The Authentic Snarl

Blake Morrison

  • The Inky Digit of Defiance: Selected Prose 1966-2016 by Tony Harrison, edited by Edith Hall
    Faber, 544 pp, £25.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 32503 0
  • Collected Poems by Tony Harrison
    Penguin, 464 pp, £9.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 97435 3

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!

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[*] The poem was published first in the LRB of 24 January 1985.