My first acquaintance with Tony Harrison's poetry came in 1976 in my third year as a student when, in one of his Shakespeare lectures, Geoffrey Hill drew his audience's attention to a forthcoming book entitled from the School of Eloquence
. It was written, he told us, by a poet with strong Leeds connections and one whom we should all make a point of reading. When it was published in 1978 it certainly didn't disappoint. Here were poems bristling with an explicit historical awareness of the language and they came from a context immediately recognizable to me as a Leeds undergraduate studying the English syllabus in the 1970s. Daniel Jones, Richard Hoggart, and E.P. Thompson were all cited as sources and integrated into the matrix of the poetry. And that was my initial excitement as a student of literature who was also attempting to write poetry: here was a poet not only able to assert himself in the face of history, but capable of engaging explicitly and creatively with the language of history so that it became his own. Even more surprising was that these sixteen–line sonnets demonstrated in imaginative form the credo of our English Language course: that different regional versions of contemporary English had equal validity and equal capacity for expression and creativity.
If the explicitness of Harrison’s engagement with history was exhilarating, so too was the form of his poems. His extended sonnets paraded their metrical form in a full-on fashion which hit me like a revelation. Here was someone taking strong traditional forms and putting them to the test not only of history, but of our own conflicted post-War contemporaneity. So it was also immediately apparent from the evidence of the poems in from the School of Eloquence
that Harrison’s verse was – in terms of both form and content – something distinctive and original. In most of the contemporary poetry I’d read up to that point – Hughes, Heaney, Hill, Larkin, and others – the mode was usually indirect or encrypted through metaphor. The very point of other poets was their implicitness, their metaphoricity. With Harrison, it seemed, form and content were put under pressure of an imagination which made them at once direct, explicit, and exposed.
When, a few months later, I managed to obtain a second-hand copy of his translations – or ‘versions’ – of the Greek poet Palladas, I found the preface particularly compelling. Here Harrison presented a pagan poet living at the onset of the Christian era who declaimed against the destruction of his culture by the followers of the new religion. Tellingly, Harrison describes this ‘last poet of Paganism’ as more ‘pointed’ than ‘most of his predecessors’. Palladas is capable of elegance and ‘passingly smooth imitations’, but opts instead for his own kind of ‘authentic snarl’. ‘There is a strong sense of form in Palladas,’ Harrison informs us, ‘and it is something which barely seems able to contain the apoplectic energy of his nihilistic scorn.’ The description here of form pushed to the limit to produce an urgent instability is something close to Harrison’s own practice. But one would also want to acknowledge the distance between the two writers, as Harrison himself does with characteristic irreverence in his dedication to the volume by giving the fourth-century writer the first and last words – ‘Palladas haunted Harrison: These versions of yours! God! / What did I ever do to you / you rotten little sod?’
Nevertheless, my strong feeling at the time was that in this typically combative and irreverent mode Harrison had revealed something not only about himself as a courageous and productively angry writer but also, more generally, about how one might write and be contemporary by drawing down to one's aid the full weight of history.
These first impressions in the late 1970s were formed before I had the great privilege of hearing Harrison read his own poems. That came when I returned to Leeds in the early 1980s and he gave three readings here – two of them on campus at the University and one in the function room of the Original Oak in Headingley. (The last two were filmed by Channel 4.) Tony is one of the most accomplished and compelling readers of his own poetry in the last two generations. Once heard, it is difficult to forget the version of the poem he has presented, right down to the modulated length of the pauses. (I can hear now the differentiation between the gaps of the three last words of ‘Book Ends’ – ‘books, books, books’.) Adding the presence of Tony’s voice to my hitherto bookish perceptions confirmed the explicit mode of his poetry. His deliberate and richly ceremonial delivery held out the poems before his audience while his word-perfect and repeated introductions assigned the poems a clear context which firmly established the basis of the conflict they inhabited. What I hadn’t quite been prepared for was the drama of speech which the readings brought home. Here was a poet whose natural territory was the voice and whose mode was inherently dramatic. The silence with which he carefully frames his poems when he reads doesn’t simply add to that dramatic effect, it is an integral component of his work. It gives us a palpable glimpse of that which the voice is pitched against and threatened with – at the level both of the individual and, as with Palladas, of our civilization more generally. Over the last five decades or so we have been lucky to have Harrison’s poetic voice in both poems and plays serve as conscientious witness to our times.
‘Tony Harrison at 80: A Celebration' will take place at the University of Leeds on Friday 10 and Saturday 11 November 2017. Tony will be reading at 18.30 on the Friday in the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall. (Tickets will be available through Eventbrite.) Please visit the University of Leeds Poetry Centre website for more information: