Tony Harrison, Polygons
Saltaire, Salt’s Mill, in celebration of Tony Harrison’s 80th birthday, 30th April 2017
The word zmrzlina, from way back, pops into my mind,
its syllables all lickable like the treat they denoted,
a word flourished proudly to buy ices in Prague
for my kids
The evocation of this Czech word for ice-cream ‘from way back’ shows us something of what is absolutely fundamental to Tony Harrison’s verse: the very sensuous relish that he has for the physical character of words, their ‘syllables all lickable’. This instance is from ‘Cornet and Cartridge’ in the newly published pamphlet Polygons, but is no less evident in his earliest work. In ‘Thomas Campey and the Copernican System’ the ‘angels serried in a dark, Leeds sky / Chanting Angina- a, angina pectoris’ there is the relish in ‘serried’, and especially in the mock-liturgical Latin of ‘angina pectoris’ which Harrison always does chant in readings. How these words stretch the mouth, their demands on the physical body, is what draws him to combine them in his poetry.
The title poem in Polygons
is an ambulatory, autobiographical poem with strong elegiac elements. Its theme is the passage of time, from geological time with the movement of ancient continents with their many-sided boulders and shales, through the massive, but nonetheless vulnerable walls and temples of ancient Greece:
The limestone / flysch such masonry’s carved from
can crash down as boulders in rockfalls like ...
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