'Owned Language': A Homage for Tony Harrison at 80
Tony Harrison and I are from the same generation and from similar Northern working-class backgrounds. I am 74 and come from Bolton, Lancashire, left school at 16, and most of my working life was in the ‘path lab’ of the local hospital. Language, at home effectively defined who I was and what I could do. Harrison had a classical and literary grounding at Leeds Grammar School and the University of Leeds. So, some parallels but massive gaps in time; my first close encounter with the sonnet form occurred post-retirement through the Open University. This shocking illumination of the power of language was with Harrison’s iconic poems ‘On not Being Milton’ and with ‘Them & [uz]’. I admired Harrison’s consummate command of the sonnet form with all its courtly ancestry to interrogate perceptions of ‘owned language’.
These two, of all of Harrison’s poems, helped to lead me from the Open University to a Creative PhD and to write occasionally for Stand. How? All my own recent poetry considers notions of ‘owned language’ in general, and in the final chapter of my thesis, I reflected upon these two sonnets in particular, bringing my journey full-circle. In common with my poet-hero’s earlier experience, I found that using established poetic form both informed and deformed my natural speaking (and writing) voice. Thus, in going through what I thought of as the same ‘mill’ the resulting poems constitute at once homage to Harrison and my own ‘reinvention’ as a formalist poet.
What follows are two of my poems which I hope will show both homage, and ...
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