Tony Harrison: still open for business

‘I hate being called a poet/dramatist/translator/director. Poet covers it all for me.’ Stephen Moss celebrates the work of Harrison, winner of the 2015 David Cohen prize

This week Tony Harrison was awarded the David Cohen prize, a sort of literary lifetime achievement Oscar that goes only to the most gilded writers – Naipaul, Pinter, Lessing, Mantel and so on. He is very much still writing, and has a long, lyrical poem in a recent issue of the London Review of Books called “Polygons”, which chimes with the consideration of a life’s work prompted by the prize. “It’s a poem,” says Harrison, “reflective of creativity and mortality.”

It was inspired by a visit to his beloved Delphi: the decay he found there and the discovery in a Greek newspaper that his friend Seamus Heaney, with whom he’d spent time in Dephi, had died. The poem ends with Harrison back at home in Newcastle, recalling a reading, long ago, with Heaney and Ted Hughes. That he is the only one left saddens him, but the tone is defiant. He gathers figs from his garden – “I’ll freeze some for summer pudding in winter.” There is light amid the darkness, and poetry to ease the pain. “Always when cooking I go on composing. / I cook. I compose. I remember, lamenting.”

Harrison is pleased to be celebrated, but would prefer it if the prize were a semi-colon rather than a full-stop. “Time and time again you say you want to do something new,” he complains. But the lot of the older writer – he is 77 – is to be showered with honours rather than commissions. “The prize cheered me up because I’d had a bad year, trying to get a film off the ground, meeting with frustratingly backward commissioning editors at the BBC.” The proposed film was about Edith Sitwell and her response to the first world war. Scarborough – Sitwell’s birthplace and the first town in Britain to be shelled by the German navy in 1914 – was to have featured prominently. A profound sense of place, the dialogue of past and present, wars then and now: it would have been characteristically Harrisonian.

He would like it known that he is still open for business. His home is on three floors; each floor has a study with a project in progress, pictures and press clippings waiting to take shape. “Moving up and down from one to the other” – storey and story – “is good for the knees,” he says. All his work is done in Newcastle, where he has lived since the 1960s. London, where he stays in the flat of his long-time partner, actor Siân Thomas, may be for socialising, but his notebook-strewn house in Newcastle is for the business of writing. “The muses have my telephone number there,” he likes to say.

Seamus Heaney in 2002.
Seamus Heaney in 2002. Photograph: Rex/Sutton-Hibbert

The Delphi poem began with a few ideas scrawled on a working visit, he tells me, pulling out a little black notebook covered in illegible scrawl. The illegibility is deliberate: he says trying to work out what he has written makes him think about the words afresh. Nothing must come easily. His father was a baker, and Harrison, wedding working-class sensibility to classical forms, has always seen being a poet as a job; the poem as life and loaf.

He tells me how much he loves Matisse’s Ivy in Flower, a work the artist made in his 80s, when he was too old to paint and was instead arranging shapes cut from paper. It is large, exuberant, bursting with colour, but fringed with strips of black – it was a design for the window of a mausoleum that in the end was never installed. What a response to age, infirmity and the imminence of death. “I’m hoping to have an ninth decade like Matisse’s,” he says.

Harrison hasn’t published a new book of poems since Under the Clock in 2005. There has been a Selected, a Collected, and a book of his film poetry, and individual poems have continued to appear in magazines. But a poetry collection must be more than a collection of poems, and he is searching for a theme and structure for a new book which he hopes will appear when he is 80. He is confident the muse will call.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention “v” – the touchstone poem about the vandalised grave of his parents, which was published in 1985, quickly becoming a book, a Channel 4 film and a cause celebre. It propelled him from literary pages to front pages, and led to him becoming a public poet and alternative laureate, notably in his Iraq war and Bosnian war poems for the Guardian in the 90s. A career in two halves, pre- and post-50; density v directness, inwardness v outwardness, page v (public) stage. Neat. Except he doesn’t buy it.

“The sonnets” – his autobiographical sequence From the School of Eloquence – “are also very direct,” he says. “In a lot of the ones I wrote about my parents when they died, I wanted to find a poetry they would understand, and my poetry did become clearer and clearer. You litter poems with too much learning when you’re younger.” He resists the notion that he changed from private poet to public bard, and the accompanying argument that it undermined his work, amplification leading to simplification. Nor does he want his career parsed. “I hate being called poet/dramatist/translator/director. Poet covers it all for me. I want to do justice to my inwardness, my tenderness, my political rage.” There may be different registers, he insists, but there is one voice.

Tony Harrison on the South Bank, London, 1990.
Tony Harrison on the South Bank, London, 1990. Photograph: Gemma Levine/Getty Images

Much of the power of “v” comes from the dialogue between cultivated poet and vandalising skinhead, and the conceit is that both are Harrison. From a working-class background in a poor area of Leeds, he could, in other circumstances, have been the vandaliser. “People can’t make the same journey that I made now,” he says. Social mobility has declined; the 60s taste for gritty northerners has given way to the cult of Redmayne and Cumberbatch. We now know our places.

Harrison calls himself a depressive; others who know him well describe him as a melancholic. He says he had one episode clinicians might diagnose as depression; otherwise he has coped. “I’ve learned to live with my dark moods. I have strategies.” Life has not been easy – an early sense of cultural detachment from his parents, two broken marriages, the loneliness of the driven artist. “You have to spend an awful lot of time on your own, staring at the wall. I don’t have a problem with isolation – I was always the little boy doing his homework in the attic – but I long for the moments when I start working in the theatre, collaborating with and directing actors I’ve written for, or when I’m out on the road making a film. When I find a balance I am really contented.”

There has, sadly for that sense of contentment, been too little film and stage work in the past decade. “I just think I’m not in fashion or not wanted,” he says. “People are frightened of the verse. After ‘Laureate’s block’” – his 1999 broadside against the poet laureateship – “the cultural establishment didn’t care for me.” Certainly the critics turned against him, panning the collection called Laureate’s block in 2000. He looks mildly surprised when I tell him the notices were bad. “I don’t give a fuck about that,” he says. “If I was worried about reviews I wouldn’t do what I’m doing.” Critics argued he had become too direct; that his poems gave up their meanings too easily. “What’s wrong with directness?” he counters. “It is always better to write for the whole of society than for the poetry-reading public. But I can do the other thing as well. I can do dense as well as anyone.”

In a brilliant essay in Loiner, a festschrift for Harrison published to mark his 60th birthday in 1997, the then editor of Poetry Review Peter Forbes claimed him as a neo-Augustan, seeking to find words for everyday experiences. Romantics and their offspring, the modernists, stressed the specialness of the poet; the 18th century writer sought the sublime in the universal. In that reading, and despite the violent difference in their language, Harrison’s cemetery in the south of Leeds is just a short walk from Thomas Gray’s country churchyard. The celestial fire burns bright in both those modest burial grounds.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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