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:
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.
It is through the eyes of Harrison’s father that we grasp, too, some of the changes that have overtaken the neighbourhood in the last ten years, not least the growing numbers of Pakistanis, whose presence he bemoans in frankly racialist language:
All turbans round here now, forget flat caps!
They’ve taken over everything bar t’CO-OP.
Pork’s gone west, chitt’lins, trotters, dripping baps!
Living speech, authentically and it might seem artlessly rendered, but one notices the poet in that slang ‘gone west’ – nicely pertinent when all is going east.
If Continuous were only a part-family portrait, part-sociological record, it would add little to what The Uses of Literacy and any number of angry young novels from the North have made familiar. Its special edge comes from Harrison’s interest in the question of what it means to acquire language in a community which has had none. The muteness of his uncles, ‘one a stammerer, the other dumb’, becomes a symbol of the suppression of working-class speech over the centuries. Harrison himself, believing with E.P. Thompson and other historians that ‘the dumb go down in history and disappear’ and that ‘the tongueless man gets his land took’, determinedly departs from that silent heritage: for him,
’s breaking the silence of the worked-out gob
(‘gob’ being both mouth and coal-seam). He describes himself as a schoolboy in an intolerable wrestle with words and meanings, forcing down Latin and Greek, parroting dictionaries and lexicons, combing the ‘thesaurus trove of trashes’. Or, resentful at being patronised by the guardians of high culture, who fob him off with the part of the drunken porter in Macbeth –
‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’
he chews up literature (‘Litterchewer’), devouring it out of love but also in anger. His relation to language and culture is a paradoxical one. He aligns himself with what he calls the ‘rhubarbarians’: the Luddite barbarians (about whom Douglas Dunn has also written) who shout ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ to drown out the linguistic civilities of their rulers. But he also, as these puns and coinages make clear, enjoys and feels liberated by the language his kin do not use.
Harrison is conscious that the acquisition of such language exerts its price: separation from his schoolfriends who go ‘off tartin’, off to t’flicks’ while he is left in his attic room working on translations of ‘Cissy-bleeding-ro’ (a cissy is what he feels, Cicero what he reads); separation from his family, who don’t understand his poetry (‘Sorry dad you won’t get that quatrain’) or who understand it to be ‘mucky’ (a library copy of his collection The Loiners has his mother weeping over his ‘sordid lust’); and separation, ultimately, from his class, which he suspects may regard him as a panderer to ‘the likes of them’, the middle classes, whose property poetry is and for whom he has become a busker, flat cap in hand. Like some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Continuous celebrates language while recognising that to acquire it is to become cut off from the tribe: as he wanders in the groves of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the dialect he grew up with is ‘in the hands of the Receivers’; he is made to sacrifice
the tongue that once I used to know
but can’t bone up on now.
He would like, really, to live in a special zone encompassing both the inarticulacy of ancestry (‘the silence round all poetry’, he calls it) and the articulacy of culture: ‘Words and wordlessness. Between the two ...’
These are contentious ideas about class and culture, and there are those who would accuse Harrison of melodrama when he posits an unavoidable opposition between the urban proletariat and high culture. Surely, they would argue, his picture of the scholarship boy as a heroic fighter against the odds is sentimental and anachronistic. Can it be so very hard to be a working-class writer and yet keep faith with one’s class? And is high culture so heavily fortressed that it requires this kind of revolutionary clamour at the gates:
So, right, yer buggers then! We’ll occupy
Your lousy leasehold Poetry.
Is not Harrison inventing difficulties, and does not his poetry suffer as result?
Part of the achievement of Continuous is to prove such difficulty on the pulses – in the very texture of the verse itself. It is a verse which coughs and splutters, all fits and starts. And though Harrison acknowledges this, describing how his poetry glugs ‘like poured pop’ and how it ‘thickens with glottals to a lumpen mass’, one’s impression on a first reading is that he must have a cloth ear as well as a cloth cap. The clumping rhymes, the all-too-iambic pentameters, the awkward and repetitive abbreviated ‘s’s’ –
every few seconds she’s aware what he’s raking’s death off his mind –
the visually ugly breaking-down of the sonnets into units of one or two lines, the sheer confusion of lay-out and typography, as capitals, italics, Latin and Greek tags, brand-names, songs, advertising jingles, dictionary symbols and dialect rub shoulders on pages that have no pagination – these must be some of the least fluent poems in the language. But they mean to be. The poetry that comes as naturally as leaves to a tree is, they imply, the poetry of the leisured classes, whereas these are poems that must work for their effects. To call Harrison’s poetry ‘laboured’ is not to damn it but to describe it precisely: it is written with labour, and on behalf of labour, and out of the labouring class. Clanking and creaking like old machinery, yet formal in the extreme (abab 16-liners all the way through), it never lets us forget what a contrived and artificial activity poetry is.
I strive to keep my lines direct and straight
And try to make connections where I can,
he writes, and the stress falls on the words ‘strive’ and ‘try’, on the effort poetry costs. Yet Continuous repeatedly proves that effort to be worthwhile by discovering ‘connections’ which transcend the labour and become love – like this image of the family on a fortnight’s holiday in Blackpool, their hands
gripping the pier machine that gave you shocks.
The current would connect. We’d feel the buzz
ravel our loosening ties to one tense grip,
the family circle, one continuous US!
There, incidentally, is an example of the Northern rhyming – buzz/us – which Harrison tries to instate.
If Harrison’s poems individually declare (and demonstrate) the value of poetry, the structure of Continuous – language poems in Part One, poems on the death of his parents in Part Two, reflections on art and extinction in Part Three – shows the poet’s awareness of its limits. Being a poet cannot help him resolve his feelings about his mother’s death (he returns to it obsessively), nor allow him to pay tribute to her as movingly as his inarticulate father does:
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.
At his mother’s funeral Harrison decides
If anyone should deliver an oration
it should be me, her son, in poetry,
but all the years of Latin and verse count for nothing as he sits passively listening to a ‘droning’ vicar. In the light of these failures, Harrison’s harping on about being a poet and international figure, jetting between Leeds and the New York Met, seems less boastful than it otherwise might: it only underlines how little his literary success amounts to in matters of the heart.
Though it takes the risk of appearing monotonous, both because of the unwavering Meredithian form and because of its obsession with the same two topics, language and death, Continuous is one of the most rewarding books of poetry to appear in England in recent years. Regrettably, the other three Harrison publications to appear simultaneously show less pleasing aspects of the poet’s work. His translation of the Oresteia beds noun relentlessly with noun in a kind of linguistic La Ronde – blood-clan, blood-grudge, grudge-broth, she-god, god-grudge, gore-lust, blood-clan, whore-war, bed-bond, death-dose – and the violent progenies of these copulations look like a cross between Beowulf and Ted Hughes. 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. US Martial has a clever punning title, but these satires on contemporary sexual mores are as superficial as one fears they are going to be on reading in the foreword that they were written in a few days from a New York hotel room.
Screw old women? Sure I do! But YOU,
you’re one step further on, more corpse than crone –
it takes a visitor to think that things are really so degenerate. Still, one couplet at least, on ‘the Joys of Separation’, deserves to be rescued from oblivion:
She wants more and more and more new men in her
He finally finishes Anna Karenina.
A Kumquat for John Keats, meanwhile, is Thribbish, repetitive (much about Harrison’s being 42) and strains both rhyme and reason:
and if John Keats had only lived to be,
because of extra years, in need like me,
at 42 he’d help me celebrate
that Micanopy kumquat that I ate...