practice of poets. Critics worry – or declare, often in high spirits, that they are worried – about the disability of language, about representation and its discontents, the crisis of meaning and value to which Post-Modernism is supposed to be a desperate response: but the poetry I read shows no sign of distress on those scores. Poets are writing under different assumptions: that language, whatever its difficulty, is good enough for the job, that the belatedness and indeterminacy of sentences are nobody’s problem but the critic’s. These poets take it nearly for granted that you can make sense by making connections, one experience with another, and that the main problem is to find a style of being present in the poem. The teller is in the tale, and the artistic effort is to make sure that his presence there is neither assertive nor apologetic. A preoccupied sense of crisis is not obligatory.

Tony Harrison’s Selected Poems includes 14 poems from the Loiners (1970), eight from The School of Eloquence (1978), 36 from Continuous (1981), all of Palladas (1975), and about twenty uncollected poems. (Palladas, is Harrison’s version of about half the epigrams attributed in the Greek Anthology to Palladas of Alexandria, circa 319-391.) Most, but not all, of the poems are the kind that cats and dogs can read. Harrison hasn’t lost any sleep over Eliot’s assertion, in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921), that ‘the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.’ But ‘the poet’, in Eliot’s sentence, has upper-class responsibilities which don’t exert much of a claim upon Harrison’s working-class sensibility. He prefers to write of local occasions: how things are going in Newcastle, what’s new in Leeds, hard living in foreign parts, ‘lovely Sodom’s sin’, a bout of tachycardia, sundry episodes in Brazil, Cuba, Beverly Hills, the Rosebowl at Pasadena, sex abroad. But the occasions that dominate his most telling poems are the old mortalities: in one poem, heartbreakingly, a dead child, in twenty poems or more a dead mother, a dying then dead father.

Many of Harrison’s poems issue from images of the War in its first years: black-out blinds, allotments, digging for victory,‘George Formby’s uke’,

those wrought iron railings made
into shrapnel and grenade,
acanthus leaf and fleur-de-lys,
victorious artillery,

James Cagney films (the only art Harrison shared with his father). When he alludes to other poems, they are mostly poems the War turned into momentously general truths, as in an echo of Empson:

It’s not diseases, but the void that kills,
The space, the gaps, the darkness ...

But Harrison is even happier with the street-poetry of dialect words – yagach, faffing – and the shared pavements of the North.

His special tone arises, I think, from his sense of gallantry which makes an accepted claim upon him but which the conditions of his life haven’t allowed him to sustain for long. This sense of unaffordable values appears in the poems from time to time as a grander style than any his normal themes would sustain:

When you’re conscious, Jane, we’ll read
how that caparisoned, white steed
helped the younger son get past
leafage clinging like Elastoplast
and win through to bestow the kiss
that works the metamorphosis.
But frogs stay frogs, the briar grows
thicker and thicker round the rose.

Sometimes the authority he claims is Robert Lowell’s:

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