Even at 80, his snarling, trenchant poems still speak up for the voiceless working classesby Edith Hall / May 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“A hanging newspaper clothes pegs keep open
on the kiosk across from the shut, smashed hotel
has a whole half-page picture of a poet I know well.”
So, in his acclaimed elegy “Polygons,” published in 2015, does Tony Harrison launch his memorial to his friend Seamus Heaney. News of Heaney’s death came to Harrison when he was convalescing on the rocky precipices around Delphi, making his “coeval heart” judder “with lurches of scree fall.” Later in the poem he remembers Ted Hughes as well. Harrison is the only survivor out of these three post-war titans of poetry associated with regional dialects, and he shows no sign of moderating his radical politics, despite publishing prize-winning yet sometimes scandalously controversial poetry for more than half a century.
On 30th April he celebrated his 80th birthday, and he has faced serious obstacles over the last two decades. But the man widely regarded as Britain’s greatest living poet is still going strong. A ribald yet heart-rending new play Iphigenia in Crimea, was broadcast on Radio 3 on 23rd April. A major retrospective of his work was held at the British Academy later that week, at which tributes were paid by, among others, Andy Burnham, Vanessa Redgrave, Melvyn Bragg and Simon Armitage. A selection of Harrison’s prose essays, The Inky Digit of Defiance, which I have edited, was published in May.
Harrison is best known as the author of several frequently anthologised poems about his working-class childhood in the Leeds suburb of Beeston and his difficult relationship with his relatives. Studying as a scholarship boy at Leeds Grammar School and then reading Classics at Leeds University, his ever-widening intellectual and cultural horizons created a chasm between him and his family. His painful attempts to come to terms with his alienation from his mother and father, while remaining committed to the cause of the working class, is explored at length in his pivotal 1978 collection From The School of Eloquence and Other Poems; several of the pieces expressing the impact of his mother’s death on his relationship with his father, a taciturn baker, are studied by teenagers at GCSE. At A Level, the poem of choice is his “v.,” written during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.