Beetle bonkers in the beams

Michael Wood

  • Collected Film Poetry by Tony Harrison
    Faber, 414 pp, £20.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23409 7
  • Collected Poems by Tony Harrison
    Viking, 452 pp, £154.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 670 91591 0

One of the great pleasures of reading Tony Harrison is the sense of quick passage between worlds, the sudden switch from the local to the international and back. At one moment he immerses us in a Northern (or Midlands in my case) English worry about what happens to us socially when we drop our ‘h’s and pronounce our ‘u’s as in ‘wuss’ rather than as in (the Southern form of) ‘lustre’, the next he is wondering how to memorialise the dead of Hiroshima or the Gulf War. The implication is not that these difficulties are in themselves related but that the thoroughgoing imagination of any significant difficulty will help us to think concretely about others. I first came across Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, a lyrical prose piece about the oppression and liberation of the black population of Martinique, as a title in Harrison’s poem ‘On Not Being Milton’; recently, I found myself returning to the poem and its Yorkshire worries (‘The stutter of the scold out of the branks/of condescension, class and counter-class’) as a way of understanding how Césaire works with what Harrison calls ‘owned language’.

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[*] LRB, 24 January 1985.