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’.

The dead are essential to Harrison’s writing. Mortality, gravestones, statues, displaced or disfigured monuments are everywhere, from the long poem ‘v.’ (1985, first published in this paper)[*] to the television films Loving Memory (1987) and The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992). Not quite everywhere, but in a lot of places, an unavoidable yet contested metrical and thematic ghost, is Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. It’s necessary only to list the now proverbial phrases from the poem to see both its appeal and what we might find wrong with it: ‘rude forefathers’, ‘the short and simple annals of the poor’, ‘the paths of glory’ (that ‘lead but to the grave’), ‘far from the madding crowd’, ‘the unlettered muse’, ‘the unhonoured dead’. It’s fine to honour the poor and the departed, but we don’t have to be so humble and defeated about it. William Empson pointed out long ago the creepy quietism of the poem’s sentiment: it is ‘stated as pathetic’, he said, ‘but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it.’ Harrison repeatedly borrows the stanza form and rhyme scheme of the ‘Elegy’, but reverses the mood. He is elegiac but also angry and irreverent; the metre is the same but the beat is different, and the rhymes are all wit and invention rather than melancholy music:

Wheelwright’s and blacksmith’s workshops both are sold,
each a des. res. and the sequestered vale
as each craftsman’s like the miller’s curfew’s tolled
is less and less sequestered and for sale.

Strange how poetry most people think a bore,
poetry that people of our period despise
or if they don’t despise it just ignore,
seems to surface fast when someone dies.

(‘Loving Memory’)

In an introduction to his Collected Film Poetry Tony Harrison recalls working with the director George Cukor on a ludicrously conceived and commercially unlucky movie version of Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird. The work starred Jane Fonda as Night, Ava Gardner as Luxury, and Elizabeth Taylor as Queen of Light and Maternal Love. You can see where the problems might arise, even if Maeterlinck was not a bit of a problem to start with. It was a Soviet-American coproduction, partly shot in what was then Leningrad, where Harrison encountered a work that changed all his ideas about what film and poetry could do for each other. ‘Seeing Tarkovsky’s Mirror in the middle of the making of The Blue Bird stamped my poetic film priorities for the rest of my career.’ More precisely, The Mirror, which explores the historical and personal memories of a dying man, awoke and answered an old concern, born when Harrison saw the newsreel footage of bodies being bulldozed into pits at Belsen. ‘I have never forgotten that introduction to the filming of real life or, in this case, real and terrifying death. Nor how jarring the voice-over narrations were! What narrator could find the right tone for such terror?’ In Mirror the director’s father reads a poem on the soundtrack, an eloquent verbal denial of all the dying so visible on the screen: ‘On earth there is no death./All are immortal. All is immortal.’ Even knowing little Russian Harrison ‘could hear the strong metre and the rhymes of the poem’, and began to think poetry might offer the best or perhaps the only tone for terror.

Much of Harrison’s later practice tests this insight, notably ‘A Cold Coming’ (1991), a poem about the Gulf War first published in the Guardian, but also earlier and later works – his brilliant translations of Martial (1981), for example, and his Channel 4 film The Shadow of Hiroshima (1995). This is not to say Harrison always gets the right tone, or even that there is a right tone for what he wants to do. Sometimes a raw wrong tone is what he needs, and his verse moves in and out of doggerel without coming to any harm beyond a lowering of energy. In The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989), a BBC film about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, lines like

Omar Khayyam, the poet of Iran
whose quatrain I’m using here, as best I can,
will pour for us his choicest flask of wine
while I pass round the Peshawari nan.

are followed by the very different

The thorny whys and wherefores, awkward whences,
things that seduce or shame or shock the senses
panic the one-book creeds into erecting
a fence against all filth and all offences.

You have to admire a poet who can so prodigally throw in an extra rhyme on ‘-ence’, and who elsewhere in the same work rhymes ‘swallows’ (Yorkshire pronunciation) with ‘Ayatollahs’. Another BBC film, The Gaze of the Gorgon, is about the fate of a statue of Heinrich Heine, transported to Corfu by the Empress Elizabeth and then deported by the kaiser, who digs up a Gorgon’s head which for Harrison defines the horrors of the 20th century: ‘Will all our freedoms and glories/end up in the Gorgon’s gaze?’ Here, faithful as ever to his old accent, he rhymes ‘crying wolf’, with ‘deserts of the Gulf’ and the echo makes a firm point. Sometimes the wolf is there when the child cries, and is as real as a war.

Collected Film Poetry also contains the texts of the remarkable Loving Memory, a sequence of four films made for BBC2, and the rather disappointing Crossings (2002), which starts out as an imitation of and homage to Auden and Grierson’s Night Mail, but turns into a whine about what’s wrong with the old country. Generally, there is a lurking sadness in this volume, in spite of its many displays of verbal energy. Both Harrison and Peter Symes, who worked with him on a number of these pieces, insist quite rightly that the films are the thing, the texts ‘a poor substitute’, in Symes’s words, ‘for seeing them and hearing them’. I hate to ask why we could not have the films themselves on DVD – chiefly because the reasons are likely to be depressing – but their absence is more than a casual problem. This book of ‘film poetry’ sometimes offers real scripts: when we are told, in Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), that an image of ‘bare winter trees’ is ‘an X-ray of forgetfulness’ because it suggests ‘the pattern of the brain’s blood supply with the sections damaged, as an Alzheimer’s patient’s brain might be revealed through positron emission tomography’, it’s possible that the words help us more than the picture did or could. Elsewhere, labels like ‘The Bronx, New York’, ‘Restaurant in Bristol’, ‘Long Hospital Corridor’ are not evocations of places or meanings, they are empty gestures to what is not there on the page.

With Harrison’s Collected Poems, the works are their own movies, so to speak, complete entities in their own right and in their own medium. It’s important, I think, that he can hear metre and rhyme in a language he doesn’t know, and at the end of his introduction to Collected Film Poetry he says: ‘Committing to metre is to emphasise the time that ticks away as our lives get shorter.’ Metre enacts in interesting ways what is a banality when offered as a proposition. And rhyme? Harrison doesn’t say, but his poems speak for him. Rhyme connects what is otherwise scattered, makes magical semantic connections where there seemed to be only sound. My guess is that it is because he is such a skilful and inventive translator that Harrison is so interested, as he says in the same essay, in ‘searching for equivalents’. Rhyme is one form of equivalent – it is also an old-fashioned way of signifying ‘poetry’ – and Harrison never lets it go. But there are other forms, and nothing is more characteristic of Harrison’s work than intricate pile-ups of meaning, often in puns but also in relatively straightforward double senses of single words, or slight shifts of context.

In ‘v.’, for example, ‘fixtures’, meaning regular football matches, becomes a word for what we can’t change, like bad plumbing or the harsh structures of human conflict, ‘all the versuses of life/from LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White …/the unending violence of US and THEM’. A ‘supporter’ is a ‘poetry supporter’, as if art was a team; and ‘the life of Leeds’ is ‘supported by the dead’. However, since the graveyard being described sits above a disused coalmine, the dead themselves are supported by nothing. Harrison sees the word ‘UNITED graffitied on my parents’ stone’. At least this is better than the CUNT, PISS, FUCK, SHIT and PAKI GIT on some of the other tombs, and Harrison even tries – or parodies himself trying – to get a higher meaning from the sprayed word. Perhaps ‘united’ means ‘united in heaven’, an inadvertent kindly wish, ‘an accident of meaning to redeem/an act intended as mere desecration’. In fact there is an accident of meaning here, but not this one. The word ‘united’ acts out a vivid and unreconciled irony, an antithetical claim. No one is united in this poem, neither Harrison with his love nor the skinhead he meets in the graveyard with any kind of job or hope. The Leeds football team is not united, in spite of its name. The dead parents are not united; nor is the United Kingdom itself, riven at the time by the miners’ strike. And yet the word lingers, meaning what it means, like the ghost of a chance or a permanent reproach. Multiple senses make a point of their own, the words remember what our single-minded intentions require us to forget.

It’s not that the words are complicated, it’s just that they have several jobs to do, and none of us is their only employer. Think of a simple, sentimental-seeming line like Harrison’s ‘I’d like to be the poet my father reads.’ This can’t mean, ‘I’d like my father to read my poetry,’ since his father presumably did, whether he liked it or not. His mother certainly did, and didn’t like it, as Harrison tells us in other poems. It doesn’t mean: ‘I wish my father was someone different, the sort of person who reads “poetry”.’ Rather, since the previous line is ‘Sorry, dad, you won’t get that quatrain,’ the short sentence finally suggests something along these lines: ‘Although I would like to be the kind of poet my father would read (if he read poetry), this is not going to happen, because poetry for me is always crammed with allusions and associative leaps quite alien to my father and to many of my readers, whether working-class or middle-class, whether educated or not.’

Harrison tells us that when he visited George Cukor in California, the director sent a car for him, saying: ‘I thought that someone of your humble origins might like to be picked up in a green Rolls-Royce.’ Harrison sees that Cukor is ‘making fun’ of him, presumably smiling at the quaintness of English ideas of class, but it is also possible that Cukor’s joke went deeper, and was aimed not at Harrison’s class but at his parading of it in his poems. Class, along with accent and Northernness, are the great subjects of Harrison’s best work, much of it concentrated in The School of Eloquence, a sequence of 16-line sonnets, published mainly between 1986 and 1990, although there appears to be at least one new poem in Collected Poems – it has a mention of ‘the World Trade Center’s unbombarded towers’.

Harrison is taking a risk here, since the working-class lad educated beyond his station was a cliché even before Richard Hoggart gave him his long sociological life, and there are many ways of being estranged from your parents that do not involve learning Greek and Latin and reading books they can’t manage. Ask the middle classes. Harrison seems to be blaming his father and mother for being who they are (a baker and his houseproud wife), and himself for leaving home. ‘Your bed’s got two wrong sides,’ he says to his father in a poem. ‘Your life’s all grouse.’ He himself now knows all kinds of languages but has also lost one language for good: ‘the tongue that I once used to know/but can’t bone up on now, and that’s mi mam’s.’ ‘Bone up on’ is a grisly joke but very apt; skeletons are poor teachers of fluency. In fact, although Harrison might demur, the drama of upward and out-of-here mobility is just a backdrop, a narrative setting for Harrison’s real subject: the need for language to break with silence and to remember silence. This is at once an aesthetic and a political subject, a matter of style and of witnessing; and of the necessary failures of style and witnessing.

‘I’ve come round to your position on “the Arts”,’ Harrison writes to his father, ‘but put it down in poems, that’s the bind.’ This position is no doubt reflected in Harrison’s comment on ‘the sad poetry world’ in Collected Film Poetry. ‘I’ll burn my books,’ he says to his father in another poem. But this is itself a quotation from a book, a desperate and too late promise from a fictional character. And there isn’t really a bind here. ‘The Arts’ are suspect because they believe too thoroughly in their own success; and the educated reader who gets the allusions is in no better shape than the dad who does not – unless he or she can see what Harrison calls ‘the ghosts of the inarticulate’, whom he wishes always to ‘quote … in the scale against poetry’. ‘Quote’ again is very precise. They can’t speak but they can be quoted, like the two uncles, one a stammerer, the other dumb, to whom Harrison says he owes his poetic formation. ‘I’ll burn my books’ is also a good example of poetry quoting a ghost against poetry.

The first full poem in The School of Eloquence, ‘On Not Being Milton’, is preceded by 16 lines from a Latin poem by Milton himself, quoted without translation. The poem, a quick check establishes, is called ‘Ad patrem’, ‘To my father’. ‘On Not Being Milton’ is dedicated to two members of the Mozambique liberation movement, Frelimo, and Harrison says the poem is his version of a Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. He goes on to celebrate the revolt of rough Northern accents against Received Pronunciation, offers ‘three cheers for mute ingloriousness’ and evokes ‘the silence round all poetry’.

Milton, Césaire, Frelimo, 17th-century England, Martinique, Africa, empire, accent as rebellion, a celebration of silence and a memory of silence: this poem is full of preoccupations from different times and places, and the buried allusion to Gray’s ‘Elegy’ does some very interesting work. ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air,’ Gray wrote, suggesting also that ‘Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest’ – ‘here’ being the country churchyard of the poem’s title. The idea is tempting, semi-consoling and ultimately incoherent. If this corpse, in life, was mute and inglorious he just wasn’t Milton. This is precisely Harrison’s point. Liberation, from whatever form of oppression, can only come through speech; yet that speech needs to remain true to the silence of the speechless, and not merely speak for them, or assimilate them to a new articulate class. ‘Not being Milton’ means not being able to be Milton, and not wanting to be Milton. And managing to be somebody else, an heir of Milton after all.

Some of Harrison’s later verse can get pretty desultory, fine clusters of words looking for a subject, but if you feel he’s flagging, take a look at the wonderful ‘Deathwatch Danceathon’, a poem in the form of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, ostensibly about Princess Diana and her indiscretions, but really all about the restlessly procreating beetles who eat our buildings, it seems, while they screw:

The mortal patient in the bed
hears their mating call with dread.
He hears the termite dancers tapping
tattoos that terminate in tupping,
the Deathwatch Beetle like Blind Pew
groping towards his rendezvous
and that dry staccato sound
brings old institutions to the ground.

Beetle bonkers in the beams
spell the end of old regimes.
Down come beams and joists and doors
to the foreplay of the xylovores,
ancient truss and cruck
cracked by fronsaphonic fuck.
Bluntly put the bugger’s fucked yer
entire infested infrastructure.

A Russian who knew very little English would easily hear ‘the strong metre and the rhymes’ of this poem; and would probably hear the courage and the fun of it, the embrace of time that ticks away.

[*] LRB, 24 January 1985.