Collected Poems, by Tony Harrison (review)

Tony Harrison   Collected Poems    Viking (hardback)    £30

Tony Harrison   Collected Film Poetry  Faber & Faber (paperback) £20

Tony Harrison once acted as Barry Cryer’s stooge in revues (Cryer was a Leeds contemporary). It isn’t surprising. Harrison’s poetry is studious drollery, loves performance, is addicted to wordplay, aphorisms, epigrams. We see this in the tetchy wit of translations of Palladas (1975) and Martial (1981), and in recent, more disposable squibs at Bush and Blair. We see it in punning titles (great ones like v. and The Rhubarbarians, and dodgy ones like The Ode Not Taken, A Cold Coming and Fig On The Tyne). We read it in lines like ‘The penny dropped in time’ in Illuminations, about his father’s objections to Harrison watching slot-machine horror-shows at Blackpool; in stunning rhymes (‘Svengali’/ ‘finale’); in memories of toilet-paper poems in Reading The Rolls: An Arse-Verse: ‘No poems now on toilet paper/ (imagine slim flat-packs from Faber, /but not the sort of verse one reads/ and harder on the haemorrhoids!)’. And we sense it in the brutal, tender clarity of his verse. Harrison wants to be understood, read, watched; to be profoundly accessible, as well as accessibly profound.

          As a public poet – ‘by trade’ – his writing deals with resonant subjects, most obviously in his Bosnia, Hiroshima, and Gulf War pieces. But this resonance is also there in his School Of Eloquence sequence of sixteen-line sonnets. The intimacy of poems about his parents, and their deaths, is striking. So is his use of this intimacy to argue against ‘Hansard standards’ of language, for the need to be articulate (a favourite Harrison word), to ‘[break] the silence of the worked-out gob’. Harrison is a brilliant reader – a pity his Collected Poems don’t come with a CD. How else to hear his withering imitation of the teacher, in Them & [uz], who told him ‘You’re one of those/ Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’?   

          And how to read his Collected Film Poetry without being able to see, or see again, the film/poems, most notably Black Daisies For The Bride (1994), his moving exploration of Alzheimer’s? Introducing Collected Film Poetry, his collaborator Peter Symes admits that ‘reading them is a poor substitute for seeing and hearing’ and that ‘getting hold of these films is not easy’. He’s right, twice. Without video, you struggle to make sense of the energy put into matching words and images. As with collections of lyrics, the words hang vaguely on the page.

          Shorn of its image of the Iraqi driver, A Cold Coming also suffers, as in every re-print since appearing on the Guardian’s news-pages (at Harrison’s insistence). The central idea of the poem, a dialogue, like v., is that the Iraqi is impotent – unlike three American soldiers who banked their sperm beforehand. Of all Harrison’s poems, this one is most open to the charge of hammering rhymes until the poem is flat. But it also reminds us that Harrison is the poet of bodies, of blood, sweat, piss, shit, and (repeatedly) sperm.

          Collected Poems also shows us an apologetic writer. The remorseless but entertaining formalism keeps a darker remorse in check. His persistently skilful use of metre and rhyme holds his poetry in constant tension – assertive, strenuous rhythms fending off deep-seated doubt. In an early poem, Durham, he wonders to his partner whether ‘we, / alone two hours, can ever be/ love’s antibodies in the sick, / sick body politic’. He admits of his parents’ grave that ‘I can’t squeeze more love into their stone’ (Book Ends), and of his arguments with his father that ‘I’m guilty, and the way I make it up ’s/ in poetry’ (Confessional Poetry). This guilt gives Harrison strength, and an edge more exhilarating in shorter poems, than in very editable longer ones, including v. v., however, is a central achievement. As in Harrison’s best work, its form is articulate about being inarticulate – the virtue of his reclamation of demotic verse.

          The splenetic publicity surrounding Richard Eyre’s film of v., two years after publication, allowed millions a taste of Harrison’s expertise with rhyming iambic pentameter. The graffitied graveyard, and the debate with Harrison’s alter ego, the ‘skin’ (a fantastic pun), remain powerful. The cemetery’s desecration allows Harrison to trap readers into considering the desecration of unemployment. Its diversions into memories of his father, and his own ‘vandalism’ against Gaitskell, are distracting. But the flexibility of Harrison’s pentameters is extraordinary: ‘Vs sprayed on the run at such a lick,/ the sprayer master of his flourished tool,/ get short-armed on the left like that red tick/ they never marked his work much with at school.’ Two decisive emphases open the first line; two monosyllabic beats close the third line, in which the stress falls on short, armed, left, red and tick. Harrison’s ability to eviscerate, to re-invent iambic pentameter is unrivalled.

          Collected Poems contains two misprints: ‘graffitied’ becomes ‘grattified’ in v., and ‘Fill In The Blank’ becomes ‘Fill In The Bank’ in First Aid In English; an opportunity’s missed to spell ‘vocal cords’ consistently (two cords, two chords). This is irritating, but does not impinge on Harrison’s status, at 70, as the clearest, most passionate voice in English poetry – and the most prolific, aside from Les Murray, next year’s septuagenarian. His finest poem, stamped on my memory, constantly quotable, remains the elegy Long Distance:  ‘I believe life ends with death, and that is all./ You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,/ in my new black leather phone book there’s your name/ and the disconnected number I still call.’ No contemporary poet deals with language, and with death, with so much intensity, aggro, and bitter humour.

From The Independent