If his English teacher hadn’t been so snootily discouraging, it’s unlikely that Tony Harrison would have gone on to write as much as he has: by my calculation, 13 plays, 11 films and twenty or more poetry collections and pamphlets, not to mention the essays and addresses assembled in Edith Hall’s edition of his selected prose. That teacher, commemorated but unnamed in the poem ‘Them & [uz]’, was so dismayed by Harrison’s ‘barbarian’ recital of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in a Northern working-class accent that he called a halt after only four words:
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death …
Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’
As a plebeian scholarship boy at Leeds Grammar School, Harrison was duly given the part of the Drunken Porter in Macbeth. The snub not only politicised him (‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy/your lousy leasehold Poetry’), it gave him a lifelong theme: the clash between ‘high’ and ‘low’. Whether used to denote a social divide or a cultural one, it’s a distinction he deplores, taking his cue from the Greek dramatists who saw no great distinction between their satyr plays and their tragedies: they were written for the same audience. In his own most celebrated satyr play, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1990), he has Silenus deliver an elegy to Marsyas, who was flayed by Apollo for his effrontery in playing the flute:
That’s Marsyas screaming! They ripped off his skin
and all he ever wanted was to join in …
His one and only flaw was to show that flutes
sound just as beautiful when breathed into by brutes.
It confounds their categories of high and low
when your Caliban outplays your Prospero.
Marsyas was flayed for not knowing his place. Harrison has been luckier: school may not have accommodated his talent (‘He possesses something of the poetical imagination,’ his final report said, ‘but suffers from the waywardness of that gift’), but he put it to use, eventually making his way from Leeds to Broadway.
He was helped by his state education in Latin and Greek, which no working-class child today could expect to receive. But he isn’t nostalgic for the translations he and his classmates were made to undertake when ‘we had to turn once living authors into a form of English never spoken by men or women, as if to compensate our poor tongue for the misfortune of not being a dead language.’ For one exercise, translating a Plautus play, he had a policeman say, ‘Move along there,’ the kind of colloquialism you’d hear on the street or in Dixon of Dock Green; the Latin teacher crossed it out and suggested ‘Vacate the thoroughfare’ instead. Harrison had his revenge on him – and on everyone else for whom the word ‘Classics’ was and is synonymous with ‘posh’ – when he translated Palladas some years later, and rather than rendering him in the accustomed way, with the ‘stylish after-dinner despair of the high table’, caught ‘the authentic snarl’ of a man trapped in poverty and despair:
Death feeds us up, keeps an eye on our weight
and herds us like pigs through the abattoir gate …
Think of your father, sweating, drooling, drunk,
you, his spark of lust, his spurt of spunk.
When people are offended by brutally direct forms of writing, chances are it’ll be the ideas they’re objecting to as much as the words. That was certainly the case in the furore over Richard Eyre’s film version of Harrison’s poem V. when it was shown on Channel Four with none of its expletives deleted.Campaigners against the film claimed to be horrified by its vulgar tongue but the vulgarity of the author’s origins and politics were no less an issue. ‘The riff-raff takes over,’ the Tory MP Sir Gilbert Longden complained, while to his colleague Gerald Howarth it was a case of ‘another probable Bolshie poet seeking to impose his frustrations on the rest of us’. Just as Harrison’s English teacher wouldn’t allow him to impose his low-life Yorkshire accent on Keats, so right-wing newspapers and Conservative MPs wanted to prevent him from upsetting viewers with rude words about class division, youth unemployment and the miners’ strike.
In the film the poet plays himself – a bard among gravestones – with aplomb: if that English teacher had let his pupil speak more than four words he might have recognised Harrison’s gift for performance. All his plays are in verse and much of his poetry is theatrical: V. is a dialogue between the poet and his alter ego, the skinhead who is his second skin, the lad on benefits he might have been if he hadn’t had the benefits of an education. When Harrison mentions his poetry, his rival self, a graffiti artist, is scornful: ‘Who needs/yer fucking poufy words. Ah write mi own./Ah’ve got mi work on show all over Leeds.’ And when Harrison speculates that such graffiti are a cri de coeur,the response is contemptuous:
So what’s a cri-de-coeur, cunt? Can’t you speak
The language that yer mam spoke. Think of ’er!
Can yer only get yer tongue round fucking Greek?
Go and fuck yerself with cri-de-coeur!
Though a two-hander of sorts, a monologue disguised as a duologue, V. is also an elegy: for his parents, for childhood, for a time when gravestones weren’t vandalised. Coleridge described elegy as ‘a form of poetry natural to the reflective mind’, with ‘sorrow and love’ its principal themes. The description fits Harrison’s elegies, except that his disrupt the conventions of elegy, not just with the material they include – class, work, politics – but formally, through puns, dialect and hectic typography. Elegies are about loss but they’re where Harrison found his true voice, grieving less for death than for the thwarted lives that precede it. Elegies are invariably pastoral but his are urban; V. doesn’t come from a country churchyard but from a cemetery above a used-up pit. Elegies are supposed to be one-offs, like funeral addresses, but his are recurrent – Continuous is the title of one of his collections – and sometimes come in numbered parts and echo one another: his sonnet ‘Divisions’, for example (a quintessential Harrison title), includes the same props – skinhead haircuts, tattoos, football and aerosol-can graffiti – that later feature in V. Elegies look back but Harrison’s also look forward: the first line of V., published in 1985, invokes the next millennium, now with us (in the poem Harrison imagines not making it past 2015). Elegies are sad and sometimes despairing but his are also angry: in V. he turns the anger on himself but closes the poem optimistically with the word UNITED and the ‘v’ of victory rather than the ‘v’ of versus.
Harrison’s elegies are also acutely self-conscious. As well as the reflective mind, there’s an eye on the mirror – and on the audience. Rather than pretending that we, as readers, have secretly gained access to the poet’s private grief, his elegies remind us that they are public acts, or artefacts, and that he knows we’re there: he watches himself watching us watching him. The laments for his parents are both heartfelt and heart-on-the-sleeve. ‘I did then, and do now, choke back my tears,’ he says in one poem. Another talks of the page he’s writing on being smeared with ‘self-examination’s grudging tears’; in a third, ‘Isolation’, he depicts himself resisting tears three times after his mother’s death until he hears his father ‘bleat/round the ransacked house for his long johns’. The success of an elegy depends on its seeming sincerity but Harrison won’t allow us to lose ourselves in the emotional content: there’s a strenuous intellectual strand to what he writes. It’s not enough for the poems to move us.
Guilt is a recurring theme (‘I’m guilty, and the way I make it up’s/in poetry’). There’s the guilt of growing up and moving away. The guilt of upsetting his mother with the language he used in his first full collection, Loiners (‘You weren’t brought up to write such mucky books’). The guilt at not speaking at her funeral (‘if anyone should deliver an oration/it should be me, her son, in poetry’). The guilt of not seeing enough of his ageing, widowed dad: the sweets that Harrison brings him – Lifesavers, they’re optimistically called – are ‘only bought/rushing through JFK as a last thought’. There’s the guilt, after both their deaths, of not doing more to tend their graves, his visits ‘made up of odd 10 minutes such as these./Flying visits once or twice a year’. Above all, there’s the guilt of getting an education they never had and of writing things beyond their ken. ‘Sorry Dad you won’t get that quatrain,’ he says, adding, in parentheses: ‘I’d like to be the poet my father reads.’ He’d like to be that poet but instead – guilty again – accuses himself of selling out: ‘I’m opening my trap/to busk the class that broke him’.
Seamus Heaney, too, felt guilty about breaking with his father and forefathers and was similarly eager to pledge affiliation, his pen employed to do the work of a spade. In ‘Follower’, he writes of the way his father ‘keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away’. Harrison’s footsteps are dogged in the same way. ‘Once I’m writing I can’t put you down,’ he complains: he can’t deprecate his father and can’t leave him alone. When he joins a shop queue, ‘It’s always a man like him that I’m behind/just when I thought the pain of him would go/reminding me perhaps it never goes.’ His finest tribute to his father comes in the poem ‘Marked with D’:
When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
‘not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie’.
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there’s no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.
The baker’s man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.
The title alludes to the nursery rhyme ‘Pat a Cake, Pat a Cake, Baker’s Man’, and the phrase ‘baker’s man’ turns up four lines from the end, to underline the theme of servitude – to be someone’s man is to be at the beck and call of your master. Here the ‘D’ is the ‘D’ on a dunce’s cap, Harrison’s father (in his baker’s hat) having been made to feel stupid by his social betters. More to the point, ‘D’ stands for death. Yet it’s not his father’s death that’s being mourned so much as his life: he was ‘kept down’, his only consolation the prospect of a life hereafter. Hence those cataracts, a standard Romantic or pantheistic trope – the glory of god as embodied in the mighty rush of a waterfall. Except that here the cataracts are an eye condition that results in blurred sight and magical thinking. The poet doesn’t undercut that faith in an afterlife so much as register disappointment that he can’t share it, using the Lord’s Prayer’s ‘daily bread’ to convey his atheism. When his father’s tongue bursts into flame, it doesn’t do so metaphorically, allowing a man of few words to become articulate, ‘but only literally’, a pedantic expression that in the context of cremation becomes heartbreaking.
‘I try to make connections where I can,’ Harrison writes elsewhere, and in this poem he makes connections between flesh and dough; between a bakery and a crematorium; between ash and flour; between bread rising, and people rising in society, and the soul rising, or maybe not, after the body dies. The connections may be simple but they’re tentatively expressed. The oven his father’s body is consigned to is ‘not unlike’ the ovens he fuelled all his life; ash is ‘not unlike’ flour. It’s as though this warier form of simile is a more dignified mode in which to commemorate a dead parent: the metaphors mustn’t look too pat. In a similar spirit the poem is strenuous in circumscribing the connotations around the image of ovens: a reader coming to that word ‘smoke’ in the penultimate line may find it hard to suppress the thought of Auschwitz, and of lives even more brutally curtailed than Harrison’s father’s was, but the poem doesn’t invite it. On the contrary, the smoke is sufficient only to ‘sting one person’s eyes’, those of the bereaved son. Private grief then, but grief fuelled by anger that a man should be made to feel ‘like some dull oaf’ – a perfect rhyme with loaf. ‘Use your loaf,’ people say, meaning ‘wise up,’ and that’s what the poet is doing, on behalf of his father, who worked so hard earning his bread – by making bread – that he had no time for the getting of wisdom. It’s a poem of clear-sightedness and hard thinking, and frank about its rhyming – apart from ‘oven’/‘heaven’, all the rhymes are full rhymes, and one of them, ‘Florrie’/ ‘sorry’, so full as to seem almost banal.
Leaden tongues seem to have been a Harrison family trait. There were also his two uncles:
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.
The stammering uncle worked as a printer, the other, a deaf mute, would flick through a dictionary to point to the word he would have wanted to say. For both, communication meant inky fingers: hence, in part, the choice of title for Harrison’s selected prose, The Inky Digit of Defiance, a phrase he once heard used by a BBC reporter about women in Afghanistan emerging from polling booths and displaying their ink-stained fingers to show they had voted. The phrase also applies to the poet himself, who writes with a fountain pen in defiance of the digital age. He may be more proficient in languages than his uncles and father, having Latin and Greek as well as English, but when he alludes to ‘tongues I’ve slaved to speak or read’, ‘slaved’ is his way of claiming solidarity with them. So is the effortfulness of his versification. Yeats thought that poets should disguise all the work they put in (‘A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’) but Harrison lets his work show. He may be the first poet to rhyme ‘owt on?’ (as in the barber asking the customer whether he wants gel on his hair) with ‘Xenophon’. But even when they’re clever, the rhymes are clunky. He wants us to hear the industry involved in his verse-making, the clatter of dialect and thud of monosyllables.
Defiance isn’t always ‘ink-stained’. In his selected prose, Harrison commemorates the ‘nicotine-stained digits of defiance’ of the actor Walter Sparrow, who as the chain-smoking ex-miner in Harrison’s film Prometheus delivers a scorching attack on the anti-smoking lobby:
You just get t’first drag down your throat ’n
Some bugger’s barking it’s verboten …
There’s not one joy but what some berk’ll
Want it ringed wi’ a red circle.
That could be David Hockney moaning about the nanny state – and there’s a connection of sorts (both were born into working-class Yorkshire homes in 1937), as there is with Alan Bennett (born in Leeds in 1934). Harrison’s mode is more aggrieved than Bennett’s but the woman overheard passing judgment on his version of The Misanthrope – ‘He has such a command over language! But they say he comes from Sheffield’ – could have come from a Bennett play. Harrison isn’t lacking in humour: it may be more ribald than Bennett’s but he wouldn’t have embarked on two different versions of Lysistrata without it. And whatever his resentment of English snobbery, he didn’t object to being teased about his ‘humble origins’ by the Hollywood director George Cukor, who to rub it in once sent a green Rolls-Royce to chauffeur him along Sunset Boulevard to Cukor’s house. The two became friends while working on an ill-fated film (later described as one of ‘the most expensive flops in movie history’) called The Blue Bird, an adaptation of Maeterlinck’s play. Harrison’s brief was to write the lyrics, most of which weren’t used; the producers were looking for charm and prettiness, and though his couplets sought to oblige (‘Look, the ice skates as they glide/hiss and hiss, self-satisfied’), charm and prettiness aren’t his shtick. He learned some useful lessons even so, and acted on them in his own film-making: lessons about making sound and picture play with and against each other, rather than using image to ‘illustrate’ words, and lessons about the connection between ‘metrical beat and cinematic scansion’. As a child he had regularly ‘gone to t’flicks’, and even made his own flick-books, and came to associate flickering images with the fleeting nature of life. Ephemerality is a preoccupation in his films – whether the subject is war, dementia or the Rushdie affair – and the use of poetry doesn’t diminish it: on the contrary, he says, ‘committing to metre is to emphasise the time that ticks away as our lives get shorter.’ Nor does ephemerality dismay him: to stage a one-off performance of a play makes the experience more intense for all involved. Ditto the one-off nature of life, which he neologises as ‘fruitility’ (‘Meaningless our lives may be/but blessed with deep fruitility’) and celebrates in his version of a poem by Amphis from the fourth century bc:
One glass and no refill
is life for men,
so keep pouring till
Death says when.
In his early movie-going, Harrison happily embraced the ‘realism’ of cinema: ‘When I first saw a play in a proscenium theatre … with actors only addressing each other and pouring drinks and smoking cigarettes, I felt bored and excluded. But I could enter into the realism of cinema because it was not a live exchange. The actors didn’t know I was there.’ Yet his own films, with their insistent rhyming, take pains to avoid realism. So, even more strenuously, do his plays. When he started writing for the National Theatre, the Olivier stage seemed an ideal space for verse drama: not the sort associated with T.S. Eliot, ‘so discreet and well bred in its metrical gentility you wondered why it bothered to go public at all,’ but something more akin to music hall or panto, with ‘a vernacular energy to crackle across the footlights and engage an audience’. Ibsen thought verse drama ‘doomed to extinction’. Harrison thought it ready for revival. The trick was to rough it up, for drawing-room cocktails to become flagons of wine and clogs to replace carpet slippers.
For his Oresteia, Harrison used masks, which with their fixed open mouths allow the actor ‘to speak in situations that “normally” or in realistic drama would render a person speechless’. The messenger comes onstage to report that what he’s just seen is indescribable, then describes it at length, in grisly detail: ‘The eyes of the tragic mask are always open to witness even the worst, and the mouth is always open to make poetry from it.’ Ancient Greek plays were staged in daylight, and for Harrison that’s a mark of their commonality: actors and audience share the same space; there’s no hiding in the dark, no suffering on your own, and no room for the author to indulge in ‘the audience-dodging evasions of much modernism’. What the classics offer is the ‘ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic’. We’re all in this together.
Poetry may destroy the illusion of realism in plays but it aids performance. ‘Couplets keep the cat on the hot tin roof,’ Harrison says, and quotes Coleridge’s claim that ‘metre is a stimulant to attention’ (including the attention of actors, who find it helps them remember their lines). A metronomic rhythm can be good for comedy, as he found when reworking The Misanthrope. But he also aspires to something darker, the heartbeat or ‘bloodthrob’ of a tom-tom. He’s keen on consonants, too, Yorkshire idiom being consonantal. The effect may be clogging but no matter: there’s nowt wrong with clogs. One of the essays in his selected prose pays homage to Browning’s much derided translation of Agamemnon, with its staccato music and hyphenated Anglo-Saxon compounds. Harrison took a cue from him, and from Hopkins, when tackling the Oresteia, and quotes a pageful of his own efforts, including ‘gut-truth’, ‘blood-smog’ and ‘griefstrings’.
His last play at the National Theatre was Fram in 2008, and there have been no recent films either. It’s not for lack of energy or ideas. A recurring complaint in the selected prose is how many Unrealised Projects (capital U and capital P) he is sitting on, films and plays he can’t get commissioned because of the prevalence of ‘television realism’, with its ‘narrow naturalistic fixations’ and ‘suffocation’. At the very least, there’s a case for a major revival of plays such as Trackers and for an NFT season of his films, which deserve a better showing than they get on YouTube.
In the meantime, there’s The Inky Digit of Defiance, which for all Harrison’s allergy to prose is more than five hundred pages long, and the latest, equally bulky edition of his Collected Poems, which ends with a piece called ‘Shrapnel’ that epitomises Harrison’s gift for writing about Now while seemingly writing about Then. The poem recalls a Second World War air raid on Leeds which – thanks perhaps to the humane instinct of the German plane crew – left a family home intact and dropped its bombs on a nearby park instead: the house still stands today, along with ‘those of Hasib mir Husain,/Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer’ – three of the men who carried out the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. That they should have come from the neighbourhood Harrison grew up in is the kind of coincidence he thrives on (receiving mail addressed to a Mrs Muse at his current address, 9 The Grove, is another). If you’re as steeped in the classics as he is, you notice when history repeats itself: that’s why so much of his verse adopts a circular, repetitive pattern – we hear it once then hear it again. There’s prescience, too: when he recalls his father’s racist gripes in a poem called ‘Next Door’ (‘It won’t be long before Ahem t’only white!’, ‘All turbans round here, now, forget flat caps’), it’s as if he could see Brexit coming, or the sense of disenfranchisement that led to it: us v. them, insiders v. outsiders, the ‘dreadful schism in the British nation’. It’s a waste that a writer so alert to the history he has lived through can’t be commissioned to write about the present time. Then again, he already has.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.