Tony Harrison is Britain's leading film and theatre poet.
He has written for the National Theatre in London, the New York Metropolitan Opera and for the BBC and Channel 4 television. He was born in Leeds, England in 1937 and was educated at Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University, where he read Classics and took a diploma in Linguistics. He became the first Northern Arts Literary Fellow (1967-8), a post that he held again in 1976-7, and he was resident dramatist at the National Theatre (1977-8). His work there included adaptations of Molière's The Misanthrope and Racine's Phaedra Britannica.His first collection of poems, The Loiners (1970), was awarded the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1972, and his acclaimed version of Aeschylus's The Oresteia (1981) won him the first European Poetry Translation Prize in 1983. The The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) won the Whitbread Poetry Award. His adaptation of the English Medieval Mystery Plays cycle was first performed at the National Theatre in 1985. Many of his plays have been staged away from conventional auditoria: The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus was premièred at the ancient stadium at Delphi in 1988; Poetry or Bust was first performed at Salts Mill, Saltaire in Yorkshire in 1993; The Kaisers of Carnuntum premiered at the ancient Roman amphitheatre at Carnuntum in Austria; and The Labours of Herakles was performed on the site of the new theatre at Delphi in Greece in 1995. His translation of Victor Hugo's The Prince's Play was performed at the National Theatre in 1996.His films using verse narrative include v, about vandalism, broadcast by Channel 4 television in 1987 and winner of a Royal Television Society Award; Black Daisies for the Bride, winner of the Prix Italia in 1994; and The Blasphemers' Banquet, screened by the BBC in 1989, an attack on censorship inspired by the Salman Rushdie affair. He co-directed A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan for Channel 4 in 1994 and directed, wrote and narrated The Shadow of Hiroshima, screened by Channel 4 in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb. The published text, The Shadow of Hiroshima and Other Film/Poems (1995), won the Heinemann Award in 1996. He wrote and directed his first feature film Prometheus in 1998. In 1995 he was commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to visit Bosnia and write poems about the war.
His most recent collection of poetry is Under the Clock (2005), and his Collected Poems, and Collected Film Poetry, were published in 2007.
His latest book is Fram (2008), a work for theatre premiered at the National Theatre in 2007.Tony Harrison lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Confrontational, celebratory, tender, brilliant – Tony Harrison’s work has been wide-ranging, and has had a wide impact.
Commonly acknowledged as one of the most significant British poets of the late 20th century, he has built an impressive oeuvre which encompasses poetry for books and newspapers, for theatre and opera, and for film and television.
Many of Harrison’s poetic preoccupations can be traced from his background, and in particular his journey from working class life towards articulacy and culture. Mocked by his English teacher for his thick Yorkshire accent (‘Them & [uz]’ relates how he’s told ‘You’re one of those / Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!’), Harrison was a scholarship boy who slaved at Latin and Greek. But the education he acquired came at a price: a growing separation from his family explored in many of the poems in an ongoing sequence called ‘The School of Eloquence’. The poem ‘Book Ends’ perhaps best sums up the irony of how gaining expressiveness in languages and poetry made him lose the ability to communicate with his parents. Sitting with his father on the night of his mother’s death, each unable to talk to the other, the poet reflects:
'Back in our silences and sullen looks,for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.'
In the work of the Greeks, and in Greek tragedy in particular, Harrison found a method of confronting the troubles of 20th-century life which has sustained him throughout his career. Tragedy’s refusal to turn away from bloodshed and horror, and the shared experience of its performances in full daylight, provided metaphor, method and thematic starting point for approaching the darkest aspects of the modern world open-eyed. ‘It was one of the human resources that was an incredible invention for grappling with, coming to terms, sometimes even celebrating, the darker parts of experience; and it seems to me that the darker parts of experience are the ones we need most help with’, he has said. This enduring fascination led to celebrated versions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy (The Oresteia, 1981); Racine’s Phédre (Phaedra Britannica, 1975); and Hecuba (2004), among others.
Harrison’s early run-in with the teacher who chastised him for reading poetry in his Leeds accent also shaped his insistence on dragging some of the great works of literature back from the received pronunciation they’d been ‘dubbed’ into. Harrison’s 1985 version of the York mystery plays, in which all the actors – rather than just those playing the comic parts – spoke in natural northern accents, was tremendously successful. This and his subsequent work with the actor Barrie Rutter inspired the latter to form Northern Broadsides, the company which reclaimed Shakespeare and other classics for regional voices.
The sense of what Harrison calls ‘retrospective aggro’ about a cultural ‘privilege of participation’ has fuelled much of his work. His hugely influential long poem v, first published in 1985, is a multi-layered treatment of many of these class-related issues. Prompted by discovering that his parents’ grave had been graffitied with obscenities by passing football supporters, the poem also takes in the impact of the miners’ strike, mass unemployment and changing social demographics of 1980s Britain, as well as the poet’s own mortality and, again, the distance between his educated life and those of his family and Leeds contemporaries. v uses the quatrains of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ to unpick and unflinchingly examine the public and private confrontations implicit in its title – ‘These Vs are all the versuses of life’. Harrison imagines an altercation with one of the football fans who use the graveyard as a short cut to Leeds United:
'Don’t talk to me of fucking representingThe class yer were born into any more.Yer going to get ’urt and start resentingit’s not poetry we need in this class war.
Yer’ve given yerself toffee, cunt. Who needsyer fucking poufy words? Ah write mi own.Ah’ve got mi work on show all over Leedslike this UNITED ’ere on some sod’s stone.'
In 1987 the poem was turned into a film for Channel Four, and shot Harrison to fame when the Daily Mail’s headline ‘Four Letter TV Poem Fury’ unleashed a torrent of both ill-informed outrage and staunch defence.
v was the first in a series of film/poems on which Harrison collaborated. His work with director Peter Symes in particular saw the development of a truly organic technique of creating words and images alongside each other, rather than merely setting words to pre-determined pictures, or vice versa. Often starting without a script and involving much writing to order and tireless reworking, it was a method flexible enough to take in chance discoveries or changing situations. Harrison’s film/poems The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989), prompted by the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie after publication of The Satanic Verses, and Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), exploring Alzheimer’s disease, were two particularly successful results. One of the trademarks of this method was the way in which Harrison’s choice of poetic metre was intrinsically linked to the subject of the film. Thus The Gaze of the Gorgon (1992) takes its form from the couplets of Heinrich Heine, whose statue is a central image in the film; The Blasphemers’ Banquet uses the quatrains from Fitzgerald’s translation of fellow ‘blasphemer’ Omar Khayyam; and Black Daisies uses the patterns of songs central to the lives of the Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Harrison’s is a defiantly public poetry – though he has made clear that ‘in that word “public” I would never want to exclude inwardness’. His work in theatre and film attempts a wider, shared communication beyond the more traditional one-to-one of poet and solitary reader. So when he was invited by The Guardian to go first to Iraq, and later to Bosnia, and file war poems, his only stipulation was that they be published not in the arts or books pages, but alongside the news. Resulting poems like ‘A Cold Coming’ showed how powerful poetry could be as a means of revealing, and attempting to make sense of, human atrocity.
Harrison’s influence has been considerable, discernible in the work of poets as different as Simon Armitage, Sean O’Brien and Paul Farley. His reappropriation of regional voices in the palaces of high culture, and his efforts to interpret that culture accessibly for a wide audience, using it to enlighten, enrich and make sense of modern life, has been of lasting significance. Both in his confrontational public poetry, and the ‘shared privacy’ of his tender personal verse, his work has proved deeply humane, moving, and memorable.
For an in-depth critical review see Tony Harrison by Joe Kelleher (Northcote House, 1996: Writers and their Work Series).